On Saturday a little before noon I got an unexpected call from my Dad. We’ve had a rocky relationship for some time. I love him and I know he loves me, but we’ve never learned to communicate with one another. I could immediately tell, by the crack in his voice something was wrong. He sounded as though he’d been crying and struggled to get the words out. “Pawpaw died last night, Josh.”
The reality of my dad’s word set in. Even though Pawpaw Jack lived in Kentucky, a nice drive from central North Carolina, three weeks prior I had seen him at the wedding of my cousin Jack. His health hadn’t been perfect, but he had showed no signs that death was nearing. At 85, his mind had been as sharp as ever. He frequently played cards, told dirty jokes and adamantly teased anyone that crossed his path.
I sat on my sons’ bed and processed the news. I don’t remember the following words or questions my dad and I exchanged, only the sudden weight of grief.
Today makes a week since I got the news.
I can’t put into words the love I felt from my grandfather. I don’t remember ever hearing him say the words to me, my father or his wife, but I never once doubted he was devoted to us. I’ve only felt steadfast love from a handful of people. Pawpaw Jack’s one of them. I knew in my heart, I could never disappoint him, lose his trust, his love or his admiration. I always felt he was proud of me. He had the ability to ask the right questions, in the right moment, to let you know his interest was authentic. It was uncanny.
I remember when I joined the marines, he would always ask me if I had picked up a stripe yet, meaning NCO (Non-commissioned officer). He’d ask me about sports, travel, and church. Whatever I was interested in, he seemed to know and have the ability to connect with. He was the type of person, who you could sit with in silence, enjoy a meal, share a root beer and feel safe, secure. He was going to be there for you. He was on your side. He had the right words when they were needed and had the ability to connect with you at your level. He had a way of teasing you, but making you feel loved for who you were. He saw your flaws, pointed them out, and made sure you knew he was okay with exactly who you were.
I’m really going to miss him.
Subconsciously, I’ve modeled my marriage after his with my grandmother. His love for my grandmother was powerful. When she passed away two years earlier, he was devastated. His life was sacrificial. He would have done anything for my grandmother. He didn’t show a lot of public affection, but it was in the way he looked at her. He had the look of a 20-year-old groom about to marry his bride at 65 years old.
My grandmother had a massive heart attack at fifty. She shouldn’t have survived, but she did, and from my scattered memories, I can remember sitting in hospitals with my family, for what seemed like six months. I remember my dad, my uncles, aunts, young cousins but I don’t remember any grandfather. I remember seeing him once pray. He never left her side during the event. Never took a break, he was there with her.
He was what I thought a man should look like. He wasn’t about to back down, but he never looked for trouble. He was masculine, but not the toxic masculinity that saturates modern culture. He never made a comment about a woman in a sexual way or gave a remote hint he was anything but devoted to his wife.
He was sober. He was an active AA member and had quick drinking a month before I was born. I never saw him even look at a drink. He loved root beer. I did too. I remember drinking all his root beers many times and getting that look, letting me know he knew it was me drinking them all. We had such similar taste.
He was a hustler. He was always working, but I can’t tell you his profession. He was a traveling salesman in his prime. He sold vacation properties, he drove a taxi, managed a retirement property, he was a sheriff’s deputy, worked for a judge, an elected official. He traveled to the Carolinas and New York. He’d buy furniture or watches and bring them to Kentucky to resale. When he died, he had a collection of collectable toy cars he was reselling at the retirement home.
He taught me so much.
I wish I had five more minutes with him. I’d tell him I’m the man I am today because of him. How I model my marriage after his. How much I love him.