Jennifer Bridgman

A Grandpa's Hands

I knew that I'd miss your chuckle...your sky-blue eyes twinkling across the dinner table...your wool sweater against my cheek when we hugged hello. I knew that I'd miss your stories and how your subtle Oklahoman accent would emerge if someone had gotten to “hoopin’ and hollerin’ and what have you.” I knew that I'd miss stepping into your garage, your orderly temple of tools and gadgets and golf clubs and fishing poles…the scent of leather and wood, of mustiness and manhood, of honest work and plenty of play. But it’s your hands I've been thinking of most lately. Your strong, sturdy hands that I’d come to know so well. Skilled hands. Protective hands. Soft hands that belied their history of a life that wasn’t always so easy. Now after ninety years, those hands are forever still.

You were born in rural Oklahoma, the second youngest of seven children. Although you grew up dirt-poor, stories of your youth were rich in adventure and recounted with fondness. Did the dusty remains of your days spent playing in the field ever fully wash from your hands, no matter how many times your mama told you to wash up before supper? And with so many hands reaching across the dinner table, was there ever enough food to go around to fill your belly? Tragedy struck your family when you were just a toddler. Did you press your palms together atop your bed at night, praying to a Pa that could now only hear you from Heaven? And how many hours did your hands spend practicing that cursive writing, with all those elegant curves and careful loops? Despite having only an eighth-grade education, your penmanship was flawless and the envy of many. By age thirteen, your young hands had grown wise beyond their years. They knew how to pluck cotton from dried bristles, filling the sack on your back until it outweighed you. They knew how to affix a horse’s bridle and plow the fields. They knew how to light a cigarette and how to go “pick a switch” when you’d earned yourself a licking. Your hands knew how it felt to reach into pockets and encounter only threads, so you left home in search of work and survival. Those hands had grabbed onto a moving freight train and held on tight, your uncharted future rolling out on the tracks below. You traveled around, finding yourself on a ranch in Wyoming, with a saddle for a seat and reins in your hands. You found yourself behind the wheel of a truck in Kentucky and behind the original McDonald's hamburger stand in San Bernardino.

But it was in Minnesota that you met Grandma. What was it like the first time you took her hand in yours? Did your hand grow clammy and shake with nerves? Or was it still, knowing instantly that neither of you would let go for next sixty-three years?

You served on a naval destroyer in the Pacific during WWII, missing the birth of your first child. How often did homesickness cause your hands to pull out a photograph of your wife and son? You made friends wherever you went--while stationed overseas was no exception. I suspect that your love of card games, storytelling and some good, old-fashioned pranks had something to do with your popularity. One of your favorite stories involved a ploy between you and your sailor buddies: you were to steal dessert for the group one night while serving on watch duty. When the time was right, you made your move. Well, apparently it was dark in that ship’s supply room and your hands fooled you; despite your bravery, your cohorts weren’t too impressed with the large tub of onions that you’d smuggled back.

After the war, you went to work--on building a life with your young family and on the shipyards around San Francisco. But it wasn’t long before your hands discovered their true passion: working on cars. Over the coming years, your hands mastered the art of automotive repairs, and before long, they'd helped promote you to shop manager. Eventually, you would open your own auto body repair shop in Mountain View, trading the grease and grit on your hands for a pen and an honest handshake. Oh, the pride I felt driving by your building or seeing one of your tow trucks around town with our family name emblazoned on the side.

In 1960, your hands and heart were suddenly fuller than you could have ever imagined with the birth of your sweet baby girl. This was a different kind of parenting experience, as you were no longer a twenty-year-old newlywed, just home from the war. You’d had sixteen years to discover the difference between fathering a child and being someone’s dad. Carol was your pride and joy, an auburn-haired beauty with angelic features. At the same time your hands were teaching your daughter how to tie her shoes and ride a bike, they were waving farewell to your son, now suddenly a grown man headed off to Vietnam. Your hands stayed busy during those years--working at the shop, dancing with your wife, bowling with your buddies, clinking glasses at the local watering hole, praying for your son’s safe return, and cheering for your daughter as she became an accomplished horse rider.

