Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
— Dylan Thomas
Every time I shake someone’s hand, I think of my grandfather.
I was maybe six years old when I limply shook Daz’s hand and he roared at me, “That’s not how a man shakes hands!” He stuck out his hand again and again until I shook it firmly. He scared me. They say fear makes strong memories. I remember exactly where we were standing forty years ago, in the kitchen of my grandparents’ kitchen in Wellsboro, by a rickety table and a white-painted coat closet, my head about even with the brown doorknob, his hand around mine.
Daz never liked to be around a lot of people. He would retreat to his reading room with his chair and the TV and the wood stove when there was a lot of family in the house. He made my mother cry once when she arrived in the station wagon with us six kids and the first thing he said to her was “so when are you leaving?” I’m not good around a lot of people either. I can’t keep up with more than one person talking at a time and it makes me frustrated and distant. I would join him in his room and we would be antisocial together. We’d watch the news or golf. He was a big fan of Tiger Woods. When Tiger got married, Daz showed everyone pictures of Tiger’s gorgeous wife and her twin. He kept the pictures by his chair. My grandmother was not impressed.
He served in the Navy in World War II, a machinist’s mate on a repair ship called the USS Vestal. Vestal had been badly damaged and beached at Pearl Harbor where it had been moored near the USS Arizona. Daz shipped out from San Francisco in 1943 and he served on Vestal in the South Pacific until after the war. Once (only once) he told me about watching Japanese kamikazes attacking American ships nearby, when things were so desperate that Vestal had been sent forward close to combat. I looked up the Vestal’s history and it seems likely this was at Okinawa. When he came home from the war in 1946, my mother was three years old and she didn’t recognize him. He never seemed comfortable with my first wife, who was nisei Japanese. My brother served in the Navy and my sister’s husband is still Navy. I never served but sometimes I think I should have.
He built his own cabin in the woods and he made maple syrup there. It took days to feed the wood fire under an old bathtub and boil the syrup down. I remember collecting sap from tapped maples. The creek nearby flowed over flat sheets of black slate. I cracked slates apart to find fossils.
He worked as a manager at the Borden milk plant in Wellsboro. His father was a more senior manager there, so the guys on the line didn’t trust him at first and he had to prove himself. When we came back from a trip to Wellsboro we brought home cases of Borden’s milk products and a jug of maple syrup. We propped up the cardboard cases beside the refrigerator. I took Borden’s canned puddings to kindergarten in my lunch box.
He played saxophone. He was good. He was in a band with some of his buddies until he was in his 80’s. They’d stay out late playing for beers until finally a few of them decided they were getting too old for all that. I had his old sax for a while when I was in grade school. The band director had to make adjustments for me because the thing was so old it wasn’t even in the same key as a modern sax. When I stopped playing, he asked for it back. I tried to pick up the sax again years later, when I was a professor, but I’d forgotten how to play it. He played harmonica too, and Aunt Jane’s little black dog Nell howled along with him in the living room by Aunt Mertie’s old black piano.
He built his own sailboat, a sloop called Shudna. I crewed for him sometimes when I was in high school. He liked having crew because then he could use the spinnaker or at least wing a genoa jib out, and fly across the small lake we sailed on. He would bring a six pack of Genessee and drink a good share of it. I’d stand on the bow and throw out the spinnaker, and it would pop when it caught the wind and the bow would lift and I’d fall back into the boat. The sound of the water hissing under a fast sailboat is like nothing else. Once, possibly after a fair amount of Genessee, we raced an expensive sailing yacht. We came alongside and he roared at the owner, “hey, do you know how to sail that big thing? You want to race?” He sold Shudna when I was in grad school. I was sailing a Laser then that I co-owned with three friends at the Boulder Reservoir, and I was disappointed I hadn’t had a chance at the Shudna. He didn’t think I would be interested.
He was a life-long Republican until Wellsboro elected one of their first ever Democratic mayors. One of the first things the new mayor did was fix the pothole that had been in front of my grandparents’ house for years. After that Daz allowed that Democrats might not be all bad.
Several years ago he started suffering from what must be Alzheimer’s disease. He had trouble sleeping and had strange nightmares. His memory started slipping. He started acting in odd obsessive ways. The family was worried, and whispered about him. He called me back to his room one time, saying “I bet you want to watch the news, don’t you.” The news wasn’t on, but Emeril was, and he’d gotten to like watching Emeril cook. He showed me his notebooks filled with tiny handwriting where he had penciled the exact temperature he had taken in six different places in the house at fifteen minute intervals. He told me he knew it was obsessive and he knew the family was whispering about it. He said something was wrong inside his head, something whirling and disconnected. This and the dreams scared him. Then he said, “But what the hell else am I supposed to do with all my time?”
I saw him three weeks ago, 96 years old and in a nursing home for the past few months, in the late stages of Alzheimer’s. He didn’t recognize me, nor my mother. He was mostly silent and seemed confused. Sometimes he muttered about things that were bothering him but we couldn’t quite understand what they were. My mother and I smiled, and looked at each other across the table, and tried to get some kind of conversation going. He looked at me a couple of times, puzzled about who I might be. Once he looked at my mother and said, “Am I crocked?” Somewhere he still knew something was wrong.
When we were getting ready to leave, he recognized me and looked me straight in the eye. “Sean?”
My mother said, “It’s Sean. Do you remember Sean?”
Clear and strong, his eyes suddenly lucid, and in the same gruff and teasing voice I have heard all my life, he said, “Of course I remember Sean. The question is, does he remember me?” This was the last thing he said to me. He died today.
addendum: a couple of weeks later
I just got this from my aunt Carol.
The day after Daz died, my aunts Carol and Jane were with my grandmother in the house, and they found an old box of cassette tapes that they started playing at random. The second tape they played had an old recording from me, apparently from summer 1969, the summer of the Apollo landing on the moon, when I was four. I told some little story that ended a couple of different times, and finally with “And this is the end, and the very end.”
Then all of a sudden Daz’s voice came on.
Well, hello there folks out on Earth. This is the first non-astronaut to ever go up into space to travel to the moon. Big Bob Myers speaking. The first man that never studied to be an astronaut to go to the moon. Man, am I scared. But I don’t care. One giant step for mankind; two great big giant steps for Big Bob. Man, am I scared. But that’s all right. I don’t mind being scared. I like going around this great big vast void up here. My gosh, is it black out. Looking back down – oh my gosh! I can see Big Mary down at her house. She’s staring out the window, looking at the moon, wondering where her Big Bob is. It won’t be long now, folks. Whoops! We’re starting to go to the moon. We’re counting down…10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. We’re on the moon. Just think of that, folks. Big Bob Myers, the first man that wasn’t an astronaut, on the moon. And this is the end, and the very end.”
Later that night, my aunt Carol saw my grandmother looking out the kitchen window, through the spruce trees, at the full moon.