“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” -Abraham Lincoln
Yes. That quote is from the Gettysburg Address. It was one of the very first things I learned to memorize. It’s such an odd memory, isn’t it? The first thing you ever memorized? Or, at least the first thing you remember learning to memorize? My Grandpa Jack worked for years for Great Western Gas. His company car was a semi with a giant propane tank on the back that he would drive all over, filling tanks for people who lived outside of town. When I was little, I’d tag along with him during the summer. We would pull out of his driveway and at the first stop sign before we pulled onto the highway, he’d look left and give the all clear and ask me what was coming from my way. I’d look right and give the all clear, then – because I was an ornery little shit head – I’d lie and say a truck was coming and brace myself on the dash dramatically. Grandpa would slam on his breaks and I’d laugh like a hyena while he would resist strangling me (I’m sure) and yell out that I was to never ever do that again. We’d stop at the Phillip’s 66 and I’d buy a bag of Skittles with the change I fished out of grandpa’s pocket while he shot the shit with his brother Dale behind the counter, then we’d hop back in the cab and head out to our delivery. Sometimes the trips were short and he’d listen to whatever stories I’d rattle on about at that age. Sometimes the trips were longer and on those trips – I’ll never know why – he would recite the Gettysburg Address. Breaking Abraham Lincoln’s long sentences into smaller portions for me to repeat after him. We’d go back and forth as the miles went on and after a good handful of trips riding shotgun, I’d had the whole thing memorized.
My Grandpa Jack passed away this morning.
I put my phone on silent when I go to bed at night because, every so often, late night texts and calls can roll in without warning. Lighting up my bedroom with the blinding light of the call screen and jarring me from my white noise-induced slumber with either a sharp, resounding DING or that familiar trotting ringtone blaring next to my left ear. When I woke up this morning there were three alerts from my news app highlighting the latest antics from the Trump camp, two Facebook notifications, a message about a new Twitter follower I’d amassed, and a missed call from my mom. I closed my eyes for another couple of minutes waiting for the voicemail alert to pop up and, when it didn’t I sat up and checked my phone again. No voicemail, just a text from my brother: “I want to go to work, but I’m just sitting here bawling.” Shit.
I’d been expecting news like this at some point during the week, but no matter how prepared you think you are to hear the worst, when it hits it packs a punch. I went downstairs and called my mom, running my hand through my bedhead as she confirmed what had been sitting in the back of my mind ever since St. Patrick’s Day.
Grandpa Jack had been in the ICU for the last nine days and on a ventilator for the last five. I had gone down to visit him last weekend and left for KC thinking that was probably the last time I’d get to see him and shoot the proverbial shit as we had so many times. He had a bi pap machine on when I got there, so it was hard for him to talk clearly, but before I left the room that night I watched his mouth through the mask and heard him say, “I’m gonna miss ya.” I took both of his hands, gave them a squeeze, kissed him on the cheek and told him I loved him and that maybe I’d swing by in the morning if he was up for any early visitors.
Growing up, I had young grandparents. Not talking teenagers or anything obviously, but my parents had my sister and me in their early twenties, so, to me, my grandparents were never old. Sure, they had grey hair and wrinkles and ate oatmeal and Tums. They went to bed early and woke up even earlier, but they also still worked. They went to music festivals. They went on road trips and vacations. They babysat us all the time. They took us to the swimming pool and took us camping. They helped us build forts and drew pictures of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on printer paper with permanent marker so we could color them in. They would seek us after we would hide and they let us sit on their laps and drive on dirt roads outside of town. To tell of my childhood would be to tell of them.
