Grandpa Olson passed away this morning. He was just shy of a hundred.
He was my mother’s father, the formality of the title enduring until the day he died. Last month, I stopped by the nursing home to see him with my mom and one of my daughters. The scene was classic. Passing through a corridor of old men in barco-loungers, he was in his room, sitting straight up, asleep, a pack of Marlboro’s in his right pocket. A half-empty mug of coffee by his hand. His white hair, still thick and lush, needed a trim. Grandpa’s arms were nearly black, belying the myth that us Swedes don’t tan.
|Summer 2 yrs ago
“It takes a lot of time to smoke four packs a day,” my mom said in an undertone, noting the chair outside, facing the mid-day sun. Tanning alone didn’t get that purple-tint. When one gets to three-digits, the walls of the veins thin, and seepage occurs, darkening the skin.
“Too much information,” I said to my mom, feeling a wave of nausea. Better not to know what awaits me sixty years hence. I’m still coming to grips with the notion of menopause and hot flashes that will be hitting me this decade (us Swedes have schedules to keep).
When I asked Grandpa about getting out and about, going to his favorite breakfast joint, or why his room lacked a bed, he said he didn’t need one.
“This is just fine,” he said. That was when I noticed a ‘smell.’ When I put Sophia on the floor to crawl around, mom looked at me like I was crazy, waited a few more seconds then bent down and picked her up. Not wanting to bother her, I walked to get Sophia, and on the return, saw a bunch of stains on my chair. In horror, I shot my mom a look, raising an eyebrow.
|Grandpa, Sophia and mom, 8/27/10
Another wave of nausea. My pants were new. The seat, as evidenced by the various color and shapes of stains, was not. Mom had told me about ‘accidents’ happening, despite my Grandfather’s diapers.
Still, Grandpa was sharp. He caught the silence, the looks, sweeping the child from the floor, my resistance to sitting down on the padded chair.
He burst out laughing. “Getting old is hell!” he barked, and we all laughed as only family in on the same joke can.
It was tough seeing him age, but he was a Swede through and through. He held it well. No complaints, and no tears.
“Swedes don’t cry,” was a phrase my mom often used growing up. Just ask Elin Nordgren. Last month, I couldn’t help myself, and read the People Magazine where she was on the cover. She wrote that through the anihalation of her marriage, she didn’t cry once. Not during. Not after. Still hadn’t.
“We’re Swedish,” she said, as if we lacked tear ducts.
The phrase served us well. On vacations with Grandpa, he’d put us to work, believing free time was wasted time. Once my brother and I made the mistake of complaining to Grandpa we were bored. He said he had a fun project. He led us to the dirt road and told us to pick out the big rocks.
“What will you give us?” my enterprising brother asked shamelessly.
“A glass of milk.” Three hours later, when we finished, we got it.
“How can you be done?” he asked.
My brother had the insight to define what “big” meant. When he explained his definition, Grandpa let us off the hook. Otherwise, we’d still be there, thirty years later. It served it’s purpose. We never complained again.
Mom took the don’t cry philosophy a bit further. The true English translation can be summed up thus: If a bone isnt’ jutting out, stop complaining.
This lesson was exemplified when I fell of Grandpa’s front porch, falling on the top of my left wrist. The angled bricks broke my hand in three places. But no bones were poking out.
“If it’s still hurting in a couple of hours, we’ll go to the doctor.”
I don’t remember the next few hours. It was a haze of pain as I clamped my mouth to prevent tears. I was a Swede, and we didn’t do that. Suffice it to say I finally got a cast and the luxury of Asprin.
A few years later, I woke up with a buzzing in my left ear. I’d never felt anything like it and told her it hurt really bad.
“If it was an earache, you’d be screaming in pain,” mom said, telling me to have a good day.
That night, I’m playing basketball and I can’t hear a darn thing the coach is yelling at me. It was like I’d gone deaf.
“Hey!” he yells at me. “You have blood coming out your ear!”
I felt like Sulu in the Wrath of Kahn, my brain having been hijacked by a giant worm that was now lurking out my ear drum.
Turns out my eardrum had burst, a preventable condition had I made it to the doctor in the morning hours of the day.
Yet did I cry? Nope. Not a tear. I’m thankful for my Grandfather and mother emphasizing the Swedish way. It’s helped me overcome defeat on the track field, crushing disappointment in my career and devastating personal issues. Who cared if the guys at Microsoft announced “the ice queen cometh,” when I entered the meeting room? The whole non-emotional thing has served me well in most facets of my life.
Today, at church, I learned one other man passed from this mortal life. He was briefly eulogized by a son-in-law, who figured the man was already asking to be put to work upstairs. I wanted to raise my hand and ask if he was Swedish, but I figured that would be bad form.
|The last photo of Grandpa
taken before his death
At home, Rog and I scrapped about the funeral arrangements. He is preparing to leave for a trip, perhaps the most important one of the year. He reminded me the journey to Grandpa’s house is long. He voiced concern about me traveling with kids. I just couldn’t take him telling me he didn’t want me to go. I was on the verge of napalistic (Don-kingisom for napalming+ballistic=napalistic).
I prepared to retreat to my corner before I let off on him.
“But I know he meant the world to you,” he said, catching me by the arm before I can leave. “If it’s really that important, I’ll cancel my trip and drive you.”
“You’d do that?” I asked, knowing it would mean he’d lose the money spent on the trip, the business opportunity during the trip and maybe a client in the process.
“Of course. I love you,” he says, with that aren’t-you’-silly-voice. “You’re everything to me.”
For all the diatribe of protecting the heart, the practice of mind over pain, forty years of wasn’t enough to hold back the tears. The Swedish heritage finally had a weak link in the DNA thread, and it was mine. Yet just this once, I figured my Grandfather would be ok with it.