“You know, if you hit the gas we’ll make it home in time for me to see my Great-Great-Great-Grandkids be born,” he said to me with a smirk as I slowed his truck – the truck he’d sell me for a dollar the day I got my driver’s license – to a crawling 25 mph down a hill that barely merits the label. I was just learning to drive, and my Grandpa had taken it upon himself to teach me. I was a fast learner, but I wasn’t fast enough for the bar I had set for myself.
I had grown up with a deep fear of disappointing those who had expectations of me, scared of being a burden, and I was a perfectionist to the point of being terrified of failure. Somehow my Grandpa knew all of this about me, and with one quick-witted remark at a time he shattered the walls of perfection and created a world where the freedom to be human was like a net beneath a tightrope. “Sorry, I’m just a little scared going down hills,” I replied. “It’s alright,” he laughed, “the Great-Great-Great-Grandkids can wait.” We made the 10 minute drive home a 30 minute adventure filled with laughter and reassurance, then later we took another turtle paced trip back to town to buy trashcans to replace the ones I’d soon damage as he taught me how to parallel park. “I never liked those trashcans anyway,” he said jokingly as he pretended to choke back tears and dramatically stroke a mangled trash bin, which served to make me laugh so hard that I finally stopped apologizing.
“He had a full life,” and “It was expected” are the typical responses when someone over the age of 80 passes. Death is expected, and the older and sicker you get the expectation of death is somehow supposed to weaken the blow. Harold Gray was imprisoned by Lewy Body Dementia for roughly six years, and I remember trying to lighten the mood about his memory loss years ago by saying I’d help film one of those Alzheimer’s commercials for him if he ever got lost in an airport. Then suddenly one day he called me by my Mom’s name when I went to visit, and I had to remind him that it was me by saying something to him that only he and I said to each other, triggering his memory. “Sorry about that,” he said. “It’s okay, but I’m prettier than her so don’t do that again,” I replied and we both laughed. When it finally progressed to the point of him barely being able to speak, he’d struggle to find the words he was trying to put together, and I’d quip back with something obnoxious like “It’s okay, I know you’re trying to tell me that I’ve got beauty AND brains,” to which he’d smile and stop struggling for words.
Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Lewy Body, etc., are diseases that bring categorical isolation, they attack not only the body, but the person. They’re messy and debilitating, confusing and cold. You see, they tempt you to hope because that person remains in your world with you in some way until the end, yet they’re a slow and painful swallowing of a person. By the end you find yourself praying for an end, a result you were terrified of is suddenly a blessing. My Grandpa held on for much longer than we expected, and through all of it he still managed to let us know he was in there somewhere.
“He had a full life.” The most honest words ever spoken don’t seem like enough.
The greatest man I ever knew made his departure from this world as the oblivious inhabitants of earth were unaware of what they had missed. His eulogy spoke of his beautiful 83 years; his baseball career, his time in the Navy, and his over-the-top witty one-liner replies. No one could tell a joke like my Grandpa, and when I was almost in tears from laughing so hard, he’d look my way and say “Hey, cheer up kiddo,” and it would push be over the edge. From answering his phone with “Hal’s mortuary…” to letting me color his hair pink, Harold Gray had an admirable sense of humor that his friends and family will tell stories about for years to come.
My family and I spent a lot of last weekend talking about his crazy songs and silly jokes, fishing trips and intimate family moments, and he somehow made them all memorable enough to be engraved in our minds forever. From little things like driving my Grandma crazy on the way home from church by singing our Steak ‘n Shake orders to her like Priests conducting a mass, to laughing hysterically when my cousin made the news for sinking his boat, my Gramps had the ability to make you laugh in every situation. It’s a beautiful testament to his character, but I thought I’d share another.
You see, this man, this human being, his mere existence stood for something greater than the identity on his driver‘s license, it stood for more than just his name, or the titles of “husband,” “father,” and “Grandpa.” It stood for more than the swing of his bat, or what he did in uniform. When the world was unstable and collapsing, his sturdy feet held the earth in check. When Grandpa said it would be alright, I knew it would be alright.
By the time I was six I had already traveled extensively, was a seasoned Army brat, lived in a literal war zone, became a child of divorce, and the daughter of a single Mom who worked constantly. In my first six years I had already experienced more than many adults in America, and the exciting part of my journey was just beginning. I learned quickly to stay strong, just go with the flow, and soak up my surroundings. I’d spend a lot of time with Grandma and Grandpa while my Mom was working, and a lot of that time was spent playing Twenty Questions with Grandpa. I was a pro at that game, to put it mildly. Actually, I was so good that my Grandpa had renamed the game 100 Questions.
I can still remember the feel of the concrete patio set I’d sit on while Grandpa did his yard work with the sound of a Cardinals game playing on the radio in the background. I’d ask him a million questions until the concrete would leave an indent in my chubby little legs, and I’d move around the bench as my endless supply of Popsicles melted, leaving a trail of sticky sweet rainbow colors.
“Grandpa, what are you doing?”
“Changing the belt on the lawn mower, sweetie.”
“Grandpa, why do lawn mowers have belts?”
“Because they have to keep their pants up.”
“Graaaandpa,” I’d say as I giggled.
“To make the blades turn, Pumpkin.”
“Grandpa, how fast do the blades turn?”
The questions went on, and on, and on. He answered every last one with more patience and compassion than most people will muster within their lifetime, and without a hint of aggravation in his tone. After he was done, my hand went back in his as we’d walk towards the house. He’d sing me a silly song when I wasn’t asking questions, then we’d go through the kitchen and get Grandma and my favorite orange soda. We’d sit on the porch talking about nonsense until my Mom picked me up. I don’t remember what we talked about, but I remember my Grandpa’s strong arms, the smell of his aftershave, and how he’d either hum or sing everywhere he went – usually with me trailing behind.
