Remembering Wally: A Tribute - and Apology - to my Late Grandfather

Last weekend, I traveled to California to attend the funeral of my grandfather, Wally Owens. Wally was a good man, and he will be greatly missed. The funeral was difficult for me, and not just for the obvious reasons. The hard truth is: I haven’t been a wonderful granddaughter. Don’t get me wrong - I’ve never been rude to either of them, or lashed out, or acted inappropriately. My regret isn’t based in action, but in inaction. Wally was afflicted with throat cancer and dementia. When I was told of his diagnosis, I took inventory and realized that I hadn’t seen him in nine years. That had been at my middle brother’s college graduation in Montana, when we all convened to celebrate. And what had I been doing in the years since? Working. Navigating relationships. Moving a lot. Making friends. Making changes. All the everyday stuff that seems so important. Of course, I’d made excuses - most of them financial. I told myself I couldn’t afford to fly out and visit. But how much money did I spend on dinners out in the last nine years? On clothes, or books, or pretty things for my home? On mindless internet purchases born out of a late-night Amazon browsing session that convinced me I needed a set of six tiny pill boxes shaped like macarons? (True story.) All this, and I couldn’t afford a plane ticket? For fuck’s sake. They lived in California - not Cambodia.

Even if I truly hadn’t been able to scrape the funds together for a visit, what was stopping me from picking up the phone? From sending off an email more than once a year? From wishing them happy birthdays and merry Christmases?

What it comes down to is, simply, that I didn’t prioritize my relationship with my grandfather enough. That’s a hard truth to face, but it has to be said. For the last nine years of his life, I wasn’t there.

It wasn’t always this way. When I was a child, I used to write letters to Wally and my grandma Kay - one every month. I’d update them on my comings and goings - school, volleyball, the myriad ways in which my little brother was annoying me. They kept these letters in a scrapbook, every single one of them, along with any accompanying drawings (and, on one occasion, pictures of the Hanson brothers cut out of Tiger Beat, because apparently I felt it important to keep them abreast of my current celebrity crushes).

Around that time, my mother taught me to use her sewing machine, and I made a wall hanging for them - a simple nine-patch design in deep blue, to match the ocean-themed decor in their condo. I put in this effort for no other reason than I was thinking about them and I loved them.

As I grew, I never stopped loving them. I just got…distracted.

After hearing of Wally’s diagnosis, I flew to California with my father for a long overdue visit. It was July - hot and muggy. At the retirement community, Wally was waiting in a small room amid bookshelves and a faux fireplace, propped up in his wheelchair and staring out the window. My father had warned me that Wally’s dementia had taken hold, and it was hard to tell if he even knew who I was. He didn’t say much during that visit - just stared at me somewhat quizzically, as if trying to place me.

I talked to him anyway, about my life, my writing, my work. I told him I’d shown the kids how to play Thirty-One - one of many card games he’d taught me when I was a child. I mentioned vacations we’d all taken together years ago, things we’d seen. The whole time, he just sat there with a half smile on his face, as though he knew he was supposed to be amused but couldn’t remember why.

Toward the end of our visit, my father and Kay left the room to get something from the apartment upstairs. When they vacated, Wally leaned in toward me, staring into my eyes. He put his hand on my knee. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you,” he said, clearly and purposefully, in the throaty whisper the cancer had replaced his voice with. I almost collapsed with relief. He remembered. He knew. For just a few short moments, he was back.

When I hugged him at the end of that trip, I knew in my heart I was saying goodbye. I didn't want to cry in front of him - I felt it inappropriate to preemptively mourn the loss of someone who was sitting right there in front of me - but I broke down as we walked away, leaving him there in his chair, staring after us.

For days afterward, memories came flooding in, as though a dam had burst - recollections of holidays, dinners out, evenings in. Visits to their seaside condo on Monterey Bay as a child, lulled to sleep by the sound of waves against the nearby shoreline. The Norwegian prayer Kay always recited before every meal, and the way Wally would touch her hand lovingly afterward and say, “Thank you, Katie” before tucking into his meal.

When I was very young - maybe three or four years old - Wally told me a good thing to do when someone was taking my picture was not to smile, but instead to make “big eyes” for the camera. This resulted in an assortment of photographs of me sitting on his lap, both of us looking at the camera with eyes wide as saucers and otherwise serious expressions on our faces.

Wally was an avid card player, and he taught me how to play hearts when I was a little girl. He instructed me about suits and who played first and - most importantly - to avoid the Queen of Spades at all costs. He had a song about that Queen - whenever the first spade would hit the tabletop, he’d start singing, under his breath and with ever-increasing volume and glee, “Smoke, smoke, smoke that biddy out!” Once, the lone child at a table full of grown-ups, I led a play with the two of diamonds, and my grandpa patted me on the shoulder and said to the table at large, “Look! This granddaughter of mine knows how to get out of the lead!” I’ll never forget the sense of pride I felt in that moment.

He gave the best hugs - squashy and uninhibited, holding nothing back. I felt safe and loved in his presence.

And his laugh! It was possibly my favorite sound in the entire world. He’d throw back his head and guffaw with abandon, his whole body convulsing. The laugh would begin with a long, hearty wheeze, as though whatever had amused him was in fact so funny that it had rendered him breathless. The wheeze would give way to a high-pitched cackle, an “ah-ha-ha-ha-ha” cascading in a perfect rhythm, as his eyes squeezed shut and his face grew red with mirth. The laugh lines permanently carved into his face were a constant reminder of his love for life, mischief and humor.

Kay used to have to shush him in restaurants; his voice carried, especially when he was particularly amused. What I wouldn’t give to hear that voice again, so inappropriately, unapologetically loud and booming.

I emailed some photos to Kay after that visit - pictures of me and Paul, the kids, our pets. “Please show Grandpa,” I wrote, and I know that she did. While he was past the point of being able to follow a conversation lasting more than twenty seconds, she reported that he never lost his appreciation for photographs. I like to think he looked at them and smiled.

Wally was a World War II veteran, and his funeral service was a traditional military one. The folded flag from the service ended up with my dad and brothers and I in our car on the way back to the retirement community, and I hugged it to my chest, wishing it was him I was holding instead.

We all know that our loved ones will pass. I knew this. Why didn’t I take the time to reach out more? Send letters every month the way I did as a kid, instead of the obligatory guilt-based emails once a year, sent off hurriedly in the midst of my busy life? Why didn’t I call? Wally was there for me when I was a child - why wasn’t I there for him as he aged? As he developed health problems? As he transitioned from a walker to a wheelchair? As dementia began fraying the corners of his mind?

In all honesty, I don’t know that I’ll ever entirely forgive myself.

I’m not religious, and my thoughts on any sort of afterlife are ambiguous at best. All the same, I find it comforting to imagine Wally playing a game of bridge somewhere in the clouds, crinkle-eyed with mischief, laughing and singing and brightening the sky with the sheer glow of his character. I find it comforting to think maybe, just maybe, he can hear me when I say…I’m sorry.

Thank you for everything, Grandpa. I’ll love you and miss you forever.

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© 2020 by Ali Owens​