On Love and Loss

My Grandpa Rodgers’ health had been declining for the past few years.

Elizabeth with Grandma & Grandpa Rodgers

In 2008, about six months after I’d separated from the Air Force, he suffered a stroke. Since I’d moved back to California after my military career ended, visiting him at the hospital in Fontana was relatively easy. Seeing him in that state, however, was not.

James Dewan Rodgers enlisted in the Army in 1946, as soon as he was old enough to do so. His father, Charles, had served in the Navy after World War I, and he later had transitioned to a civilian position at a Naval Shipyard in California, where he settled with his family, leaving his home state of Indiana behind. In 1952, Jim–by now transitioned to the new U.S. Air Force, which had split off from the Army in 1947–married Darlene Phillips, from his father’s hometown, and in 1953, their son James Patrick–my father–was born. They would go on to have three daughters, and raised their family in Chino, California, where they would remain for decades to come. Jim retired from the California Air National Guard in 1988, having completed more than four decades in service to his nation and state.

Rodgers family, 1960

After his stroke, my grandfather was unable to walk unassisted, and he was completely unable to drive. His wit and kindness, despite his newfound disability, remained undimmed. When he finally accepted that he would likely never drive again, my grandfather chose to give his truck to me, rather than sell it or let it sit, unused, in his garage. I was unable to afford a vehicle, given my finances, so my grandfather’s act of kindness was as much a godsend as it was unexpected. I tried to visit my grandparents as often as I could, now that I had the means to do so, but my busy work and school schedules prevented me from visiting as often as I’d have liked.

My grandfather’s health remained relatively stable over the next few years, so far as I could tell, though age was continuing to take its toll. In April 2011, he was hospitalized once again, and when he was finally released to go home, he was placed under the care of an in-home hospice program. The end was coming, and my family began to gather.

As I spent more and more of my time at my grandparents’ home in Chino, my academics began to slip. Fortunately, most of my professors were willing to work with me, but one remained firm on the workload and deadlines for his course, and I received my first failing grade in more than a decade. It was unpleasant, but I reasoned that, while I could repeat the course, my time with my grandfather was limited.

Jim & Darlene Rodgers, 1988

After my grandfather passed away, just before the start of finals at Cal State Fullerton, I realized something profound: the last words he ever said to me, as I helped my aunts care for him in his final days, were “Thank you.” Even to the end, he was a kind, gentle man. The visitation was held a few days later, at a funeral home in Montclair, which was located next to Chino. Fortunately, although it was finals week, I didn’t have class that day. The next day was another story.

Again, fortunately, the final scheduled for the day of the funeral wasn’t an in-class test, but a 15-page paper, which my professor was kind enough to allow me to turn in several days late. Despite having much of my attention focused elsewhere, I still managed to pass three of the four classes I was taking.

My grandfather was buried at Riverside National Cemetery, with full military honors. My brother, Kevin, spent two days meticulously preparing my grandfather’s uniform, ensuring that there wouldn’t be a single thread out of place for the funeral. One of my cousins was on the March Joint Air Reserve Base Honor Guard, and led the funeral detail; as the leader of the detail, he was the one who presented the flag that had been draped over the casket to my grandmother.

In addition to family members, there were dozens of senior officers and enlisted personnel from March in attendance, who had either served with my grandfather while he was in the military, or worked with him after he became involved in his unit’s Retiree Association. The minister said a few, brief words. My grandfather had requested there not be a huge funeral, just a simple burial. As the Honor Guard fired off a 21-gun salute, and bugler began to play Taps, there wasn’t a single dry eye in the crowd.  All of the grandsons in attendance were asked to step forward. We took our places as pallbearers, and carried our grandfather’s casket to a waiting van, which would then take its precious cargo from the pavilion where the ceremony had taken place to my grandfather’s grave site.

Soon, the routine of work and school consumed my schedule once again. I took two classes during the summer, and passed them both. Fall semester began, and my workload increased. I tried to visit my grandmother, but the multitude of commitments I’d made left me too tired to leave my apartment most weekends.

In late September, about a month into the new semester, my mother called and Facebook began to buzz with updates from my relatives in the Midwest: both of my mother’s parents had been hospitalized. My grandmother was moved to an assisted living facility near my Aunt Nancy’s house in Madison, Wisconsin, while my grandfather was placed in hospice at the same facility.

Bob & Lorraine Harlan

Bob Harlan was born in 1929 in Richland Center, Wisconsin. The son of Frank James Harlan, a veteran of the First World War, Bob was fascinated by anything with an engine, and he loved dogs. In 1948, he married Lorraine Burke. Since Lorraine was Catholic, and Bob was Baptist, they weren’t allowed to marry inside the Catholic church; instead, they were married in the priest’s residence next door. As they left, the priest leaned over and told one of my great-grandmothers, “Don’t worry. It won’t last two weeks.” Sixty-four years later, my grandparents were still as devoted to one another as they were in 1948.

