Psychologists have a term for your memories of occasions that are so traumatic you can remember everything about them in photographic detail. They are called “flashbulb memories.”
On February 17, 2005, I realized that I had left my phone on my desk as I walked to class. There was no time to turn back and get it, so I went about my day, stopping at the library afterwards to study. As I left, and headed back to the dorm, I ran into my roommate, who said that my phone had rung a dozen times, and my parents had called looking for me. I started to panic – were they just being paranoid because they couldn’t get in touch with me, or was something more troubling afoot? After the events of the previous month, my sense of security had been shaken enough that I hastened back to call home.
The news I received was worse than I could have imagined. Like some sort of sick joke, one month after losing Paw Paw, I had lost my Grandpa Jack to a sudden heart attack. I was incredulous; I actually thought my parents were kidding, despite the fact that the death of a loved one is no laughing matter. It just didn’t seem possible.
I had just seen Grandpa Jack a few days before for lunch at my Aunt Faye’s house. He had seemed healthy, and completely in his prime. He was still working five days a week, and was as charmingly ornery as ever. How could he possibly be gone?
My cousins Jeff and Candy picked me up at school, their SUV laden with food for the mourners, and drove me over to Du Quoin for the wake and the funeral. I don’t remember much of that time – I was numb with grief. In the course of a month, I had become suddenly grandpa-less. It was too much loss for me to fathom.
For most of my life, I had been not just an only child; the age gap between my dad and his sisters had made me an only grandchild until I was in my late teens. Unfortunately, because we lived so far away, I mostly only saw Grandpa Jack a few times a year, but when I would go down for my annual summer visit, he would always take me out on Sunday, when he would meet with his friends for coffee, and show me off. Grandpa Jack had always been so proud to have me as his granddaughter.
I think the best illustration of the kind of man that he was, and the love, pride, and loyalty that he had for his family, is this story: When I was graduating from high school, my parents invited all of our relatives up to Chicago for a huge celebration. I scrambled to secure as many of the limited tickets to the ceremony as I could, and it wasn’t easy, by any stretch of the imagination. Despite all of our warnings that the weather in late-May would not be temperate by any means, most of our family did not pack accordingly, and when the day of my graduation rolled around, it was downright frigid. Everyone ended up opting to skip the outdoor ceremony because it was too cold – everyone except Grandpa Jack. He was the only person out of our extended family who was willing to tough out the elements to support me. He might have been half-frozen, but he knew how much it meant to me, and I will never forget what he did for me that day, and how proud he was of me.
I'm not sure how much my cousins will remember about Grandpa Jack when they are older. They were still young when he passed away, and some of them had not even been born yet. I was truly the fortunate one, to have had so much time with him, but if there is one thing I could pass along to my cousins about Grandpa Jack, it would be the pride that he would have had in all of them as well.