What did your hands do on that fateful evening when tragedy came knocking on your door again, this time dressed as two uniformed police officers with their hats at their sides? Did your hands go numb as the world around you shattered to pieces? Did they reach out to catch Grandma? Or did they furl into fists, searching for anything to break as you screamed questions without answers into the dark night sky? I wonder if it was you who had to call Carol’s fiancée and break the news…that the person holding the key to his every hope and dream had just perished on an icy black road in the Sierras. How long did it take your hands to dial that final seventh digit to Randy’s home? And whose hands had to box up her wedding gown that would now never be worn, the veil that would now never be lifted? What about the decorations--the napkins, the candies and the matchbooks all imprinted with a date that now symbolized the end of a dream, not the beginning of one? Your hands couldn’t bear to throw these things out, and so they sat in your attic for over thirty years, hidden from the world but always with you, just like your pain. Your hands must’ve wiped away countless colossal tears, but like that young teen riding the rails, you knew that in order to survive, one must keep his grip tight and his eyes forward. 

I later learned that you were a fierce competitor, a tough negotiator, and not the most patient of men (just ask any doctor who left you waiting more than ten minutes.) Rumor had it that you’d been involved in a bar fight or two over the years, enjoyed your whiskey almost as much as your cigars, and had even impersonated a police officer to prank a friend. But this is not the grandpa I knew. Your hands removed splinters from my bare feet and built puzzles with me; they played beauty parlor with me and Jessie, never daring to remove the purple barrettes we placed around your head; they taught me how to hook a worm and stand up on two skis behind your boat; they manned the barbecue at family dinners and patted my shoulder when some guy had broken my heart; they mailed countless cards, never missing a birthday, graduation, Valentine’s Day, Easter or Christmas; they signed the checks that helped put me through college, and they picked up a hammer and nails when my home needed repairs.

Being an avid card player, your hands knew when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. For years, those hands served you well on the golf course, too. Every week, even well into your eighties, your hands had gripped a club, driven a golf cart and raised a glass at the 19th hole alongside your buddies. Your hands were never happier than at Christmastime, wrapping gift after gift for your loved ones. We grandchildren never had to stop believing in the magic of Christmas because Santa Claus was a reality in our family--he just went by the name “Grandpa Charley” and lived down the street. A man of impeccable taste, you never failed to buy yourself a few Patrick James sweaters and matching slacks, naturally signing the tag “From, Santa” and acting impressed with the “surprise” inside the box.

You hung on so bravely after Grandma died. You continued going through the motions, politely asking all the right questions and laughing at all the right punch lines. It must have been devastating, however, to go on without your best friend, to wake up each morning in a house suddenly far too big and far too quiet. How long did it take for your hands to stop reaching for her in the middle of the night, or did they never stop? You were as devoted to Grandma in her death as you were to her in life, even mowing the lawn around her headstone yourself when the cemetery’s gardeners didn’t do it to your liking. You visited the cemetery frequently, your two lovely ladies now buried side by side. Did you ever grow accustomed to seeing those familiar names etched in stone, or did the sight cause your hands to draw out your handkerchief every single time? Did you ever reach down as I've done myself, praying that somehow the love in your heart could extend through your fingertips and magically penetrate stone, space and time to reach them?

Day by day, life went on until almost six years passed. Every night, you dressed to impress down to your polished loafers for dinner at my parents' home just around the corner. What a gift that was to witness: a father-son duo who were truly the best of friends and a daughter-in-law who loved you every bit as much as the dad who'd raised her. Those six years may have been the most difficult for you, but they hold some of my fondest memories. During those six years, you bonded with my future husband, you witnessed me walk down the aisle, and you rejoiced with me as I became a mother. Seeing you cradle your two-hours-old great-grandson in the maternity ward was one of the proudest moments of my life. By the time you neared ninety, you had outlived most of your doctors, your friends, and all but one of your siblings. The family did our best to keep you busy: five great-grandchildren all within a ten-mile radius. You were still on your A-game, remembering every detail about our lives and tackling most of those pesky home improvement jobs yourself. But your hands began to warn me. I watched them tremble as you’d unzip your coat or raise a fork to your lips. It must’ve been heartbreaking when your hands could no longer sign your name with all those elegant loops, or when they were forced to hand over the keys to your beloved Cadillac. By the time doctors had diagnosed your Parkinson’s, it had taken a firm grip on you. The medications made you hallucinate; they gave you nightmares while you were awake and asleep. Your doctors couldn’t offer much of a solution--just that added glance of compassion we all understood the meaning behind. I detested the breathing tubes and how much older you looked in those hospital gowns, but I would have selfishly preferred you stay on like that for years if it meant not having to say goodbye.

But then one day, I was holding your hand when you awoke from a nap. Your throat was parched after naps, which made it difficult for you to talk. I leaned in close, never sure what kind of state you’d be in when first waking up. “Hi, Grandpa. Jenny’s here. Are you thirsty? I have water for you.”