In the last four years, I’ve lost three of my grandparents. With the passing of each one I find myself revisiting those memories from my childhood, and here’s the thing…
It’s made me increasingly aware of just how much of an adult I am. Somewhere between running through the tractor sprinkler in their front yard and making mud pie “pizzas” with clover “pepperoni” and getting each one of those heavy-hearted phone calls, I had become much older. Feeding scraps to the kittens in the barn with grandma and tagging along with grandpa riding shotgun in his propane truck while he made his deliveries – those times were farther away than they had seemed before. Going out to Grandpa Don and Grandma Darlene’s farm for Easter weekend, coloring eggs at the dining room table covered with that same gold and white checkered table cloth and following the scavenger hunt clues to our Easter baskets, and meeting on Christmas Eve at Grandpa Jack and Grandma Janice’s to eat soup and open gifts before staying up way too late playing obnoxiously loud games of ten-point pitch and drinking “fake wine,” those things won’t happen anymore. You know how you don’t realize certain things while you’re in them? Living them? When you’re sitting around with everyone after dinner and catching up and remembering when, you don’t know that it’s the last time. You figure you’ll leave that night and head back home and see them next year, same time same place. Then all of a sudden you just don’t, and you find yourself staring off into space wondering when everyone got so old. You notice a few more age spots on your grandparents’ hands and a few more lines on your parents’ brows. You look through photo albums at pictures from even as recent as five years ago and compare them to the faces you see sitting around you and you just want it all to stop. You want time to literally stop.
I went back to Atkinson a good handful of times last year, and after every visit I’d think to myself, ‘Bec. You should really blog about being back home,’ because when you’re back home, time does seem to stop. You grow up and become independent and move away and your friends and coworkers and the people in your new circle all see you in this certain light, but when you’re back home you’re a kid again. Ya know? You get wrapped up in this comforting nostalgia that just seems to warm every part of you. Those little bits of who you used to be shine through. It’s like, when I’m in Kansas City I’m Becci Martin, but when I’m back home I’m Becci Bootles. Yes, laugh out loud if you must (How can you not). I’ve had my share of nicknames, but that one wins most ridiculous and most creative at the same time. I don’t recall the exact age I was when Grandpa Jack started calling me that, but it stuck and ever since that’s who I’ve been to him. “Boots!” He’d always yell that out when I’d walk in the room. When I’d hug him goodbye, he’d pinch my ear and drag his voice up in this ridiculous old-man falsetto saying “Becci Bootles!” in this sing-song way as I pinched his ear back and then he’d laugh hysterically.
It will be strange going back home this weekend, driving past his house on the way into town and not seeing him in his armchair in front of his living room window. To leave town without an ear pinch. Instead of knocking on the front door and hearing “Boots!” as I pop my head in, it’ll just be an empty room in an empty house.
Death is one of those things that can’t necessarily be categorized as good or bad. It’s initial gift is loss of life, which many can rightly argue isn’t a gift at all. However, death is a process, and through that process family connects, feelings are shared, faults are forgiven, faith can be strengthened or faith can be found. We start at grief and find ourselves somewhere in the neighborhood of acceptance and closure. For those who death takes, many times what starts as pain ends in peace. My grandpa was never the same after my grandma passed away two summers ago. You could tell he missed her every day. When I got the news this morning, I cried. A lot. I cried for the loss of a man who had been so special to me and such an integral part of my very happy childhood. I cried at the thought of the time spent with him in his room in the ICU being the last we would spend together. I cried at the thought of my dad who, after the death of his mother two years ago had to now endure the death of his father – the man who raised him and whose influence on him is probably more significant than I can even understand. I cried for a sudden emptiness in the lives of those who knew him. I cried for loss. Then I thought of my grandpa – In a pressed shirt and a bolo tie. His boots poking out of his straight leg blue jeans and a cowboy hat on his head with a bunch of pins on the brim and a turkey feather tucked into the band – looking just as he always had. I thought of him standing in front of my grandma with a big smile on his face – one of those cheek to cheek smiles that lights up the whole room and makes your eyes squint. And then, I cried again. I cried at the beautiful thought of my grandpa finally being home and at peace and with the one he never stopped loving.
Death is a terrible gift giver, but it’s gift starts the process and it is through that process that we eventually reclaim – in a sense – that which was lost in the beginning and can move forward with friends and family toward healing.