Out of the blue the other day, I thought about my grandpa. For all intents and purposes I really only think of myself as having one grandpa, my mom’s dad. My paternal grandfather wasn’t around for most of my dad’s life, so he wasn’t around much for me, in person or spirit. But not so with my mom’s dad.
His name was Warren, but I don’t think I knew that until after he died in 1976 and I saw his headstone. All I had ever heard anyone call him was Shorty. That’s what happens when you go 5’6″ or so. He was a good grandpa to me; he never had cross words and he used to let me reach into his pocket for quarters to play pinball or the jukebox.
He died when I was 7, of throat cancer. He was about 56 years old, I think. Having been 7, it feels like I should remember more about him, but most of what I remember was the way he spent his last couple of years.
They aren’t good memories.
When I was 5, my parents won a minibike at some kind of event. We took it to Paxico, KS, the small town my grandparents lived in, and I have vivid memories of him wanting to try the bike out. We were all standing in front of the town tavern, a place I knew well because my grandparents spent a great deal of time there. There was a wide sidewalk that stretched from in front of the tavern down past the liquor store, past the other tavern, an antique store, and finally the grocery store. He got on, hit the throttle and took off like a rocket.
But he never let off the gas, and as he sped away from us I saw the front tire lift up in the air as he started to pop an unintended wheelie about 50 feet down the walk. Before I could even enjoy the false moment of thinking my grandpa was the most minibiken-est, wheelie-poppin-est grandpa around, the entire bike flipped over and dumped him right on his back, and in the process he broke both of his legs. We were 30 miles from the nearest hospital, so my dad got him in the car and sped to Topeka to get him help. I remember later asking my dad if the police were looking for him because he was driving too fast on the way there, and he told me it was the other way around, that he was looking for a policeman to give him an escort. That blew my mind.
That was the beginning of the end of my grandpa. When he got out of the hospital, he was bedridden at home in this cumbersome bed, with a trapeze-like contraption he could use to sit up. He was in a cast from the hips down for what seemed like months, but then, just as he was getting ready to get back on his feet, he was diagnosed with throat cancer.
I didn’t fully understand what it meant, but it was pretty clear to me he was in bad shape once he had a tracheotomy. Even at 7, you know they don’t cut a hole in your throat and take away your ability to speak unless it’s a dire situation. The only way he could communicate for the last months of his life was by writing notes. I like to think I was a smart, curious 7 year old, but I think the reality is I didn’t have much to say. Maybe I was afraid because of the hole in his throat, or because I knew he was very sick. I feel like I was on the cusp of being old enough to understand I needed to take better advantage of the time we had, but that’s probably not true, either. Not communicating with people I should be communicating with turned out to be a life pattern.
He spent most of his last months in the KU Med Center in Kansas City. The last real memory I have of him is when he came back to Paxico for a visit, maybe a month before he died. I was in the tavern on a Saturday morning, probably with my aunt Jenny, and a friend of the family opened the door and wheeled him in. One of the locals shouted, “Hey, it’s Shorty!” There was rejoicing by the regulars, his former drinking buddies, but I don’t remember anything after that. They probably passed some notes and generally didn’t say much; I have to think it was pretty clear his time was coming, and that’s probably not a conversation a bunch of old-ass tavern hounds feel like having for long, even with one of their own. I’m sure that was the last time he was in Paxico, maybe the last time he was out of a hospital.
He went back to KU Med Center. I was never allowed to go back and see him while he was there; I just have memories of sitting in waiting rooms and…waiting. Then, one morning I was sleeping in bed with my mom after my dad had gone to work, and the phone rang, and grandpa had died. All I remember thinking was, “Of course he did.” I don’t even remember being particularly sad, even though I loved him. I think it probably seemed to me like he had been dead ever since he got cancer, had that hole cut in his throat, and disappeared into a mysterious netherworld called “Intensive Care”.
But then the other day that image of him flipping over on that minibike popped into my head, and I found myself replaying a lot of my 1975 and 1976 in my head again. The cancer killed him, but it almost seems like if he hadn’t ever got on that bike he would have been fine. He got on that bike and sped down the sidewalk, and it’s like that was the last time I really saw my Grandpa Shorty.