BY ANNA BAUMAN, JMC3023
If not for the gravestones dotting the hillside, a stranger might have mistaken us for a misplaced bunch of St. Patrick’s Day fanatics.
Clad in green from head to foot, we certainly looked the part. It was an overcast June afternoon when we gathered at the familiar cemetery minutes from home and donned feathery green scarves, leprechaun hats and a mish-mash of other Irish-themed items pulled hastily from basement boxes.
My cousins and I wore sweatshirts hand-painted with letters spelling out “O’Sullivan” — relics from decades of marching proudly in the Kansas City St. Patrick’s Day parade. We wound slowly up the hill behind blaring bagpipes, unsure whether to smile or cry or both. Some hands carried flags while others clutched arms for support.
Even in all-out parade mode, the atmosphere turned somber as we neared the gravesite. Deep down each of us knew that, despite our showy and colorful appearance, there was a gaping hole no amount of green could fill.
One vital presence was missing from our midst. His absence was deeply felt and was, of course, the reason hundreds of relatives had poured in from across the city and country to be there that day.
In minutes we arrived at the tented area where a freshly dug hole marked the spot we would lay my grandpa to rest. Beneath the dogwood tree he’d planted years ago and next to three worn headstones, it was a spot he’d frequented too often — eight months ago after his beloved wife Katy’s unexpected passing, 11 years ago when his oldest son Tom lost a battle to colon cancer, 20 years ago when his youngest son Tim was killed in a boating accident — and all the quiet moments in between.
The tree’s slender limbs, now slung with blossoming white petals, reached out as if to catch our tears.
Although our hearts ached, the festive farewell was fitting for a man whose spirit and tenacity will live forever in his greatest legacy: his sprawling, proud and inexplicably green family.
I was in sixth grade the first time I became convinced that Grandpa’s death was imminent.
We were eating dinner one night at Jalapeño’s — a neighborhood favorite with the best salsa and greasiest tacos in town. The waitresses had pulled two or three tables together to accommodate the assortment of aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents who were gathered, like usual, to celebrate a birthday.
I sat squished between my cousins, kicking each other under the table and sneakily pouring salt into drinks, as the adults droned on about so-and-so’s arthritis or the latest episode of “The Bachelorette.” Grandma threw her hands up with a glance toward heaven and wondered aloud why no one bothered listening to her.
I reached for another chip, and exchanged a bemused look with Grandpa. He leaned over and gave me one of his sly side grins, blue eyes glinting with pride.
“We sure are lucky, you know that?”
Nodding through a mouthful of chips and salsa, I looked around at the laughing faces we called family and felt my heart swell.
The noise of the bustling restaurant and side conversations fell away as I soaked up Grandpa’s attention — usually split between so many of us — bestowed on just me that night as a rare gift from the man I adored.
He delivered nuggets of wisdom with such earnest conviction — our family is better than any other around, Kansas City is by far the best place in the world to live and, without a doubt, he had lived the greatest life of anyone he knew.
I had no choice but to agree as he recounted wild tales as big as the fish he claimed to have caught. At the ripe age of 14 – or was it 12? – he hitchhiked to California on his own. He dangled from an airplane whizzing over Africa while stationed overseas as a fighter pilot. He traveled with the Kansas City Chiefs to the Super Bowl in 1970. He ate steak and ice cream every night for dinner.
Most of all, I learned, he loved a good story. And for as boldy as he talked, he lived his life with just as much gumption.
In reality, his life looked more like this: born and raised by poor Irish immigrants in Kansas City, Missouri, educated by nuns at a Catholic school, drafted as an airplane mechanic for four years during the Korean War, married to his beautiful Kate who gave him six children in eight years, broke by a risky career as a stockbroker and worn out by decades of diabetes, heart disease and, toward the end, dementia.
But I like his version better.
That night, as he regaled me with story after story, I’d never felt so special as in that moment when it seemed as if it was just the two of us sitting at the table together.
I went home that night and cried myself to sleep for no apparent reason other than the childish conviction that Grandpa was about to die — and leave me the sole keeper of all his worldly knowledge. I dutifully scribbled everything I could remember from our conversation in a notebook and tucked it away for safekeeping.
My naive 12-year-old self was wrong — nearly 10 years would pass before I got the call I had expectantly dreaded since that night.
Hundreds of miles from home, I was just settling into my reporting internship at a newspaper in the heart of Oklahoma City. It was a Monday morning, and I was sitting at my desk contemplating what to eat for lunch when my phone buzzed.
A text from Dad. He wanted me to call.
My heart sank.
Palms sweaty and a little queasy, I stepped into the cold, white hallway and clutched the phone to my ear. Although I had anticipated the bad news for so long, hearing my dad’s tired voice form the words was a punch to the gut.
Walking mechanically down the hallway with Dad murmuring comforting words in my ear, I stepped into the bright, sunny morning and found myself sitting on a bench. I watched as strangers bustled by, Subway lunches in hand. I wanted them to glance my way, to see my pain and know the world had just changed forever, to offer their condolences. But of course, they just kept walking.
We sat quietly like that for a few more minutes. There was no need for words, and besides, there was nothing left to say.
It was the end.
Even as my heart was breaking, I felt utterly normal and strangely peaceful all at once. It wasn’t until that night, alone in my apartment, when I noticed the color of my shirt — kelly green — and collapsed crying on my closet floor.
It hurt that I’d never again get to lean down and kiss my grandpa on the cheek. Or see him come shuffling through the front door with a grin. Or hear him again sing out, “Oh beautiful one,” when he saw me.
Just weeks before, I had visited Grandpa’s nursing home on my way out of town. His body and mind had withered so he was but a shell of the man who had once taught me how to properly spear a minnow with a fishing hook.
All 87 of his years showed — his papery skin stretched taut over his cheekbones, his pale blue eyes sunk deep into his skull.
We ate ice cream and he insistently pushed play on the CD player that crooned the same song over and over: “When Irish eyes are smiling, ‘tis like a morn in spring.” The rest of us groaned, but the lilting melody seemed to bring him peace.
On my way out, I wheeled him to the lobby where a tacky DJ was playing jazzy tunes from a boombox in front of a line of wheelchairs and their fading occupants. Before I could kiss him goodbye, he wanted me to dance for him. I laughed, and obliged with a little half-hearted hip-shaking and head-bobbing, while he made a silly face, wiggled in his chair and swung his arms to the beat.
So close to the end, his watery blue eyes still glimmered with a mischievous glint of good-natured humor.
Maybe, if I’d have known that would be the last time I’d see him, I wouldn’t have left in such a rush.
If there’s one thing Grandpa taught me, it’s that there is always time enough to dance.
I’m still grappling to see life through those eyes – those watery, pale blue eyes that smiled so lovingly on the world. Joy beamed from his every pore, even in the midst of hardship. He always had a line to leave me laughing when we parted ways, like his favorite joke – “I’m so glad you got to see me!”
“Me too, Grandpa, me too,” I’d say with a smirk.
I hope he knows I truly meant it.