My grandfather’s health began to decline quickly. On October 9th, after my family had joined him, he passed away. I wasn’t able to be there for his final days, as I had for my Grandpa Rodgers. The next day, as soon as I received the funeral arrangements, I spent most of what savings I’d managed to build during the semester, and secured airline tickets to return to Wisconsin for the funeral.

My mother met me at the airport, and took me to my Aunt Nancy’s house. My mom and my niece, Elizabeth, were also staying there, and this would be the first time I had seen either of them in five years. Elizabeth lived with my mom on the East Coast, where my mother worked as a teacher for the military’s on-base school system. Elizabeth had recently completed her Silver Award in Girl Scouts, and had set her sights firmly on becoming a crime scene investigator. She had gone from being a precocious little girl the last time I had seen her, to a driven, focused teenager.

Bob & Lorraine Harlan

The next evening, after visiting my grandmother, I joined my Uncle Greg, as well as my cousins Dan, Nick, and Jesse, at a nearby pub. As we watched the Brewers game, we commiserated over drinks and wings. I don’t get to spend much time with that part of my family, since I’m living two thousand miles away, so I enjoyed it while I was there.

The visitation the next day was a mix of emotions for me. It was the first time I had seen my grandfather since my visit at Christmas. I knew the body lying in the coffin was him, but it just didn’t look like the grandfather I remembered. He didn’t have the little smile on his face (which easily broke into a big one with an accompanying chuckle) that he always had in life. My Uncle Jack was an ordained Catholic Deacon, and led a brief memorial service. After he finished speaking, he invited us to share our memories. Several of my relatives stood and spoke, and it was moving to hear their recollections of my grandfather.

The next day, we drove from Madison to my grandparents’ hometown of Richland Center. The funeral service there was led by a minister from the Baptist church that my grandfather attended as a boy. It seemed to me that she was simply reading from a script, and didn’t know anything about my grandfather at all. Some of the things she said simply didn’t ring true to what I knew of him, and it had none of the personal touches that marked the words spoken by my Uncle Jack the day before.

After the service ended, five of my cousins–my Aunt Steph’s sons, Mark and Jesse, and my Aunt Kathy’s son, Dan, and her step-sons, Mike and Matt–served as pallbearers, carrying my grandfather’s casket to the hearse outside. We drove across town to the cemetery, which was divided in half: Catholic and non-Catholic. Although my grandfather was Baptist, my grandmother was Catholic, and she’d made it clear that if he wanted to be buried with her, it would be on the Catholic side. Naturally, my grandparents’ grave site was located next to my grandmother’s parents.

Once the funeral procession had parked at the cemetery, I made my way up the line of cars to the hearse. I, my brother Kevin, and my Aunt Nancy’s sons–Nick, Justin, and Jordan–would serve as the pallbearers carrying my grandfather to his final resting place. The ground was uneven, and my cousin Matt quickly stepped in to help us by balancing the number of pallbearers to an even six. The moment we placed the casket atop the open grave, I felt a far greater sense of finality than when we had simply placed my Grandpa Rodgers’ casket in the back of a van.

The minister spoke briefly, and seemed to bristle when my Uncle Jack began to speak after she had finished. My grandmother was given one of the bouquets of flowers, and my aunts and uncles were each given individual flowers from another bouquet. One of my great uncles had been sitting on a nearby headstone; it turned out to be his own, shared with his wife, who had died several years earlier. He quipped that “this is probably the only time I’ll sit on this side of it.”

We drove to the Baptist church, where a reception had been prepared in the basement. The gathered family all commiserated our loss, and shared our memories for a couple of hours. There were tears, to be sure, but there was also a good deal of laughter as my grandfather’s wit and humor was recalled.

Me & Elizabeth

The next morning, I went to church with my family: my mom, my grandmother, Elizabeth, my Aunt Nancy and Uncle Greg, Greg’s parents, and my Aunt Kathy and Uncle Jack. After the mass ended, we joined my Aunt Steph and my cousin, Sarah, in taking my grandmother out to brunch. After brunch, my mom, Elizabeth and I went out to the House on the Rock, which was about halfway between Madison and Richland Center, in part because we’d never been there, but also because my grandfather, a truck driver, helped transport much of the carousel’s components there from across the country while it was being built in the 1960s and ’70s. We toured the buildings for a couple of hours, until it closed at 5 p.m. We returned to Madison, and prepared to leave for opposite sides of the country.

The next morning, we visited my grandmother one last time before leaving Wisconsin. We spent a few hours at her new home in the assisted living facility, but eventually we had to leave. We returned to my Aunt Nancy and Uncle Greg’s house, and my mom and Elizabeth loaded their belongings into their car for the return trip to North Carolina. I finished packing my bags for my flight back to California, which would leave later that evening.

Losing both of my grandfathers in the span of only five months was difficult, but having my family there helped make the aftermath easier each time. I was especially pleased to see Elizabeth, and seeing her accomplishments and growth over the last several years was particularly gratifying. I’ll miss both of my grandfathers, and I wish they could have lived long enough to see me graduate from college in 2012, but I know they’re in a better place now.

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