I have learned a lot from my 98-year-old grandfather. I have learned that Grandpa hugs are the best, messy hair and a smile are always in style, and garlic bread is really excellent at a place called Colombo’s. Most importantly, however, I have learned these five lessons:
#1 Take care of your body.
I remember watching my grandfather do sit-ups and push-ups in front of the TV in the evenings when I was maybe 8 or 9 (and he was maybe 78 or 79). He was always a walker, hiker and swimmer. One summer when my uncle took the family on a hike, we ended up on much steeper terrain than we expected, and everyone was huffing and puffing and grabbing for things to hold onto as we climbed, and there were my grandparents, holding onto each other and putting us all to shame as they just kept going. Grandpa was 89 (Grandma-88) at the time.
When my grandfather was 96, he would go for walks with his walker up a steep hill behind his assisted living home. One day a neighbor called the home and said, “You might want to know that you have an escapee walking up this hill.” Apparently, 96-year-old hill climbers are not a common sight! Grandpa walked that hill so much he wore out two walkers before we finally found a heavy-duty model that could keep up with him. Eventually, however, he did stop taking the hill, but he just switched to less hilly terrain and kept right on walking.
#2 Fact or fiction – doesn’t matter. Just tell the story inside of you.
My grandfather was always a good storyteller. Most of the stories I remember him telling centered around World War II, and his real-life adventures during the war. My grandfather was a paymaster on the island of Tinian in the south Pacific; he was in charge of everybody’s paycheck. When he was getting ready to ship out to war, he and my grandmother devised a plan for how Grandpa could communicate his location to Grandma. They numbered the islands in the south Pacific, and if Grandpa wrote a letter to Grandma saying, “I have 10 socks today,” she knew which island corresponded with #10.
His particular island in the war was also the island where the Enola Gay, the plane carrying the atomic bomb, took off from to head to Japan. Now, as Grandpa got older, his stories got a little wild, and by 98 years of age, he was on the Enola Gay on that fateful bombing run in 1945, but as I see it, if Grandpa can live to be 98 years old, Grandpa can do anything he wants to in his stories.
#3 Stay calm under pressure.
When I was 16 with my brand new driver’s license, I found myself in the interesting, slightly uncomfortable position of driving my mom, dad, and grandfather on an errand. Grandpa sat up front, and Mom and Dad sat in the back seat. Grandpa sat quietly through the whole ride, and I wondered if he approved of my driving. My parents, on the other hand, kept saying, “Slow down… stop sign ahead… turn signal now… careful with the parking….” When we finally reached our destination, my grandmother saw us pull in and asked, “How did it go?” Grandpa said, “Her parents didn’t say a word.” I smiled sheepishly, and then Grandpa laughed, “No, they didn’t say one word. They said MANY words! And she did just fine.”
#4 Love: When you find it, hold onto it.
My grandfather held a candle for my grandmother for almost 65 years of marriage together and almost 10 years following her death. They were “Bill and Sue” – they just went together, they fit. She was the cook; he was the dishwasher. He was the driver; she was the back seat driver. She was the mom; he was the dad. He managed the money; she decided what to do with the money (mainly buy clothes!). She was the one to go first, and he was the one left behind. Almost 10 years after Grandma’s death, Grandpa said, “It took a long time to get over Sue’s death.” And then he paused and thought about it, “No, you don’t ever get over a loss like that; you just learn to live with it.”
#5 Live life everyday to the fullest.
Four months shy of his 99th birthday, my grandpa was still a mighty man. He went out to his favorite restaurant twice a week – once with my dad and once with my uncle. He enjoyed a nice glass of white zinfandel on Wednesdays, and he flirted with the ladies in his assisted living home. Grandpa was probably the most eligible bachelor in that entire place! On Wednesday, January 26, he and my uncle went out for their weekly dinner, and when Grandpa got back home, he went to sleep. And that was it. Grandpa didn’t wake up again. He wasn’t one for drama; he’d made every moment count – right up to the moment he went to bed that night. And when his moments were done, he was ready to be with my grandmother again.
It isn’t easy for those left behind, even when the passing is peaceful, but I consider him my hero and can only hope to be as lucky and full of life in my years on this Earth as Grandpa was in his. So, Grandpa, at your funeral this weekend, “No, we didn’t say one word. We said MANY words.” We remembered you, the way you have touched our lives, and the example you have set for us. And you know what, Grandpa? “You did just fine, too.”