Saturday, August 12, 2006

Bad news...

My mother called this morning with bad news. My grandfather, the last of my grandparents, is dying, and most likely won't make it through the day.

I'm lucky to have known all four of my grandparents well into my twenties, and now, at thirty, my remaining one is breathing his last breaths on this earth.

I have two stories that I want to share about him. A fiercely stubborn man with a short fuse, he was also gentle underneath and though he could raise his voice at the smallest thing, he never raised his hand.

The first story is from our cottage in Muskoka. Fresh northern air thick with the scent of pine and birch trees drifted across the lake. I swam and canoed around the small Island which our cottage was on. Across the wooden bridge, on the mainland, I ran along the pine-needle strewn paths playing hide and seek with cousins.
One summer's day my grandfather arrived unannounced and taught me my first lessons about women. Not with spoken words or lectures, but with the surprise visit, a dozen roses tucked under his arm and a sweeping kiss that left my grandmother smiling and giddy for the rest of the day.
Though he was stubborn and short fused, he knew his shortcomings and made efforts with such gestures to show that, deep down, he did in fact adore her.

My second story isn't so flattering, but is a cherished memory nonetheless. It happened when visiting them at their house in Port Perry. Grampa must have looked at me, a boy of about thirteen, and remembered his own story, because he decided to share it.
I sat on the couch in their living room, he was in his lazy-boy recliner.
Fed up with the monotony of daytime television, he clicked the TV off and said, "You know Danny, when I was your age, I quit school and became a full-time mechanic."
The sweet smell of Grandma's oatmeal cookies wafted from the kitchen and their washer and drier clunked and banged in hallway nearby.
He went on to tell me how he worked at a local garage and learned everything there was to know about cars. "Fixing cars is simple," he said. "You just had to take your time, narrow down the possibilities and find the problem. It's always logical."
He boasted about how he could always find the problem and knew engines inside and out.
Despite his meagre education, my grandfather became a very successful businessman, rising to upper management with General Motors. For me, this was his greatest accomplishment, yet I don't think he ever really talked about it as such.
Later that day, he took Grandma and I into downtown Port Perry for ice cream cones on the grassy lakeshore.
Later that same afternoon, we returned to the downtown parking lot and climbed into the hot car. Grampa tried to start the car, but the engine just rolled over and over until the battery became sluggish. Grampa frowned, scratched his head, popped the hood and climbed out to scan the motor.
"Maybe something to do with the fuel injection," he said. "These new cars don't have carburetors so they're a little hard to work with."
I had no clue what he was talking about. He went on, mentioning hoses and injectors and spark plugs, trying to narrow down the problem. Eventually, he said, "Well, since I don't have my tools, we'll just get the AA to come and tow it to the mechanics."

Later that afternoon, with Grampa muttering about the complicity of new fuel injection engines and still saying, "If only I had my tools with me..." The phone rang. Grandma answered and spoke for a minute before hanging up. "It was the mechanics," she shouted from the kitchen.
"What was the problem," Grampa shouted back. "Was it the fuel injectors?"
Grandma seemed reluctant to answer. She hesitated, and I heard her fiddling with pots and pans.
"Well, what was it damnit." His voice became terse and impatient.
"You ran out of gas."

My earliest memories of Grampa were perhaps like my young nephew Christopher thinks of me now. A mysterious close relative in some far away land - the Phillipines in his case. He mailed us tapes with hours of his low, gruff voice speaking about I don't remember what. We sent back tapes of our own. I was two or three years old when mom had me sing "Twinkle twinkle little star," to him and repeat things that she told me to say like, "Hi Grampa, happy berfday."
He had a thirst for knowledge and a love of gadgets and technology to match. Cameras, and later computers were two things in particular. He was one of the few people of the pre-baby-boom generation to own and spend hours in front of a computer screen.
He showed us slideshows; another adopted technology; in the carpeted loft of their house. I think he was impressed with the technology of projecting pictures from an expensive camera onto a screen. I've inherited his love for gadgets and fascination with the ever expanding world of technology - as well as his short fuse and to some extent, his confidence and ability to fix things.

Despite the silliness of the story where he ran out of gas, the message of finding the logical solution stuck and, during my journey, when broken down in the middle of the hot Sahara Desert, in a violent region with bandits and gun-wielding tribes, I used the simple logic to repair the car, time and again, and continue to safety.
Usually, the first thing I check is the gas guage.

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