The Language Legacy

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me at age three with my dad

My dad told amazing stories. I would say he was the best storyteller I knew, except that is what my dad said about my grandfather, his dad, and I knew my grandfather so I defer to his judgment. Regardless of which one of them was superior, they both told amazing stories, they would get animated, add in arm movements, gritted teeth, voices that always seemed to be necessary, not put on. You would get swept up in the experience, you would laugh, always laugh, and the point, if there was one, would be forgotten in the course of the storytelling. It was the journey that mattered, it was the communion.

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me about age eleven, with Grandpa Steve

My grandfather died when I was twenty-five after a lengthy battle with prostate cancer. He’d had the disease for most of my life, but had also been in remission for much of that time. I always knew him as a vibrant, dynamic man, who loved good food, would talk to anyone, and had a funny story about his latest doctors visit. We never lived in the same city, so I didn’t see him when he went out of remission, when things got bad. He was in his eighties by then, living in the Twin Cities so he could be near one of his four children, my Aunt Deborah. My dad was with him at the end, flew out from Seattle and sat with him through hospice visits, through the morphine. He told me about witnessing the moment of death, about the way the breathing changes, that so-called “death rattle” and how he talked to him then, told him he’d been a good father, that he’d been strong, that he loved him, and that it was okay to let go, coaching him almost in the last moments, in the act of dying. He told me that afterwards, after he’d called his sisters and told them that their father was finally cancer free, after he’d made the arrangements and signed the papers he needed to, he went back to his hotel in a daze, and sat at the bar. The bartender came up and asked him how he was doing and he looked at the man and said “My father just died, I think I need a drink.”

I’ve felt that way a lot these last few weeks. I wish sometimes I could respond that honestly to the friends, grocery checkers, customers at my restaurant, anyone who innocently asks me how I’m doing. I usually go with “I’m okay”, it feels less like a lie than the standard “I’m fine” or “well” or “good”. “Okay” is an emotion I can cop to without feeling like a fraud. It’s true, I can walk and talk and feed myself and act like a person most of the time, I am okay. But I’m not fine, I’m definitely not well or good or great, and I wish sometimes that instead of this deceptively vague but true statement I could just tell them “My father just died, I think I need a drink.”

His fight with cancer was much shorter than my Grandfather’s. He had a seizure two months after my little sister’s wedding, was diagnosed with stage four brain cancer, and lived another twenty months, six months longer than the prognosis. And they were good months, he shared that with his dad, living with cancer he was still a vibrant, dynamic man. He continued working, he continued traveling, he cracked up all the nurses. He got a fedora for festive occasions, but still mostly wore his Boston Red Sox baseball hats. He took more naps than before the cancer, took longer to do things, sometimes he’d forget to shut doors, sometime his speech would slur, especially if he was tired, but he never lost himself, and he never lost track of who he was and who he loved.

I was there when he died. Not in the room, my sister and I left and our stepmother held him in his last moments, but I was there. I sat with him alone for a bit, his eyes were closed, his breathing labored, but I held his hand touched his face and told him how lucky and grateful I was to have him as my father. I said a lot of other crap too, I’m sure I rambled. I knew it was the end and didn’t want my language to betray that I knew, wanted to keep all my tenses rooted in the present. I told him I’d found the poster of the play he’d done and I directed back when I was in college, right before he met my stepmother. In the poster he wears a business suit and wields a samurai sword. “You were such a bad-ass” I said, and then caught the tense and corrected myself “you are such a bad-ass.”

My father and I shared a love of writing, of language and of communication. We shared an ability to observe situations and interpret them, the way people behaved, the reasons we didn’t like certain things even though they seemed friendly or harmless on the surface. We shared a deep appreciation of history and rituals.

I will never be the storyteller he was, I don’t have the same gifts for animation, and I’ll never be the storyteller my grandfather was, even my dad couldn’t do that. My grandfather was an extrovert, so where engaging a live audience was concerned he will always hold the advantage. My dad was an introvert, as I am. But like him I feel called to carry on my family legacy. We have always been a family of readers, of philosophers, of storytellers, a family without much talent for the hard sciences, but with an understanding of the unique power of language. He left me with a lot of stories to tell.

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The Ski Trip

This is the story my dad told at my grandfather’s memorial and credits with being the first story his father told him, I remember it was one of the first ones he told me and my sister as well.

One winter my grandparents went skiing. They were a young couple and they skied all day until the sunset. On his last run down the slope my grandfather fell, wiped out right by a tree. He got up and finished the run. Then he and my grandmother headed for the car, but when they got there the keys were missing. They looked everywhere, in all their pockets, under the car, by now it was getting quite dark and they were faced with the fact the keys must have fallen out sometime during the day, somewhere on the slope. In a Hail Mary attempt my grandfather went back to the top of the slope and tried to go down slowly, peering into the dusk, hoping against hope to catch a glint of metal. As he was making a turn he wiped out again, and looking up noticed the same tree he’d fallen by earlier, and then on the ground, not yet covered by the new snow that had begun to fall, he saw his keys.

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