For the rest of his normal life, that man would have orange soda in the fridge when I came to visit, and Werther’s Caramels in the candy jar. He’d act so casual about it, like it was just there because that’s what they had around. Later my Grandma would tell me about how he reminded her everyday for a week that they needed orange soda and Werther’s for my arrival.
They eventually moved to a house right on the Lake of The Ozarks, with a multilevel deck. Below the deck, hidden away in a corner, was a large rock. My Grandpa and I would spend hours fishing on this one rock, and while I’ve clocked countless hours with fishing line in the water, I’ve yet to ever take a fish off the line. I tried a time or two in my moments of bravery, but Grandpa stepped in and took care of the job when he saw that I was pushing my boundaries further than I wanted to. He did the same when it came to baiting the hook, not because he didn’t think I should, but he knew I didn’t like it, and didn’t think I should have to. It was just that simple.
“Promise me you’ll marry someone who doesn’t mind baiting your hook and taking your fish off the line,” he’d say with a serious tone, like it was some litmus test of a man’s character. I still remember asking my first boyfriend if he’d take my fish off the hook if we ever went fishing, and his laughter and “you need to learn” comment gave me pause.
I have so many memories with Gramps, but one of my favorites is how he’d sing me an old Judds song.
“Grandpa, tell me ’bout the good old days, sometimes it feels like this world’s gone crazy. And Grandpa, take me back to yesterday, when the line between right and wrong didn’t seem so hazy… Was a promise really something people kept, not just something they would say and then forget? Did families really bow their heads to pray? Did daddies really never go away? Oh, Grandpa, tell me ’bout the good old days.”
He’d sing this to me while we were driving, fishing, or just sitting on his porch swing. Throughout his illness, when he could no longer sing to me, I’d make my way down to visit him when I could, and the last thing I’d do before leaving is sing him that song.
As I grew up I moved around a great deal, but my Grandpa taught me how to write upside-down and backwards, and like a secret code we’d write letters to each other in our weird little language. Every birthday began with Grandpa singing Happy Birthday to me in his Porky the Pig voice, and every new country album that came out was quickly copied to cassette and sent to me so that we could listen to them together over the phone. From the moment I knew him he didn’t wear a cape or save babies from burning buildings, but he made sure I knew I mattered, that I was worthy of effort.
He taught us all the joy of baseball, and not just the fun of watching a home run, or the excitement of a win. He taught us the intricate details of the game and what it used to be, to love it to the point your heart races during a tied low scoring game with the bases loaded and a pitcher’s count. He taught us to stick with our team – the St. Louis Cardinals, of course – through all the losses, because at some point we’d overcome a two-run deficit in the bottom of the ninth inning, and then again in the tenth, and finish with a walk-off home run in the eleventh, and those moments where you mourned with your team paid off as your heart felt like it would jump out of your chest with pride. I remember watching that 2011 World Series, on the edge of being convinced that we’d lose, but hearing my Grandpa’s voice of reassurance in team saying “Has the last damn ball been thrown?” It had not, and we took home a World Series trophy that year.
I lived miles from my Grandparents for most of my teen years and up into my early 20s. Most days I went to their house for lunch, and unless the weather was cold and miserable, I’d sit with my Grandpa on his porch while he was on his lunch break from the small town hardware store where he mixed paint, talking about everything that came to mind. If I wanted to talk about religion, politics, or a book I had just read, he sat there listening to me intently. In the middle he’d laugh and say, “You’re going to have to marry someone smart that can keep up with you, you know that?” I learned from him that I deserved to be heard, and that I had something to say. There was never a moment, not one breath in my life was taken believing that he was disappointed in me. Not one.
I think all of his kids and grandkids could give a similar account of who he was to them, and the unconditional love and stability he represented. When we were little we were in awe of a man who taught us how to swing a bat, a man who could fix anything that was broken, and told us about curve balls and the inherent evil of the Designated Hitter. Now that I’m older I realize that this life throws everyone curve balls, some more than others, and this man’s entire life was spent equipping those he loved with the ability to step up to the plate with confidence and keep our eye on the ball. And if we did get hit, we needed to “rub some dirt in it” and get back in the game.
I wanted to give you all a glimpse of the man my family said goodbye to this week, not because his life was filled to the brim with heroic actions and grand gestures – or at least any he’d ever brag about – but because I feel as though the measure of a man is so skewed in our world.
We have this view of bravery, this view of what makes a man a man. Is it how much he can bench press? Is it the truck he drives? Is it the medals on his chest? Is it the articles written about his generous donations? Is it how tough he is? Is it his successful career? Maybe the greater impact is the refuge one person can create, the ability to help individuals understand the meaning of love so fully that they see beyond religion, nationality, and the hate of this world. The ability to have your words and actions fill the deafening silence of doubt in another person even when your heart is no longer beating. What kind of bravery does it take to step up and be exactly what someone else needs you to be? To be selfless, to listen, to give your time, to be patient, to be understanding, and to truly give without expecting anything in return?
What kind of man leaves this world without anyone to apologize to? The kind of man who went out of his way to bandage wounds others created. The kind of man who put one woman above all else in this world from the moment they met until the day she died. The kind of man who fearlessly helped his children face their darkest days, and boy were there some dark days. The kind of man who saw in others what they didn’t see in themselves. The kind of man who left his family on Christmas to fix a heater so that others could stay warm. The kind of man who accurately labeled that which was right and wrong. The kind of man who knew just what to say when you had tied the knot at the end of your rope and were barely hanging on.
If you take anything away from this man named Harold Gray, take away the message that who you are can either break a person or be the one who gives them the courage, freedom, and confidence to put themselves back together. We all have plenty of the former in our lives, and our world is desperately in need of more of the latter.