Today marks the third anniversary of my grandfather’s death. Three years seems like an eternity ago, and even though I never thought it possible at the time, my life has adjusted to his absence. It didn’t seem to take very long for my grandma and me to settle into a quiet, comfortable routine without him. It has been a while since I have looked for him sitting in the living room chair, blanket covering his knees, television blaring in the background. Very rarely do I wake in the middle of the night to track any movement in the hallway, confirming that the trek from the bathroom back to the bedroom was completed successfully and without incident. Eight p.m. no longer has the same significance as I have no one to prepare a bowl of spumoni ice cream (with a dash of brandy to enhance the flavor) for. So much of my life in Kansas City was spent helping care for him, watching out, listening, that with him gone, I felt adrift. When he was around, I had a purpose, one that I embraced and enjoyed. Without him, there was a void, one that I haven’t quite figured out how to fill.
My grandfather was a good man, dedicated to family, country, and his faith. He wasn’t perfect by any means—he had quite the temper, was stubborn beyond belief, and could be unforgiving. He was even a bit of a scoundrel in his youth, running booze across state lines, lying about his age to enlist in the National Guard, and who knows what else. But, even with his shortcomings, he was an amazing person.
Although born in Omaha, he was a Kansas Citian through and through. Kansas City was the place that would always be home no matter how far he traveled, whether it be out on the Pacific during WWII or following jobs in St. Louis or Atlanta. He went to school here, attended college as well. He met my grandmother here and started his family here. Drive down any street in Kansas City, and he would have a story to share. He knew the gangsters, the elite, the who’s who of Kansas City. In turn, people here knew his name, respected him. I wish I had paid more attention to his stories at the time instead of dismissing them as the ramblings of a nostalgic old man. But, it is always easier to think that in hindsight…
My grandpa was always a proud man. He rarely complained, and he did everything in his power not to feel like a burden to his family. He never was. Even as his health began to fail and his body weaken, his spirit remained strong. Parkinson’s robbed him of so much, but never his mind. When he could barely read, he would pull out his magnifying glass to read the newspaper, keeping on top of the world around him. When he could no longer even do that, he would have either my grandma or me read to him, books about Kansas City that reminded him of his past, and he would add his own commentary where the author had omitted pertinent information. And if he were in a mischievous mood, watch out. He could make a snowball or a water gun materialize out of nowhere, hit you with it, and make it disappear. The only evidence that anything had even happened, besides the tell-tale wet spot on your clothing, would be the faux innocent look on his face doing a poor attempt to hide his amusement.
For a man so independent, it could not have been easy to accept the help of his wife, children, and grandchildren as he did. It was hard to make him hand over the car keys, harder still to ask him not to make minor repairs around the house. He did so with little fuss, but it felt like in asking, we were asking he give up a part of himself. To compensate, we did what we could to make sure he never wanted for anything. I took him and grandma to Mass every morning. We arranged for trips to the store, asked him for advice, anything everything to make sure he felt included and important, as he still very much was. Some days, it was just enough to have someone to sit next to him, not saying a word but just being there.
I do not know if I will ever quite grasp how fortunate I was to spend so much time with him. I just know that I was one of the lucky ones to share in his life. I got to witness his humor, his kindness, and his love. I still think that his relationship with my grandma is one of the sweetest I have ever seen, and if I find something even half as good as what they had, I’ll be lucky. And although he was never one to say it, he was extremely proud of all his children, all of whom shared his good heart and generous nature. When he did finally pass away, he did so realizing that he was leaving things in good hands. I sometimes think that was one of the reasons he fought for so long…he just wanted to make sure everyone he loved was going to be okay. He wanted to be sure my grandma would be taken care of, and his children would support each other in even the most challenging times.
Learning to live without someone you love doesn’t mean you have forgotten. But, I still struggle with find the best way to remember my grandpa. I guess it will be in the stories I tell for the years to come. It will be in how I continue to watch out over my grandma, to make sure that even when she is lonely or missing him, that she knows she is not alone. And, it is in living my life in a way that would make him proud, to ensure that what I do ensures that the name Hayes remains synonymous with character, strong morals, and, of course, good humor.