Sunday, October 9, 2011

My Grandpa, Otis

I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandpa lately. He passed away about 9 years ago.

Otis was always one of my heroes, for reasons I’ve never really been able to put into words. He was just a solid dude. The epitome of a good man. I never heard him curse; not one single time. Normally I’d say that was a bad thing; a lack of “color”. Everyone else I’ve ever known I’ve heard curse in some way. But not my grandpa. He was consistent. I know he dealt with things in his life that caused him a lot of pain; I see it now that I’m older and understand what was happening in those situations better. But, at the time, he never complained. He was a rock.

The first time I ever really got a good feel for the kind of man he was, I was probably a sophomore or junior in high school. He played guitar as a hobby; nothing serious, just “noodling” around. He loved music and taught himself to play. When I was a sophomore in high school, I expressed my interest in learning to play the guitar and he gave me his. Him not exactly being a “serious musician”, I knew his gift was generous but I guess it didn’t seem that dramatic. Or maybe I was just a stupid 15 year old boy.

I came home from school one day and he was there. I worked a few hours a day at his part-time job, so he was picking me up for work. He wasn’t waiting in his car, though, as he usually was; he was in the house. When I went in, I didn’t see him anywhere. Then I heard music. He was in my room – a place he’d never expressed interest in before, playing the guitar he’d given me several months back. That’s when I realized what he’d sacrificed for me.

I’ve taken some lessons with that guitar over the years and done a little “noodling” of my own, but I really need to learn to play that thing. Honor his gift.

A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook, “In the 'old' days, people would invite friends over to listen to records. Imagine that."

That reminded me of a time, shortly before my grandpa went into the hospital for surgery – where he would eventually pass away. My grandma called me on the telephone and told me grandpa wanted me to bring over some of my old country music to listen to together.

Otis and I didn’t have that much in common. He was a tough guy. Very outdoorsy, very handy, very into watching sports on TV. I’m none of that. But as I grew older and developed an interest in roots music, we developed a strong bond over our love of vintage country music.

So I went over that day and took some CDs. I remember listening to some Roy Acuff and an album, new at the time, of modern artists covering Webb Pierce songs. I know there were others, too.

It felt a little awkward. Otis was not at all a warm fuzzy guy. He’d say he loved you, but only if you said it first. And it wasn’t anywhere near “emotional” when he returned the sentiment. So I knew it was a big deal that he asked grandma to call me and have me come over. I was happy to do it, and looking back on it, I treasure that memory.

When he went into the hospital, I felt like I should call him the day before his surgery. I did and we chitchatted awkwardly about nothing, really. After a few minutes I wrapped things up and he said, “I’m glad you called.” He’d never – ever – said anything like that to me before. Sometimes you have those moments that make you uncomfortable and you don’t go through with them. Usually you wish you had gone ahead with it. Once in a while, you do go through with it; and you know you got it right.

The other memory I’ve been thinking about is after grandpa’s surgery. He was in something not unlike a coma – but it wasn’t officially called that. He was in and out of coherence.

Sometimes he’d wake up and talk nonsense, sometimes he just didn’t respond, and sometimes you could talk to him and he’d communicate without talking. He’d move his mouth, squeeze your hand, or nod/shake his head.

On one trip to see him in the hospital in St. Louis, I was riding with my grandma and talking to her about my serious girlfriend (now my wife). I decided on that trip that it was time to go ahead and propose. My grandma and I made plans to visit a jewelry store after we spent some time with grandpa in the hospital.

During our time with grandpa, I mentioned to him that I was planning to ask Amber to marry me and I asked him if he thought that was a good idea. He squeezed my hand, mumbled some things I couldn’t understand, and nodded his head; a definite yes. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was alert enough to know what I was saying to him then. And I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that grandpa was telling me to ask Amber to marry me.

I did. And, while I would have done it either way, I’m glad I got to talk to my grandpa about it in some way.

In our society, we communicate a lot. We’re bombarded with messages. We talk continually. We update everyone we can on every aspect of our lives, in real time, in 140-character posts.

But Otis was quiet. He didn’t say much. When he did speak, he was to the point. When you hung out with Otis, you didn’t need to talk a lot, usually. You could just sit in his presence and feel good. He spoke when he needed to, but only then.

That’s why, when I was in a bad relationship several years ago and everyone on earth was telling me what I already knew – that I needed to get out of it – and I wasn’t listening to anyone…I DID listen when I heard Otis say, “He needs to get rid of that girl.” I didn’t do it immediately, but his saying that made me stop long enough to really think about it. If Otis opened his mouth and went out on a limb like that, it must have been important.

I remember him telling me once that he had put on weight and had recently taken it off and gotten back to his goal weight. I asked him how he’d done it – another one of those things in our society, right? Every time someone has success in weight loss, they detail the fancy and expensive program they used to do it. Not Otis. His response? “I ate less”.

Humble wisdom. Simple integrity. Unabashed love of family. Quiet strength.

Doing the right thing because it’s the right thing. Always.

I miss you, Otis.

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