We were picking out some favorites to make a slide show for my wife's Valentine's Day present. As we were flipping through a stack of pictures, we found some prints from an all night cancer walk-a-thon that my wife and I had participated in with some co-workers of hers over ten years ago. Wedged in between pictures of a group of people wearing tie-dyed shirts was one of the luminaries that lined the path of the walk-a-thon that evening. This luminary was made in memory of my grandfather who died of prostate cancer in 1991. I had been explaining to my daughter who the people in the pictures were, and the meaning of the event. However, when I saw the picture of the luminary with my grandfather's name on it, I stopped mid sentence, choking on my words.
I remember staying at Grandpa and Grandma's house when I was a boy. It would usually be a Friday night and Grandpa would make popcorn. They had an air popper, and he would let me pour the popcorn seeds into the popper. He didn't use butter, but sprinkled butter flavored popcorn salt over the warm, wonderful smelling snack. Grandma would open up a 2-liter bottle of 7-Up and pour a cup for both my brother and I. We would sit on the floor of their living room, watching their black and white television while eating popcorn from the large popcorn bowl. Food and drink were normally not allowed in the living room, but that rule always seemed to be forgotten when we stayed overnight. The popcorn tasted better from that bowl. The soda seemed to taste better from their cups. Everything seemed special at their house...
My grandfather lived frugally. He and my grandmother would buy things when they needed to, not when they wanted to. Their dining room table was the same one they had at their farm house when my mom was a girl. It worked fine, why replace it? Even though color TVs had long since become affordable, their TV was black and white. It still worked, why replace it? They weren't wealthy people, and if they ever had extra money, they'd rather give it to the church than use it to buy more earthly possessions.
When I was twelve, my grandfather was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer. His prognosis was terminal, and he was told he had 36-40 months to live. I had a very difficult time comprehending this. Thirty-six months seems like an eternity when you're twelve years old. There's no need for me to worry about it, I thought. My grandpa has plenty of time left to live.
As time went on, and the cancer ravaged his body, he had to have a colostomy bag. This made me very uncomfortable, and I didn't like being close to him anymore. When we'd go to his house for family events, I would say hello to him as I entered, and good bye when we left, but that was really about it.
When I was a senior in high school, prostate cancer finally overtook my grandfather. He passed away on November 1st, 1991 at the age of 76, surrounded by his children. My family and I had moved across the state while I was a teenager, and my parents had traveled to my grandfather's town a few days earlier suspecting the end was near. I stayed behind to continue to attend classes. The day after he passed away, I made the 2.5 hour drive by myself to attend his funeral.
During this drive, I thought about my grandfather. I thought about all the childhood memories I had with him. Catching a string of fish with him off the dock at Lake Hanska, him tirelessly scratching my back, having deer sausage and toast together for breakfast, and even those Friday nights when we made popcorn. I thought of how it's so common for people today, including myself, when spending time with those special children in our lives, we take them somewhere, and buy them something. My Grandfather never did that, not once that I can remember. We always did activities together, spending time together talking and enjoying each other as people. He didn't need to buy me anything make me feel special.
I also thought about how I had essentially stopped interacting with him over the last few years of his life due to how his illness made me uncomfortable. I imagined how it must have made him feel to go through what he was going through, watching his body break down and his health steadily deteriorate, and have one of his grandchildren treat him as an afterthought.
I have made many mistakes in my life, including my current debt situation. But I have the opportunity and the ability to correct many of these things. I don't have the ability to change how I treated my grandfather as he fought cancer. I will never have the opportunity to wrap my arms around my dying grandfather and tell him what he meant to me.
I thought about what kind of man he was. In the five years he battled cancer, I never once heard him complain. Not once did I hear him question why this was happening to him. My grandmother often did. My grandpa would simply tell her, “It's God's will.” Thankful for what he had, patient and loving, right with his family, right with his finances, and right with God. It was during that drive from Luverne to New Ulm, Minnesota that I discovered that was the kind of man I wanted to be.
On a recent weekday night, some friends of ours from down the block called and asked if we could stop down as they needed some help moving some heavy furniture. We hadn't talked to them for awhile, and agreed. We were going to leave the kids at home to finish their homework. Our daughter wasn't making much progress with her math homework, and claimed she needed help. However, we were in a hurry to leave, and my assessment was that she just wasn't trying; that she just wanted me to tell her the answer. I barked at her to try harder, and if she still couldn't get it, well, she'd just have to wait until we got back. While at our friends' house, I received a text message from my daughter saying “I figured out my homework. I am sorry for wasting your time.”
My heart shattered.
When I am in a bad mood, and the demands of daily life just seem to be stretching me too thin, I have from time to time made comments about how I don't have any time to myself, and thus I certainly don't have any time to waste. My daughter should never be made to felt like she is wasting my time. I should always put her at the top of the priority list. I knew I had failed her that night as a father. I called her immediately and apologized to her for what I had said, and how I had made her feel.
My son recently missed his latest parent/teacher conference because he was ill. It was to be a student led conference where students present to their parents selected pieces of work from the past semester. I got the packet of information my son had put together. As I thumbed through it, I came across a piece of paper that had statements and answers on it that he wanted to tell us – things like, “What I like most about school,” and “What I need to work on.” One of the bubbles on the page said “One person I really look up to is:” and he had filled in, “Dad, because he is a smarter, older, bigger version of me.”
I could also tell that he had originally written “George Lucas,” but erased it.
Just as my grandfather showed me how to be the man I wanted to be, my children are learning how to act just by watching, and listening to me. But what am I saying?
Is the way I treat my wife teaching my son the correct way to treat his future spouse? Are those same actions also ingraining into my daughter that she should expect no less than to be put on a pedestal and adored by her soul mate? Are they learning how to be strong, hardworking and independent? Am I teaching them how to live within their means, and the consequences when they don't? Are they watching their father and learning how to treat people with patience, compassion and respect? I truly hope so.
I struggle each and every day to be more like my grandfather. I have failed in so many ways, most notably my finances. My home looks nothing like the simple home full of “keep it until you absolutely have to replace it” possessions that he had. But I think of him often as my blood pressure rises when disciplining my children, or I feel an argument starting with my wife. It's as if he's standing next to me, putting his hand on my shoulder, softly saying, “Patience, Travis. Patience.” His memory brings a calmness to my soul.
My grandfather is my hero. I hope that in time my children will look at me as someone that has positively influenced their lives as my grandfather did mine.
Who is your hero? Better yet, whose hero are you?