My grandfather died on Friday afternoon. Yesterday, we laid him to rest under the protective watch of a military salute and the sound of Taps playing into a wintry, March afternoon. Grandpa lived a full life—he fought in World War II for the U.S. Navy, ran a successful business, raised three children, volunteered for his church, never sat still, and had pristine silver hair through his final day. When he died, he did so in peace, surrounded by all three of his children, a son-in-law, and two of his grandkids.
Grandpa taught me a lesson about love and commitment that I will never forget. Less than 30 minutes before his passing, I finished a short story recounting what I learned from my grandpa. I read this story at his funeral and will now share it here:
On Thursday evening, around 8:30, my phone call with my sister ended. After hanging up, I turned on the radio for the first time during my 90-minute drive from Cleveland, Ohio, to Fremont, Ohio. A few seconds later, with the country song Great Day to be Alive howling at me through the car’s speakers, I cried.
A half-eaten double cheeseburger from McDonald’s resting on top of its white, crumpled bag smiled at me from the passenger seat while my choked breaths and silent sobs made a slight fog on the inside of the windshield. Outside, the wind blew faint snowflakes through the black night air and into the small ditches separating the road from the frosted farm fields lining my drive – Route 6 from Erie County to Sandusky County.
I made this drive sobbing once before, on November 20, 2010, the day my father died. On this night, though, I drove through misty eyes to visit my grandfather one final time and to spend the final hours of his life with my family.
On the radio, the damn country tune continued…
“It’s a great day to be alive
I know the sun’s still shinin’
When I close my eyes
There’s some hard times in the neighborhood
But why can’t everyday be just this good.”
The irony of hearing this song at this moment didn’t escape me.
I knew that in a matter of days, my family and I would bury my grandfather. His body would finally succumb to various complications resulting from the depressingly certain fact that no matter how well we protect ourselves, father time and his cousin old age inevitably call our name. Soon, he would join my Grandma Audre—his wife who preceded him in death—and they would start their next chapter together.
Grandpa turned 86 in October of last year. He survived the Great Depression as a young boy in Ohio, served in the South Pacific during World War II in the United States Navy, and built a successful career as a battery distributor. Grandpa, always restless and often stubborn, raised three kind-hearted and caring children.
He cooked hot dogs and ate coconut bars while tailgating at Michigan Stadium almost every fall Saturday, sheltered the most pissed-off Siamese cat the world has ever known, and taught me the greatest lesson in love I could ever ask to learn.
In my car, I reached the corner of farmland 101 and state route something or other. Just 15 minutes from home, I almost pulled into the empty, grass-grown over parking lot of a former no-name bar now rotting into history from every wood plank to collect myself. Instead, I turned the radio off, and pressed the gas pedal. My eyes dry, I cried no more tears. My mood somber, I didn’t smile either.
I just drove and thought about the three men I’ve lost since that shitty day in November 27 months ago—first my dad, then my Grandpa Lytle and now my Grandpa Rauch.
For a moment, I considered my dad and the way he taught me to place others first and value the importance of every person I meet.
I then thought about my Grandpa Lytle and the many times he showed me the worth of a genuine smile and the healing magic of laughter.
Finally, my thoughts turned to my Grandpa Rauch and the lesson he taught me in love. For almost 10 years, he cared for his wife (my grandmother) as Alzheimer’s disease stole her mind first, then robbed her motor skills and ultimately took her life. Grandpa cooked, cleaned, fed, and bathed her without so much as a “why me.” Not once did I ever hear him complain or feel sorry for himself.
On his wedding day, he took a vow to be Grandma’s husband until death tore them apart. Grandpa held true to his commitment. Unfortunately, death did too.
When I reflect on these years, I marvel at the courage Grandpa showed. His wife slipped away from him, and though he fought Alzheimer’s unrelenting onslaught with every medicine and treatment at his disposal, his fight’s destiny had but one ending. Yes, Alzheimer’s took Grandma’s life, but the disease couldn’t stop Grandpa from offering her every ounce of love he had. In this respect, I believe Grandpa proved the most formidable foe Alzheimer’s ever encountered.
Watching this as his grandson is something that I will never forget. And it’s something I’ve vowed to emulate.
As I neared home, I knew that soon my grandpa would exhale his final breath. It didn’t feel like the “great day to be alive” the song I just heard proclaimed. Still, thanks to the comforting memories I had of my grandfather I understood that it was damn close.