This little corner of the internet is on the verge of returning to plenty of opinion and talk about not-very-important-to-the-proverbial-grand-scheme like movies and TV ever-so-shortly, but today, I found my thoughts interrupted once again. It’s not often that I really find myself contemplating the fragility of life. I don’t mean recognizing it, but rather, seriously considering it. Sadly, the concept hit close to home this week, and it made me not only think about capital L life but also about the strange complexities of familial relationships and especially why something like illness or death can affect each of us to such varying degrees.
Last night around 7pm in San Francisco, my grandmother’s husband Lou passed away. I specifically say “my grandmother’s husband” not out of any disrespect. Lou was a wonderful and admirable man. He was 94 years old, and while he had some health issues during the past few years, he died not from any long-term illness or simple natural causes; rather, about a week ago he was hit by a car. He suffered some broken ribs and vertebrae as well as one arm. All of these injuries, a younger person (one my age, for example) would most likely not have been life threatening. But it’s a virtual cliché, no? We all laugh at the “I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up,” Life Alert commercials, but the truth is, a broken hip (or anything) to an elderly person can turn into a death sentence. When we become “elderly,” not only do our bodies no longer heal efficiently, but they also suffer infection and further illness too quickly. And that is what happened to Lou.
Lou was my grandmother’s third husband. They met and married when I was almost out of high school. My biological grandfather was a man named Max. I sort of knew him when I was little, but he never showed that much interest in my mother nor I. I never knew him that well, and although he would occasionally give me tickets to Giants games, and he suppled my mom with passes to United Artists and Syufy movie theaters as well as huge bags of popcorn, there was never any closeness there. And that previous sentence basically sums up everything I remember about him. He died a few years ago, and when my mom called to tell me, I felt … nothing. It was as if she was telling me a stranger had passed away, which shouldn’t be very surprising since he was, in fact, a stranger. I don’t believe I had seen or spoken to him in at least 15 years, and there was certainly no effort on his part to ever reach out to his eldest grandchild.
My grandmother and Max split up when my mother and uncle were quite young, though. And Grandma remarried another man: Leo. Leo is the man I knew as “Grandpa.” He died when I was about six, and I have very fond memories – albeit, not many specific ones – of him. I knew Max and Leo at the same time, but I called Leo “Grandpa,” and Max I called “Max.”
Leo would always watch TV, lying on the floor of their den with a pillow under his head. I always used to love mimicking him, lying next to him with a similar pillow under my head. I also would constantly have my stuffed dog Puff, who Leo would regularly take from me and say, “What do you mean? Puff is my dog.” I would giggle and say, “No he’s not Grandpa,” and this argument/“game” would continue for who-knows-how-long.
I was at my dad’s apartment when Leo died. Or, at least, I remember there when my dad asked me to sit on the bed with him so he could tell me that my grandpa had died. At some point, I understood. I know I was sad. I know I cried. But still … I was only six.
I’ve been very lucky in that I have not experienced much death in my immediate family, at least not during the most cognizant majority of my 38 years. It was another 17 years before my father’s father passed away, and by that point, I was an adult and understood what was going on. He had been sick for quite a while, and although I was very sad and remember breaking down after the funeral when I hugged my grandmother, I understood and expected it. But of course, when I received the phone call, even with this understanding and expectation, I still felt a huge loss.
My mom’s mother was single for nearly a decade before she and Lou met and married. To all my younger cousins, he became “Grandpa.” None of them even met Leo, and most are young enough to only know our grandmother as Gloria Cherin as opposed to Gloria Ross. But my experience was different. For the past 21 years, I haven’t even lived in San Francisco, and while I had a nice relationship with Lou -- he was always extremely kind and generous to me, and I enjoyed speaking with him when I was – he never became “Grandpa” to me. How could he? I had already had one.
But I’ll always treasure his presence in my family if only because of how wonderful he was to my grandmother. For the record, my grandmother Gloria is one of those overly-doting, slightly crazy, but-would-do-anything-for-her-grandchildren grandmothers. (Well, almost anything. She wouldn’t buy me that Snoopy Sno-Cone Maker I always wanted. Almost anything else? Sure. But the Snoopy Sno-Cane Maker? Nope. Yet, that’s a separate story.)
Relationships are so difficult. Love is so hard to find. The idea of discovering it again in one’s 60s or 70s seems both miraculous and unbelievable, and yet, that is exactly what happened with my grandmother and Lou. They both had previous families, grown children and grandchildren. They both had survived their previous spouses. And yet, they found each other and were together for more than two decades.
The accident happened a week ago. Lou was in the hospital the whole time, and the reports I received from my mother came second hand. He wasn’t doing well; then he was doing better; then he wasn’t, and he had a fever and a staph infection. The accident was sudden, but I suppose the end result was expected.
When my mom called me last night to tell me that Lou had passed away, I didn’t feel “nothing,” but my sadness was confusing in its relative calmness. (I wish I knew how to better describe it ... but those are the best words at the moment.) For Lou, I was sad because the world had simply lost a kind, wonderful man. The last conversation I had with him was a debate/argument over the fact that the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival had chosen to show the documentary Rachel. I don’t even like the film (), and I would consider myself generally a pro-Israel Jew, but I was saying I understood why they chose to program it and why it was even valuable to do so. Lou, being of a different generation and extremely staunch in his pro-Israel beliefs, could not have disagreed more, and none of my rationalizations or explanations made a dent. But at the end of dinner, he smiled at me and laughing said something like, “Well that was a fun discussion.” And … it was. We never had a "close" relationship, but he always did his best to engage me in conversation and express interest in my life and my interests. That's more than I could ever say for the man whose genes I actually possess.
Still, my sadness was for my grandmother who has spent the vast majority of the past 60+ years married to someone, and at 87 now finds herself again alone. My sadness was for my mother who has been the best daughter imaginable in taking care of her mother (and at times Lou as well) over the past few years and now has an even tougher task of helping my grandmother navigate this difficult time.
Lou led a very long life, and I believe for the most part, a very happy one as well. He survived for 94 years and then a freak accident changed everything in a second. But during that near-century, he worked in the family business (started, I believe, by his father or grandfather in San Francisco) until the day of his accident. He had a large family and then inherited another one when he was in his 70s. He made my grandmother as happy as she could possibly be for these past 20+ years, and while his passing is sad and tragic, his life should (and will) be celebrated.
Hopefully, we can all be that lucky.
Rest in peace, Lou.