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My grandfather doesn’t know me anymore.

I actually spent most of my life without a grandfather. There was one for a while in the family that adopted me, but he died when I was about three, so I vaguely remember a presence that I liked, but didn’t know him as a person. So the male presence I grew up with was a chaotic, violent alcoholic that I graduated at 16 to escape.

A week after my 30th birthday there was a message on the machine when I got home saying that there was a woman who wanted to talk to me. I had signed up with a reunion registry several years earlier and had eventually forgotten about them. They had finally found a match and were acting as go between for the initial contact with my birth family. A little sexist, I suppose, but I assumed that the woman was my mother and I was surprised to find that she was my father’s mother, who had been searching for me, as I had been for them, since I turned 18.

Getting to know my father, even though it was mostly on the phone, was amazing. We were so much alike in so many ways that it was more like finding a long lost brother than a parent. Same sense of humor, and temper. Same taste in books and sports and wilderness. The horse crazy came from my mom’s side, and I’m more of a cat person, where he had dogs, but most of the rest was my dad’s influence. We talked several times and planned an in-person meeting. He drove down to SoCal and we drove back to the Bay area together to get acquainted and then meet the rest of his side of the family.

I cannot tell you how strange, how jarring, it is to have spent 30 years as a unique individual and then walk into a room full of people that you resemble. Noses, eyes, hair, hands, laughs, smiles; all so oddly similar. To go from rumors of being French, Welsh and Chickasaw to having a genealogy going back to the 1600’s and knowing the names of your ancestors and many degrees of cousins. The last vestiges of the childhood fantasies of being an alien left to grow up among humans finally go out the window when faced with so much undeniable connectedness.

Meeting them had filled in a place I didn't know existed. We talked and made plans. My father was a diver, (scuba), something I had always wanted to learn, so we agreed that the next summer I’d come up and work up there and learn to dive with him. I was excited and deeply happy looking forward to it. But it didn’t happen that way. That September, three months after I met him, the conduction defect in his heart, (he’d had 3 aortic valve replacements and there was quite a bit of scar tissue), misfired after his morning run and in spite of living 8 short blocks from the hospital, he died. I’d only known him three months, only met him in person twice, but he was part of me and the news from my uncle on the phone left me almost unable to breathe. I cried for days, and I don’t cry. In a backhanded way it was comforting to know that I could feel so devastated. It was a measure of the depth of the connection we'd made to feel so much loss. But it didn’t help much. The only thing that helped at all was being thankful that I’d found him three months early and not three months late. That I’d had the opportunity to share so much with him in that short space.

My grandfather and I hit it off right away, too. In part, I’m sure, because the only photo of his mother, who died when he was 5, looked exactly like me. The resemblance was striking, there was no question that this was my family.

Over the years I’d get him to talk about his life. The Depression and Dustbowl that blew away the little Oklahoma town he was born in. Growing up with an alcoholic father who made him work the farm and took the money so he could stay drunk. Leaving home early and working his way through college as a surveyor, the first in his family to earn a degree. Meeting my feisty, redheaded grandmother when she was traveling in the Indian motorcycle demonstration team in 1938, and getting married right before WWII. Enlisting in the Army Air Corps and how many times he applied to flight school before getting accepted. The newspaper article announcing that he was the first American to carry both bombadier’s and pilot’s ratings. His brush with fame when he taught Jimmy Stewart to fly. His first overseas deployment to an air base in Wales to pilot B-24 Liberators over Germany and my father being born at Wright-Patt in Ohio while he was gone. How the pilots would have cuts and rashes everywhere the goggles and jackets didn’t cover because the windscreens often shattered from flak on the missions and his continued amazement at how little of a B-24 had to be left to keep it in the air. He was shot down once, earning his Purple Heart. He managed to make it to Allied territory and set it down without losing any of his crew, then spent 2 months recovering enough to pass medical again to get back up in the air.

After the war the Army Air Corps reformed into the USAF and he decided to stay in as a career officer. The Air Force sent him to MIT for a MS in meteorology and assigned him to Paris at SHAPE, Supreme Headquarters, for three years to plot potential fallout patterns during the Cold War. Then on to Alaska for a different kind of cold. Both my aunts had been born by that time and they homesteaded 80 acres in the woods outside of Anchorage near Elmendorf Air Base, an adventuresome time for all of them. He finished his career as CO of Castle AFB in Atwater, CA and retired to real estate, buying rental properties and tinkering around with the maintenance to keep himself occupied.

By the time my grandmother died, five years ago this month, he was showing definite symptoms of Alzheimer’s. He had stopped driving because he’d gotten lost in the neighborhood and scared himself and my grandmother several times. He was no longer able to keep track of things well enough to live alone, so my younger aunt, (only 7 years my senior, a very late surprise for them), moved him to central Oregon with her and my uncle. At 93, he’s physically hale, he walks 2-3 miles a day, either with a companion or on the treadmill if the weather’s bad. He used to read constantly but now he can’t read or grasp anything new. He does remember several songs and sings very happily at the senior center and dances with all the little old ladies. He’s cheerful and content unless asked to do something beyond his ability. He doesn’t talk on the phone anymore, can’t really hold a conversation, but he smiles and takes directions and seems pleased with his life as it unfolds. A couple of years ago I sent him a musical greeting card, the kind with a tab that triggers the music when it’s opened. That was a big hit. The tunes are short enough to hold his attention, they’re a pleasant surprise when he opens them, and it doesn’t matter what time of year it is, he enjoys Christmas cards and birthday cards both. Any day can be Christmas or his birthday, now.

He doesn’t know me any more, doesn’t remember that I look like his mom. I don’t think he really knows my aunt, either, except that she’s familiar and there every day. Trying to talk with him is stressful for him, I’m a stranger asking him questions he doesn’t know the answers to. So I send packets of cards. They’re new every time he opens them, they surprise him and give him great pleasure. And he can put them down and walk away when he's bored, there's no pressure to be polite or expectations of acknowlegement. He’ll sit and open one after another and listen to them play for hours. It’s all I can do now to brighten his life and show him that I love him.

Originally posted to FarWestGirl on Mon Feb 09, 2009 at 05:15 PM PST.

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