It’s funny how life connects you with people. An invisible net that pulls us together, in the most unlikely of places, often when we need it most. When the factory Pops worked for closed up shop, they offered him a position in their home plant, in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. After some tough conversations, he decided to move south, by himself, to keep his job. Those first months were beyond lonely, but I’ll never forget the phone call he told me about from Howard’s son, Wayne, who would now live just over an hour away from him, in Hunstville.
“Hey there, little brother,” Wayne said when Pops picked up the phone. Pops’ smile is big and genuine when he tells the story. Such a friendly voice, the warm welcome of family in a place where he felt so alone.
I drove down one of those years, during my Spring Break, to spend the week with him. It was a beautiful place, green and wild and natural in all the ways Chicago wasn’t. But that apartment was lonely. Leaving him there, at the end of the trip, was real agony. But that’s a different story. During the week there, we drove over to Huntsville, as it happened that, overlapping my trip to see Pops, was Grandma and Howard’s trip to see his son Wayne, so we headed over for the day to meet up with everyone. We played pool. Went out for dinner. But I think what I remember most from that trip to Huntsville was seeing Howard with his grandchildren, and great grandchildren. The way they ran up and hugged him. Leaned against him while he waited his turn at the pool table. The way he smiled at their love.
“Grandpa!” they shouted, and squeezed him tight.
I’d always felt a bit sad that I wasn’t closer to Howard. That I didn’t call him Grandpa. That I didn’t hug him fiercely when I saw him, the way I saw Wayne’s children and grandchildren were doing that day. We’d always kept one another at arm’s length, though not in a bad way. While that seemed to suit the both of us, I appreciated getting to see a different piece of his life. It was so rewarding to be witness to it, to be reminded that day that I only knew a small bit of Howard. Seeing the love that poured out of them at his presence. Maybe it let me off the hook a little. Maybe it just made him seem as being less alone, or independent, than I’d always thought he was.
When I took my daughter to see them for the first time at Heritage Woods, the day he smiled about her name, Grandma Bonnie took my wife on a head-spinning tour of the facility. I held Emma, praying she wouldn’t puke on me, and Howard started talking.
“You know, uh,” he stated. “I never really walked around here like…I mean I, uh…you know, I know you already had a granddaddy, and I didn’t think it was my place to, uh, to act like that. But, uh, I watched you grow up your whole life. From a little kid just this high,” he said, holding his hand flat at the knee. “Holdin’ onto your mother’s leg still. But, you know, you didn’t need somebody else walkin’ around after you. And, you know, I think, uh…that you ended up a pretty fine young man.”
We never talked like this. Never even hinted at what could be confused with an emotional conversation. He’d never brought up Harold, the word ‘Grandpa’ in my presence. But, I’ll be honest, I’d felt like, as far as Howard was concerned, I’d won a gold medal. My wife and Grandma Bonnie returned shortly afterward, ending the brief moment we’d shared. But it makes me smile, and I’ll carry the badge he offered for the rest of my days.
Howard’s health was failing by 2015. Diabetes had slowed his gate and his already calm nature. It had led to neuropathy, a constant reminder of pain. Numbness. Weakness. Three-fourths of his stomach had been removed when he was a younger man, before he met Grandma Bonnie, due to large stomach ulcers, and it led to regular eating issues as he was older. A steady regiment of drugs like Prilosec. He’d begun having more trouble eating than usual. Vomiting. No appetite. Grandma was doing her best to clean him up, keep him moving before the staff found out, which would have threatened his ability to stay at the facility. But it was catching up with her.
She had been dealing with her own age demons. She’d started to fall regularly. Congestive heart failure that shortened her breath, requiring a series of stents over a handful of years. She’d lost Danny, her second son, in 2009 to a sudden, and splintering, heart attack. Both of her brothers were gone. Her sisters Mary and Lucille had passed as well. Life seemed to be shattering under her feet like eggshells, every time she worked up the courage to take a step.
And then the levee broke.
