Good-bye Grandpa

My grandfather died on last month, on February 12, 2014. He was 98 years old, and passed away quietly in his sleep. It was surprising, insomuch as the death of someone with nine decades under his belt can be considered surprising. I truly believed he’d live to be a hundred; when I saw him last he looked good — a little tired, but happy.

The last 30 days have been chaotic; heck I wrote this three weeks ago and never got around to posting it (or much of anything else) to Nuketown. My sister and I were my grandfather’s legal guardians, and he named me the executor of his estate, so the last month has involved a blizzard of phone calls (and one actual blizzard, the day after he passed away).

My best memories of my grandfather involve building things. He was a sheet metal worker by trade, having gotten his start building warships in the Kearny, NJ shipyards during World War II and then worked for a variety of sheet metal companies in the Garden State.

We built my parents’ pool deck (which is still standing), my college loft beds, and the cabinets in my current house’s library. There were a variety of lesser projects over the years as well, but those are the ones that stand out. After he retired, he leveraged those skills to assist the elderly with minor home repairs and accessibility improvements. He liked helping “old people” but never considered himself one of them.

My grandfather could be a great guy. He was a charmer, and liked nothing more than to drive around Bergen County, chat with friends, and flirt with women. He was old school Jersey through and through — the kind of guy who used to dress to the nines and then go out dancing in Hoboken (to big band music, of course).

He could also be a right bastard. He was argumentative and obsessed with doing things his way (especially later in life). It’s no surprise that one of his favorite songs was Frank Sinatra’s “I Did It My Way”.

It was a side of him I saw more and more as he got older, and his body began having trouble keeping up with his youthful mind. Eventually his mental capacity declined to the point where my sister and I had to step up and become his legal guardians. That was difficult — he hated thinking anyone else could be in charge of his life, and had a hard time admitting he wasn’t up to paying the bills or handling the minutia of day-to-day life. We tried to use reason to convince him of the right things to do; when that failed I resorted to good ol’fashioned stubbornness. I think he appreciated that.

My wife, my sister, and I spent the last year working with my grandfather to move him from his home in Bergen County to a 24-hour care facility closer to us. It was emotionally difficult for everyone, but I think it worked out well.

My grandfather had been living alone, save for a 24-hour live-in caregiver, for 18 months. After the move, he was able to see his family several times a month. He reconnected with his daughter (my mom) and got to know his great-grandchildren. He met a woman at the facility and they started dating. Yes, at 98 my grandfather had a girlfriend, who was 94. One of the reasons he was so happy the week before he died was that I’d brought up Valentine’s Day presents for her.

We still had our share of arguments, most inspired by confusion brought on by mild dementia and short-term memory loss, but for the most part he had a good quality of life. He was sharp enough to remember the great-grandkids and talk with them about their softball and baseball careers. We had some old school Jersey breakfasts and lunches at nearby diners, watched a Giants game (naturally they lost) and talked about the Yankees and Mets. It was a lot of work — a hell of a lot of work — but it was worth it.

At the end of his days, he was happy. And yes, he did it his way.

And now, the end is near
And so I face the final curtain
My friend, I’ll say it clear
I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain

I’ve lived a life that’s full
I traveled each and every highway
And more, much more than this
I did it my way

Frank Sinatra, “I Did It My Way”

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