Three days ago, on Father’s Day, I lost someone very special to me. This person was, in large part, responsible for teaching me about living with Rheumatoid Arthritis and how to make the most of a body that was virtually worthless. The man didn’t have any disease at all (at least until the last few years of his life), but he knew hardship, and he knew how to overcome it. My maternal grandfather was my mentor, my teacher, and one of my greatest champions.
I have been fortunate in my life to not be touched by death until now. I was not close with my paternal grandparents, and my maternal grandmother is sill alive and kickin’ at 94. So, this is truly the first time that I or any of my siblings have experienced the death of a close loved one, and fate made sure that we got all caught up in one fell swoop.
Mt grandfather’s life was not an easy one. He was born the bastard son of a religious figure who was more philanderer than faithful. The church then forced this man to take his bastard son and move in with his brother and brother’s wife, likely to hide the fact that my grandfather was illegitimate. This would have been an acceptable arrangement except for the fact that the brother and his wife had children of their own. This meant my grandfather was always considered last, if at all. He frequently explained how at Christmas he was forced to watch his half siblings open their presents while he got nothing. He told us many times of how he starved when he was given only the food that was left over after the rest of the family ate. He even had to go for years without teeth after an accident since the family did not consider purchasing dentures for an 8-year-old a prime concern. That’s just the tip of the iceberg and, someday, I’ll write a book about his extraordinary life. For now though, you get the idea.
After a horrible childhood, my grandfather pulled himself up by the bootstraps and put himself through law school right here at St. Johns. During his tenure as a student, he worked as a DJ, and that’s where he met my grandmother. A “radiant beauty,” according to my granddad, my grandmother was easily the most attractive woman in the room. My grandfather was always one to shoot for the top, so their meeting was inevitable. Soon after they met they were married. They moved to Long Island, built a house on the water, and then came my mother and my uncle. Life went on like that until I was born and moved in just a few houses away from my grandparents.
I spent my entire childhood at my grandparent’s house. Since they lived on the water, I was always out on my sailboat, speeding around on my motorboat, or using my net to catch crabs – real athletic activities. It’s funny because as I think back, it always seems like my grandfather was the one who taught me how to be a “man,” whatever that means. He was always the one who scolded me, but in such a way that I always learned a lesson. My real dad was ever-present but he was more of a discipline-only figurehead.
One incident I remember vividly was when I got caught stealing a box of matches from my grandparent’s shed. Me and a friend went down to the vacant lot at the end of the block and dug a hole to “burn stuff in.” Yes, it was fun, and watching those flames lick at old newspapers and rotten wood was quite a joy, but the feeling that I was doing something wrong was never far from my thoughts. Of course, my granddad eventually went looking for the matches and when he couldn’t find them, he knew instantly what had happened. When he asked me to fess up, I, of course, attempted to lie. That lasted about three seconds, for when he gave me a stern look and said “don’t lie to me,” I broke faster than a detainee at Guantanamo. I began to cry, and he told me not to worry, it was going to be ok. I still remember to this day that for some reason, him telling me it was ok actually made it ok. He made me work off the price of the matches in yard work, but that’s the way he was – an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay type of guy.
In my teen years, like most adolescents, I did not see my grandparents much. Who wants to spend time with the elderly at that age? Fortunately, in my mid-twenties, I wised up and began to visit with both of my grandparents every two weeks for an entire afternoon. It was during this time period that the bond between my granddad and me solidified into an outright best friendship.
As I said earlier, my grandfather was responsible, in large part, for me becoming the person I am today, and it’s true. During the ten years that I had the privilege of benefiting from his advice, he imparted all the knowledge he gathered in a lifetime of living, loving, and learning. My grandfather was always the first to tell me that I needed to use my brain, for it was my greatest asset. He knew, just as sure as the sun rises, that I’d make my living one-day with my smarts, not my non-existent brawn. Those times that I slacked off, he’d be the first to call and tell me to cut the crap. It was annoying at the time, but I found myself giving that extra effort just so that I didn’t disappoint him. When I began to write and he learned of my successes here at CreakyJoints, over at The Huffington Post, and with my autobiography, he was so overjoyed that I was finally using my intelligence to its fullest potential that he asked me to write a book about his life. I succeeded in conducting about two hours worth of audio interviews with him before he died, and it is one of the things I am most proud of in my short life.
When it came to my Rheumatoid Arthritis, he was always the first to ask if I needed any help, and offer his services. Of course, towards the end there, it would have been quite a sight if I had actually taken him up on his offer. A 35 year old arthritic and a 94 year old with a broken hip attempting to do anything at all would probably look like a skit on Saturday Night Live. As they say, though, it’s the thought that counts. Him offering help and his sympathies about my condition was no small feat, either. He was from the old school – the generation where if you didn’t grin and bear it you were a failure, and my grandfather was exceptionally tough in this regard. He was a real salt-of-the-Earth, tough-as-nails, guy who fixed anything and everything himself and loathed having to throw anything away due to overuse. He constantly tinkered with appliances to make them better serve his purposes. If there’s a lamp in his house that doesn’t have cardboard taped onto it to redirect the beam of light where he needed it, I haven’t seen it. Because of this quality, I know it must have pained him each and every day that he couldn’t fix what he considered his greatest invention – me.
I apologize that this has turned into more of a final tribute than a piece on what I learned about Arthritis from a truly impressive man. He had his flaws for sure – he was a misogynist, he was penurious, he was stubborn, and when he heard I wrote for the Huffington Post he called me a “pinko commie.” That being said, no matter what, he supported me 100% whether he thought I was right or wrong, and if you can find five people in your entire life who do that you can consider yourself very lucky. I’m sorry he didn’t live to see me get married, have children of my own, publish my first book, and become the success that he always knew I would be (even if I didn’t). I think, though, that he was finally satisfied that I’d be able to take care of myself, and so he left his pain and troubles behind and finally let go, his work here being done. I will always miss him, and although he may have not believed it, I think he will be watching me always. Making sure that I adhere to those lessons he taught me, and making sure that I never take the easy way out. Thanks, Granddad – try not to cause too much fuss wherever you are, I will always love you.