“Where’s Grandma?” you whispered.

My heart skipped a beat. “What?” I finally managed. I felt guilty for making you repeat yourself when you were so hoarse, but I needed to stall while figuring out how to respond.

“Did Grandma die?” you asked.

“Oh, Grandpa,” I cried, dropping my head to your shoulder. For weeks, I'd been doing my best to keep my tears confined to the hospital corridors, but it was no use that day; I had soaked your shoulder in no time. “Grandma is in such a happy place…she’s been waiting patiently to see you again.” I knew then that it was time to let you go. To lose a spouse would be heart-wrenching; to experience the initial loss over and over would be unimaginable.

You left us so gracefully. A quick decline, but one that granted us time to say all those things that needed to be said. Even in death, you seemed to be thinking of us. Letting go was easier because I was able to mourn while still holding your warm hand. I wrote you a letter and kept it in my purse for those final weeks. The first few times I read it at your bedside, I’d waited until you were asleep--you'd always been uncomfortable with too much attention. But I had things to say and not a lot of time to say them, so I began reading my letter when I knew you could hear me. I held your hands for many hours, and when you grew too weary to whisper or even open your eyes, it was our hands that continued to do the talking.

I visited you during the day and again at night, leaving only after the end credits of Wheel of Fortune were rolling on the muted television set that nobody had watched anyway. I brushed your hair, massaged your feet and curled up beside you, singing along to the Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Patsy Cline that played on my iPhone. Your breathing became labored, sometimes stopping all together. I would stare, not breathing myself, wondering…but then your lungs would start up again. I would feel relief, but it was a selfish relief as I knew you wouldn’t have wanted to go on like this. Long gone were the baby spoons I’d brought from home to feed you pudding, ice cream and yogurt. Nurses had even stopped leaving Dixie Cups with ice chips on your bedside tray. Your collarbone became prominent, your eyelids stayed shut. The end was near. I never cried harder than on the drive home after witnessing Jeff so gently apply ointment to your parched lips while Jessie whispered in your ear, “We want you to rest now, Grandpa. We love you so much, and we’re all going to be okay. Just rest now.”

On our last evening together, I brushed your hair and held your hands. Your feet had grown cool to my touch, and a peek under the sheet confirmed they were turning a bluish-black tint, just as the nurses had told us they would. I cried, blew my nose forty times, and kissed your cheek goodbye. I turned at the doorway, looking back one last time to memorize every detail, admiring your shiny hair and thinking how handsome you looked.

Back at home, I felt numb. I waited until Chris and I had gotten both boys down before I stood in the bathroom and allowed myself to crack. “I’m not ready for this!” I sobbed, setting down my toothbrush. I sunk down into a ball and rocked back on my heels, head in my hands, tears flowing. "I never should have told him it was okay for him to go!”

Chris responded in the perfect way--by saying nothing at all and just crying a bit, too. Both of his grandfathers had passed away before he could know them, so you had become the grandpa he never had. I turned my ringer off before bed, but I awoke in the middle of the night anyway. I knew before reaching for my phone that there would be a message, and I already knew what it would say.

We buried you on May 29th--on what would have been yours and Grandma’s seventieth wedding anniversary. The day was a fitting celebration of your life--good friends gathered around to tell good stories. I knew, however, that the real party was going on somewhere upstairs; it must’ve been quite a reunion with plenty of hoopin’ and hollerin’ and what have you. On the drive from the burial to the reception, I looked over at Chris and remarked, "Well, that was perfect. So how come I feel even worse now?” We’d all been so focused on the funeral preparations that the finality of losing you hadn’t sunk in yet. Tears slipped down behind my sunglasses. “It’s like I expect him to be sitting on the couch when we walk in. He’s just always been there. How do we go on without him?”

Chris met my gaze, emotions swelling in his own eyes, and simply responded, “I think what we do now is just focus on the people who re still here…and just love them even more. That’s what Grandpa Charley would have wanted.”

Weeks later, the whole family began gathering to clean out your house. Room by room, cupboard by cupboard, I grew even closer to you. Each of the men took a pair of your cowboy boots, and I took it as another sign from above that I’d met my ideal mate when your size eleven’s fit his feet like a glove. I discovered that you’d saved every greeting card I'd ever mailed you, just as I'd saved yours. I took a shoebox of mementos home with me, but I knew the real treasures of our relationship would be stored an untouchable place, never to fade.

Grandpa, while I will never again take your hand in mine, you will never stop touching my soul. May you rest in peace.

Click here to watch "Grandpa Charley, In Memoriam," a video montage.