His father was an engineer and a math-teacher, as well as a choir master. His father's father was a pattern-maker and built destroyers for America in World War One. All of these men were Spartan, austere, and in every way uncomplaining. Such is the stock from which I am descended; larger-than-life yet also humble. Though my family were rail barons (Jay Gould is up there in the tree somewhere) and real Barons in Scotland, you have never met a more unpretentious lot that my grandfather's clan. They paid tribute to the cult of meritocracy; let every man be judged by his work, and not by his lineage.
My grandfather holds over 400 patents. He worked on the Manhatten Project, he helped develop sonar, he designed and built the first generation of GPS satellites. Have you ever used a GPS? Thank my grandfather. He's unlike any man I've ever met - he did all these things, accomplished all these mighty works, and never once bragged or boasted of anything he'd done. His work stands as its own testament.
And last night, he was so utterly mortal. This heroic man, this mighty and invinceable Achilles, who shook his spear, and a quarter million enemies of the country he loves died, was rendered human, frail: a man. He sat on his bed, in the house that he's lived in, and raised two families in - his own and my mother's, and was reluctant to walk down the four stairs to his living room, for fear that he might not be able to get back up them again. When I came in, he was sitting on the edge of his bed, face lined with weariness. He was wearing a tatty nylon windbreaker lettered with "Drexel University" mostly faded away from years of wear. His pants were so loose on him that he couldn't buckle them without bunches of material gathering uncomfortably under his belt, so instead he simply strapped one loose flap over the other, and cinched it down with a cheap canvas-webbed belt. Next to him sat my sister, who inappropriately kept squeezing a rubber-duck, causing a very high-pitched noise, over and over again. I dont believe in all my life I've ever seen my grandfather sitting on his bed before. It was a room he used solely for sleeping, and precious little of that.
Grandpa explained what had happened; he'd taken the medicine for his cancer, and about mid-afternoon experienced what felt like a heart-attack, only without the pain. In his words, he was "overcome with disability." This man, this hero, this titan. Disabled. I have never heard him speak a word of complaint about his own condition until last night. He must be suffering awfully indeed - he endured a heart-attack and subsequent surgery, shingles, and other illnesses both great and small, without complaint. And now he is "disabled". The opposite of capable, that greatest of virtues in his personal philosophy, bereft of the very thing which had sustained him through decades of labor and care. For him to say he was "disabled" would be like a lesser man - any other man - saying, "I'm dying."
I stood and talked with him, both about what he could do about his condition (calls to the doctor were made - he has trouble hearing over the phone, and my sister is not a reliable communicator) and an appointment made for Monday. He had recovered somewhat, and so he didn't want to go to the hospital after all. He fears that he might not make it to the doctor's office, however, as it involves walking more than a few steps, which he is finding difficult and enervating. He has work to do, and so he told me what needs to be done, though there's little of it I can do myself. After a while, he ventured down to the living room, and I showed him again how to use the DVD player I gave him for Christmas. We talked about books he's reading, and I'm reading. We started watching "Lawrence of Arabia" - one of my very favorite movies - after I showed him how to turn on the subtitles. My sister was mostly wordless throughout. She does cook for him, sometimes, but she doesn't prepare healthy meals; there are few vegetables, but lots of starch and meat. She fell asleep in the chair where my grandmother used to sit, snoring with her mouth open while Grandpa and I talked about the historical T.E. Lawrence, my other personal hero.
The first one was sitting chatting with me about the other.
When it got late, I left. I stopped for dinner at a restaraunt where I used to work. I read as I ate, trying not to think too much. I had a glass of red wine with dinner, the first in many weeks. I held it together, until I got back in the car and on the way on the highway. My grandfather is dying. I don't know how many more trips like this I will have to make, but I fear in my heart that it won't be many. Mighty Achilles is struck down, and dragged before the walls of Troy, humbled.
I will do what I can, as long as I can. I will mourn as I can, when I must. My grandfather is one of the great guiding lights of my life; a living testimony to what it means to be a man, an epic hero utterly without pride or arrogance, an uncomplaining fountain of compassion and care for those he loves. One by one the lights sputter and go out though, and there is only darkness. There will never be men like my grandfather again. We are diminished; mere shadows on the cave wall, against his depth and solidity.
I wish I could breathe life into him again, restore the vigor and vitality of his youth. I know he wouldn't squander it on himself, either - but instead on seeing to the needs of others, his family, his country, his church. I wish I could give him a chance to lead his life for himself, to do the things he's always wanted to do, but sacrificed for others. I can't. I can't.
I have such paltry gifts with which to honor him, but I will do what I can. I write this, and hope you are touched. I hope you will be moved, and weep when he passes. The whole world should - his name should be carved in public places, and statues raised in his honor. School children should learn his name and his deeds, and remember him. I would give him this, if I could, but I can't, so it's words, only words I have to give.
I'm not good for much else, just now.