An Unremarkable Phone Call
(News Item #0265, Published: 08/15/95, Stehekin Choice)
I was worried about my son Taylor. He has never been the reflective type. At age five, he has the vocabulary, energy and determination of a ten year old. If there is a swimming lesson to take, a zoo expedition or a get together with friends, Taylor boils over with enthusiasm.
So I had been a bit worried about him when, in the last month, he became more thoughtful, more introspective and, on random occasions, sad and withdrawn. When I questioned him for an explanation, he ducked my careful inquiries with nothing more than a slight tilt of the head and a forced smile. Definitely not Taylor. I worried further.
Then one evening, as we sat and talked about the tiniest things in life, he suddenly blurted out "Dad, can we call Grandpa Dick?" It caught me terribly off guard but I immediately understood Taylor’s problem. You see my father had passed away just about a month before.
My father was a gentle quiet man. It is strange for me to say this, but in many ways he was unremarkable, at least in today’s world where bigger-than-life self promoters are often thrust at us as models and heroes. Dick was none of that.
Instead he was a hard worker who prided himself on never having asked for a raise. He led efforts to erect a parsonage and, for another congregation - a church building. He loved to sing having started in high school and never missed a church choir rehearsal or Sunday service. World War II stole three years of his life for which he never complained. He left behind three devoted sons, three adoring grandchildren, loving daughter-in-laws and a wife who fell for him at age 16 and never forgot how that felt. We remember his wit, his gentle ways and, most of all, how his eyes would mist when anything of compassion, common sense or injustice was discussed.
For ten years after his retirement he worked 8 hours a day five or more days per week doing what he had loved best having grown up on a farm - growing gardens, cutting lawns, pruning shrubs. Most often he did it for other Seniors who couldn’t get out to do it and usually for whatever they could afford to pay. In the end, it was his simple goodness that friends and family found so truly remarkable.
His passing consisted of two days of worry, four weeks of unconsciousness and then, as sudden and as startling as blowing a tire on a deserted road, he died. Two days before his hospital admittance, we hurried up a family dinner. There, under his Cheshire grin and humble words I knew there must be fear and panic. He shared none of that.
True to form, Dad demanded a day to visit his customers promising to be back in a few weeks to take care of their gardens and lawns. It was not to be.
Taylor’s request to "Call Grandpa Dick" opened my recent wounds. I silently gasped but tried not to tear up. We had withheld news of Grandpa’s illness from Taylor even after we knew the end was near. He was fed bits of information, progressively worse, until Taylor guessed and we confirmed that Grandpa would probably die.
When he did, my son, his Mom and I cried together. Taylor rationalized and seemed to accept the inevitability of death. Until then Taylor had only had to deal with the death of one goldfish; who even now sleeps comfortably in a cotton lined wallet box in our freezer. Taylor hadn't been ready to let go of "Splendid" the fish and now it seems he wasn’t ready to let go of Grandpa Dick either.
"Gee Tay, sounds like you miss Grandpa", I whispered.
"Yes", said Tay, "But I’ve been thinking. Grandpa always told me to call him anytime I needed him. That’s what he said - anytime. I know he’s gone. But he never talked much anyway. He always just said things like ‘How great Tay’ and ‘You make me so proud’. I just know if I call him he’ll listen. Can we Dad, I kind of need to talk to him?"
It took me a minute to speak, at last deciding to play it by ear. "Sure, Tay you’re right. That might make us all - you, me and Grandpa feel a lot better." Holding down the plunger, I quickly dialed the number and handed the receiver to my young son.
For a few long minutes, Taylor conducted the usual Grandpa Dick phone call. There was an update on his Dad, his Mom, his Nanny, his cats and his friends; then a few jokes with punch lines that didn’t make sense. Taylor doesn’t really understand jokes yet but Grandpa’s don’t expect logical jokes from kids. He asked Grandpa how his chickens, rabbits and new Dog were doing. The conversation seemed perfectly rational.
Finally, Taylor fell into simply inserting the occasional "yes", "h-huh" and "that’s good". Grandpa was now talking. Taylor was listening. I was crying.
Cupping the receiver with his hand, Taylor turned to me and said "Do you want to talk Dad?" Overcome with emotion, I shook my head no. He took back the receiver and said "OK, Grandpa, Dad can’t talk right now. Gotta go. I love you. I miss you. Oh, and by the way, remember anytime you need me ... just call. Anytime. I love you Grandpa ... I miss you."
He hung up the phone flashing me one of those parent melting smiles, "Thanks Dad, I feel better". And he was.
It’s taken me several weeks to gather the composure to put this simple event down in writing. Things are beginning to get back to normal in our household. Taylor is feeling much better and has resumed his unabashed enthusiasm for everything in life including books, bugs and bicycles.
For me it will take longer. I haven’t yet come to grips with my father’s passing (if I ever will.) Writing this story brings back its confusing combination of sorrow and pain. I can’t get my hands around the mystery. I can’t put a conclusion on things. Tonight, I think I’d better go home and, with my son’s help, call Grandpa Dick.