This is Grandpa’s story.
His name was Wayne – the same as my husband – so try not to get confused – but we called him Grandpa. He was my Wayne’s stepdad. He and my mother-in-law, Shirley, got married a few years after Wayne and I married, and he is the best thing that ever happened her. I told him that the last time we had together. His response: Oh no…she’s the best thing that ever happened to me.
You see, Grandpa had an appreciation for life like no one you have ever met – no one. He loved telling stories about his younger, wilder days..never with any regret, but with joy. There were times I wish he wouldn’t tell the stories of his youth around the kids – he made all the things we hoped our kids wouldn’t do sound like so fun. And after all, he survived so it couldn’t have been so bad, right? He survived more than his fair share of adversity and challenges, and although most of his story happened long before I ever met him, you get to know a few things about a person over the course of 25 years. What I do know about him is that he was forgiving and loving, giving and passionate.
He was at the hospital when our oldest was born, making a beeline from Graceland, Tennessee to Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, so that mom could be there to see her first grand-baby be born. I remember so clearly after Breanna was born that Grandpa was holding her, loving on her like she was his own. I was on the phone with my sister and had a new-mom estrogen attack, freaking out that he had been holding her for so long – so long meaning 5 minutes, max. I told my Wayne that he needed to go get the baby. After all, that Wayne wasn’t her real grandpa. Oh how I regretted those words years later.
He loved my kids just as much as his biological grandkids – without a doubt. He and mom came to Fort Hood, Texas after Chase was born; they were at St. Mary’s when Brice was born; they took care of the older kids on the first day of school when Chelsea was born. I have never thought of him as anything less than their Grandpa again. He loved to have them over on weekends for chocolate milk and donuts. We all knew it was Grandpa that wanted the treats, but he insisted it was for the kids. They didn’t seem to mind. He would tell the boys different jokes and use words that he wouldn’t use if the girls were around, although he could get on a roll and use ‘goddamm’ no matter who was around.
He was a unique man and I wish I could have spent more time with him. I never knew him as a young man and I wish I would have sat down and asked him to tell me more stories about growing up – about growing up with his aunt and uncle as his mom and dad…and when did he know they weren’t his biological parents. Was he really 3 years old when his dad put him on a piece of heavy equipment? No wonder he could back up a 42 foot trailer like it was a grocery cart. He told stories of flying his plane with a buddy and their girlfriends, while their wives were at home, and flying to Oklahoma on accident instead of Nevada. He told stories about the Mustang Ranch, building roads, spending money, and getting drunk.
And then his life changed forever the day the gasoline pump blew up – he jumped in to save his secretary, risking his own life for hers. He told me he threw her away from the explosion, collapsed to the ground as the tank exploded, and then something, an angel maybe, enveloped him in its wings, like a safety net. He was severely burned, but he lived. He spent the next 2 years in the hospital – the first year completely naked. He joked about being naked with all those pretty nurses around – never mind the fact that they were scrubbing his burned body every day. But he never complained about it. He never let it define him. It was just something that happened.
I never could quite get my arms around the time frame of all of Grandpa’s stories – when he married his first wife, or second wife; the explosion; when his kids were born or when he got sober. Somewhere in there he played saxophone in a rock-and-roll band, too. But I do remember when he became part of our family. I remember when he married mom – not the actual wedding, because they toodled off to Las Vegas to get married. Mom was recently divorced after 23 years of marriage – and was having a hard time. The breakup and the divorce was not pretty – is it ever? I imagine that she was feeling lost and unloved, angry and resentful – and then along came Wayne.
He doted on her like they were teenagers. He made googly voices, smooched on her, told her she was beautiful – ALL the time! He always called her Precious, which is sweet – and some men may say sweet things – but Grandpa always meant it. I’d be lying if I said we didn’t all think he was a little weird at first. How can someone be that happy all the time? Okay, we get it, you’re sweet on mom, but come on…But he really was that happy. He really did think she was the most beautiful girl in the world. He took her to Arkansas to visit her cousins, to Alaska to visit us and the grandkids, and to Mesquite to make new friends. He danced with her, dressed up on Halloween with her, sang karaoke with her. He loved her unconditionally – and if it made Precious happy, it made Grandpa happy.
I loved Grandpa. He was such a sweet simple soul. I often wondered if there was more to him than met the eye…was there a deeper side to him? Or had that experience with the explosion changed his entire perspective on life? Did he have that appreciation for each moment of every day that so many of us yearn for? He and mom had planned on being snowbirds – he wanted to take her somewhere warm for the winter and not too hot for the summer. And up until 2 weeks before he died, I think he thought that maybe he still could. But when he said, ‘I don’t know if I have the strength to beat this one’, my heart broke. When the doctors told us he only had a short time to live, I couldn’t help but hold on to that tiny bit of unrealistic hope, that maybe, just maybe, he and mom would be heading back to Mesquite for the winter.
“When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced. Live your life in a manner so that when you die the world cries and you rejoice.”