Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Sweatshirt That's Older Than Me

My favorite fall/springtime running sweatshirt has seen better days. It’s gray turning brownish, with an old Penn State decal that doesn’t even depict the iconic Nittany Lion. Actually, I think the sweatshirt might be too old for that. It’s threadbare, only a slight step up from a long-sleeved t-shirt. There are holes in the seams where the cuffs meet the sleeves. It’s older than I am, without a doubt. It used to belong to my grandfather.

I think he had a dozen other sweatshirts like it, with varying designs, but all thin, slightly baggy, and comfortable. I can still see him in a big gray sweatshirt, khaki trousers, big black shoes with cushy soles, and rose-tinted glasses that took up most of his face. I can see him so clearly that I can’t believe that I will never wear those clothes again, never reach up to turn on his hearing aid, asking “What’s this?”

When I learned two days ago that he had died, I was stunned. He underwent open-heart surgery a week ago, but that was supposed to fix him. He was doing better. He was obeying the doctors, but he was getting restless. They monitored every little thing on a microscopic level. I couldn’t understand how this could happen so suddenly, so seemingly unexpectedly.

But then, I think I never really appreciated the seriousness of my grandfather’s condition. When he revealed it in an email (pretty impressive for an 82-year-old, right?), it was just a little blurb tacked on to a much longer, detailed account of other people he’d seen, plans he was making, and important dates for us all to remember. He was much more concerned with us--his family--than his own problems.

It’s always been like that. In the twenty-one years I’ve known him, he was always volunteering his time at charities, getting involved at church, engaging in community dinners, and keeping the rest of us up-to-date on his extensive family. We may not have seen eye-to-eye on everything (you try explaining to a full-blooded Italian immigrant why you don’t like pasta), but throughout my childhood and into college he and my grandmother were always coming to school plays, dance recitals, horse shows, and graduations. Nothing that any of us grandchildren did was too trivial. He was so proud of us all; nothing delighted him more than to hear about our work. Even if he didn’t understand all of it--I mean, who could, with two medical professionals, a nuclear and an aerospace engineer, a psychology major, a computer scientist, and a crazy triple-major physicist/astrobiologist/biochemist, on top of some impressive athletes who have yet to graduate from high school. It’s a daunting task to keep up with all of us. But he never gave up, because we were his, and he loved every bit of it. He was living the quintessential American dream--overcoming hardship as a young immigrant in Chicago to watch his family enjoy and perpetuate the success he had passed on.

But it was never about him, ever. Which is why I never realized, this is serious. As always, he minimized his own problems, put others first, and took on life with a deceptive vigor that made me think he’d be around forever. He knew the risks when he underwent surgery, and he opted for a chance at a better life rather than to live out his last few years getting progressively weaker, dependent on others. He chose, as always, to fight for what he believed in, until the very end.

Yes, we were his, but he was also ours, and now that he’s gone there is a void that cannot be filled.

I can’t remember exactly how I ended up with that old sweatshirt. It’s always been my get-ready-to-get-gross sweatshirt, something I didn’t mind trashing because it’s seen better days. But now it’s one of my treasured possessions. Perhaps, if I’m lucky, sixty years from now I’ll be wearing it around the house, shuffling about in my therapeutic shoes and squinting through thick glasses, flipping on a hearing aid as my family tells me all about their lives. But if not...I already know I’m lucky anyway, for having such an amazing man in my life for twenty-one years.
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