Hazel had been having trouble breathing. Congestive heart failure, like Grandma. She still lived in her own apartment in an assisted living facility in Freeport. One autumn day in 2015, they moved her down to the nursing home area to better monitor her breathing. She ate a hasty lunch, closed her eyes for a quick nap in her wheelchair, and she never reopened them. It hit Grandma hard. Just a few months later, Perry’s wife, Dorothy (Grandma’s last remaining sister), who had lived to 99 years of age in Florida, whose mental faculties had fogged enough that she probably wouldn’t have understood Hazel’s death even if her family had shared it, faded away as well
Early in 2016, a couple months later, Howard needed help. Wayne rose to the challenge. There was no way he could take care of himself enough to prove he could remain at Heritage Woods for much longer. So Wayne drove up from Alabama and brought him back home to care for him. You might think this a sad part of their story. Grandma and Howard being separated when life had grown so bitter for the both of them. But when I look back, when I remember the way Howard was loved by all those people in Alabama, the way happiness bloomed in their eyes, as well as his, I knew it was the right place for him. Technology made it possible for them to keep in regular contact, and though it was hard for both of them, it was enough to keep them in touch.
Howard made it six months before he passed away in Hampton Cove, Alabama, on May 29th, 2016, the day my daughter, Emma, turned four years old. I won’t pause here because I wasn’t there, and this story is meant to celebrate the living of his life (and Grandma’s), not the ending of it.
Just five months later, the Cubs won the World Series. When the final out was recorded, when the lightning pulses of excitement ran through my body, when my head swirled in disbelief and I let the celebrations soak into me, I immediately thought of three people. My friend Matt, who was a few miles away, texting me furiously, who’d attended countless games by my side for years and years of awful baseball. My father, who was probably in bed, a man who’s already had a nap by the time most people are waking up, who raised me to root for underdogs, especially when it was me, to love the lovable losers since I’d been a toddler. And Howard, who had waited his whole life to experience the sheer joy of them winning it all. It was heart wrenching to know he’d just missed being able to celebrate with Grandma Bonnie. I so desperately wanted to hear the one-liner he improvised for that moment.
Just like it was difficult imagining Grandma Bonnie with a boyfriend, all those years ago, it was just as hard imagining her without Howard. She has motored on in the last two years, getting emotional at the mention of the many friends and family members that are no longer with us. And she’s slowed, believe me. But she maintains that same flurry of life that I’ve always known.
“This is one of my best friends,” she told my parents in the elevator when they came to visit her a few weeks ago. “I eat lunch with her everyday.” She turned to face the woman. “I’d like you to meet my son and his wife.” Long pause. “What’s your name again?”
After we’d eaten cake, the beautiful piano cake my cousin had purchased for her 90th birthday last month, my mother asked her if she would like to bring some home to share with her friends at Heritage Woods.
“Well, I’ll tell you who I’m not sharing it with,” she barked as everyone let out hoots of laughter around the table. She’s brash and silly and wonderfully fun. She pulls no punches. She’s Grandma Bonnie. I spent a few hours listening to some long lost recordings this weekend that we unearthed at my mother’s house. Thanksgiving, 1985. 1986. Howard on the guitar. Pops on fiddle. Danny accompanying Howard on the guitar or branching out to the harmonica. His wife, Anne, singing in her beautiful, weightless voice as they tackled the old songs I heard so often as a little kid. Such a wonderful reminder about how music can bring people together. In the hollow laughter of an old cassette tape. In the non-singers who decided they just didn’t want to sit back any longer. In the children’s voices, my cousins and sisters. In the laughter. Always the laughter.
“Man, it was good hearing my mother laugh again,” Pops said, listening to the tapes today, referring to how Howard had brought her smile back. “It had been a long time since I heard her laugh like that.”
And I felt even luckier. All I’ve known, for my entire life, is laughter from my Grandma Bonnie. Some tears, yes. That’s to be expected from someone who has endured the kind of loss that she has. But, it will never outweigh the laughter.
Thank you so much, Howard Estes.