12 January 2007

Pro Tempore

I spent Thursday, the last day of my grandfather's life, driving from Chicago to Kansas. More accurately, my wife drove while I tried to read a book on attitudes regarding correctness in American English. (My driving gives her motion sickness.)

Curiously enough, I was thinking about him before the call came. As Mrs. Luaphacim and I passed the world's largest truck stop (located in western Iowa, somewhere along I-80), I started thinking about all the changes that had occurred in the United States during the past century. Between 1900 and 2000, we went from horse-drawn buggies to the International Space Station, from post cards to nearly instantaneous digital communication over fiberoptic cables. We endured two world wars that, no matter how much I learn about them, will always be more than I can fully comprehend. And my grandfather was an engineer on a boat in the Pacific during the second of those two wars. Our country also underwent a turmoil of shifting, blending regional accents as people moved around in the postwar boom of the '50s.

As we drove past winter-dead cornfields, I considered how plausible it would be to do an ethnolinguistic study of my father's people, starting with Gramps. I'd often noticed the extra-round North Dakota vowels of his boyhood, which always became more prominent when he was upset or in a puckish mood. I was fascinated with how those vowels had been slowly disappearing, year by year, under the slow Mississippi drawl that emanated from his chosen retirement spot in Tupelo.

Surely there was a dissertation in there somewhere... "Abooot time ta Hunker Down and Set a Spay-ull: The Phonological Blends of North Dakotan Retirees to the Gulf Coast." Or maybe "A Study of the Effects of the Southern Drawl Upon the Germanic Peoples of the Upper Midwest." A bloody academic gold mine, no doubt about it.

And then my cell phone rang. It was my mother, who was calling to let me know that the star informant of my imaginary magnum opus might not make it through the night. Well, back to square one with the dissertation topic.

(I have this habit of making dreadfully unfunny jokes at the most awkward of times. It's a habit I've been trying to break, albeit unsuccessfully. I think I do it because I am terrified of pain, especially when it is purely emotional.)

The last time I saw him was three weeks ago. Some friends and I had just gotten back from a week in Ecuador, and we were driving up from Miami to Wichita for Christmas. I got the idea of visiting my grandparents at about three a.m. somewhere in northern Alabama as I drove with nothing to keep me company through the night except for a staicky radio (my friends were resting).

I saw a couple of highway signs for Tupelo, and after doing some quick mental math to figure out when we'd be going through, I realized that we'd be hitting the town right around breakfast time. It was quite convenient; we could stop, go to the bathroom, grab a bite to eat at McDonald's, fill up on gas, and see the grandparents before heading out.

My plan worked perfectly. We stopped by, had a nice chat, and were on our way half an hour later. Grandpa was sick at the time (he had pneumonia, Grandma said) and he couldn't take us all out for breakfast, so he pressed two $20 bills into my hand and said to get ourselves something good to eat. He said he would have taken us out if he hadn't had that terrible cold, so it was only right that he should pay for our breakfast.

That's who my grandfather is -- was. (O cruel, tyrannical past tense!) He was one of the most generous, caring, kind men I've ever met. Even when he had lost 30 pounds, even when he was tired of being sick in bed with pneumonia all day for a week, he was still hospitable to a fault.

A week later, while Mrs. L and I were in Chicago, Mom called me to tell me that the pneumonia was lung cancer. They popped some cysts, drained some fluid, and he had some strokes, but he might recover, they said. I doubted it, quite frankly, and I'm not sure I've ever had a greater wish to be wrong.

They put him in the ground today. I couldn't make it to his funeral, but I know he didn't mind. Dad told me on the phone the day before yesterday how Gramps had responded when Dad couldn't attend his aunt's funeral: "Listen, son: you've got to take care of your family. That's your biggest responsibility right now. That means you need to do your work." Typical Gramps: understanding and supportive even from the grave.

So, today, I'm working on the final drafts of a couple of syllabi and trying not to let my heart get ripped out of my chest by the absence of the generous old man who doesn't live in Tupelo anymore.


LQ said...

Oh, M, I am so sorry for your loss. We're getting older, and so too, of course, are our grandparents, but that doesn't make it any easier when we lose them.

Hope the syllabi-drafting went well--whatcha teaching this semester? Hope things are getting off to a good start!

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Anonymous said...

much love.