My ol’man and Gramps— my ol’man’s ol’man— were certified, bonafide American originals.
They were the kind of men that could only be forged in a place like Buffalo and in a tough neighborhood like the Valley.
Late in life, Gramps lost his sight and his mobility— around the same time that my dad lost his leg to diabetes and heart disease after a couple of years in and out of the hospital.
Those two became best friends— talking to each other on the phone four or five times a day, helping one another defeat loneliness while enriching the father-and-son bond between these two guys who were made from the same good stuff.
Gramps was in his 80s, reflective, and accepting-but-sad. Dad was in his 50s, still a Marine at heart, and despite not having a leg or enough stamina to learn to walk on a prosthetic— he sometimes forgot about his physical condition. Especially when it came to trying to lighten the burden of his dad’s loneliness and isolation.
It wasn’t easy to get Dad out of the house or Gramps out of the nursing home.
Getting them both out at the same time was a real adventure, but my ol’man would beg for me to help him take his dad out the same way a five-year-old begs to go out for ice cream. That means relentlessly, with big sad eyes, not really understanding or caring why its a bad idea, and with a complete and utter disregard for whatever bullshit being spewed to explain why it’s not the best idea.
One day in particular, the planets aligned and I made secret plans to get my ol’man and gramps out for an early dinner.
When the day came and I asked Dad if he wanted to head over to pick up Gramps for a fish fry— it was less like telling a kid we were going for ice cream— but more like telling him we were going to Disney World.
My ol’man was wide-eyed and breathless.
He was excited to get out of the house. He was excited to get a fish fry.
“I hope they got that good potato salad,” said Dad excitedly.
But more than anything, he was excited to be sharing all these things with his dad.
With my wife’s help, I got Dad in the car. Kinda spilled him into the backseat. Then to the nursing home and Gramps in the front seat.
We went to the good Greek place only a mile or so away. My wife and I were completely spent from getting these two into the car when we had to unpack them.
Both times, Gramps was pretty compliant but as heavy as the smell of fried fish in the air.
He sat with the wheels locked on his wheelchair in a far-away parking spot because it was the only place where we could get the door open and enough room to get these guys out.
If Gramps was easy— getting one-legged Dad out of the back seat was like trying to pull a rabid cat out of a carrier crate.
My ol’man was excited and crazed and even forgot himself in the mayhem, trying to lift himself out of that backseat using the long-gone leg he’d had amputated years earlier.
Sweaty and wild-haired by the time he was out of the car, he was pissed because we weren’t moving fast enough.
There was goddamn fish fry waiting to be eaten, and nothing was slowing down my ol’man.
“Here Dad, let me help you,” said my father to his father, despite his inability to muster enough power to move his own wheelchair.
Grabbing the push handles at the back of Gramps’ wheelchair, my ol’man started jiggling and shaking himself trying to break the internia of two guys sitting reluctantly immobile in their medically-necessary chariots.
None of the gyrations worked even a little.
“Relax Dad, we’re going as fast as we can,” I said, stressed and worn-out myself, now trying to push both wheelchairs at once and adding to the ridiculousness of the scene. It was a live-action Three Stooges show.
Eventually we got in and had some great fish fry and great conversation and lots of laughs.
This was the last time we’d go through this deeply beautiful and satisfying comedy routine— it was actually Dad’s last good day.
All that jiggling— and his trouble getting up and down the stairs and in and out of the car— almost certainly contributed to the major heart attack he had that night.
Dad’s many heart attacks were quiet. He never knew as they happened. He’d just feel lousy— which he did all the time anyway. After a couple of days in the ICU, my ol’man died at the age of 58.
My ol’man’s last good meal and last good time was a fish fry with his ol’man. And it killed him to make it happen. And if he was sitting here, he’d tell you it was worth it.
Every dad deserves a son like my ol’man, and every son deserves a dad like my grandpa. My ol’man and Gramps. Two of the best. How blessed I have been.