When we are born, we inherit family roles. You are a son or a daughter. Your parents become Mom or Dad. Aunts become Aunts. Uncles become Uncles. Brothers become brothers and sisters become sisters. Grandparents become grandparents.
That's how it usually is. But I was lucky. I had a Grandfather who became a friend.
Had. That's tough to write. To be honest, I have dreaded writing this for years. Although I had penned a tribute to a teacher and fellow student in college, the first time I wrote about a family member passing away was when I wrote about my Grandmother, my Grandfather's wife of over 60 years.
Both of my Grandmothers passed away when I was working in Afghanistan in 2012. I wrote about what both of them meant to me. I wrote because I missed funerals and it was a way to say good-bye. Now as I get older, and more people close to me pass away, I write as a way to process.
Since my Grandmother passed away nearly nine years ago, my Grandfather and I became much closer, making this essay that much more difficult. But it not that this is tough to write. Far from it. It is that trying to capture the memories, his personality, and what he meant to me in less than a million words is a challenge.
And in what order do you put a lifetime of memories?
For sake of not repeating earlier essays, I will pass over times spent with both grandparents - the times they visited me when I was in the Army stationed in Texas (pictured above), the times I visited them on my way to see parents during my college years. While I hold those memories near and dear, this essay is only about my time spent with my Grandfather.
The best place to start is in October 2012, when I was home on a vacation from Afghanistan. My Grandmother had only been gone six months, and I took time from seeing friends, a girl I was dating, and my parents, to swing by Ocala, Florida to see my Grandfather. It was the first time I hung out with him without my Grandmother. It is here when spending time with him became unique, as it was just us.
We went to Outback that day, or "the Outhouse" as he like to called it. He asked how I was doing. I told him stories of Afghanistan, how I was working in an international environment, and how I learned to say greetings in Polish, the language of his immigrant parents.
He seemed in good spirits, although it was obvious he was lonely.
I returned from Afghanistan in 2013, nearly year after my Grandmother passed away. I didn't have a job nor a place to live yet, so I asked if I could spend a month at his house, as it was close to Tampa where I was planning to move again. He agreed.
We spent quality time together during that month. We went out to eat a lot. We talked. I watched him talk on the phone with his children, his brother, and any other relative who called. My favorite thing was catching him purposefully giving people wrong information. For example, he would tell each one of his children - my mother, aunts, and uncle - a different date for an upcoming doctor's appointment. Then they would each run in different directions. Pulling people's leg gave him joy. He was mischievous like that.
I think he also told people wrong information because he was tired of them asking the same questions repeatedly. "When is your next doctor's appointment?", "What medicine are you taking?", "What did the doctor say?". I think he liked me because I never asked those questions. We talked about anything else. And I made a point to never ask about his doctors or his health. Enough people asked those questions. My conversations with him, whether in his house or in his care facilities always started with "How you doing?".
As the years progressed, his ability to manage his home diminished, and he was moved into a home closer to my parents. This actually made it easier for me to see him, as I had moved back to Tampa. Every time I visited my parents on the east coast of Florida, I would see my Grandfather for a bit. Sometimes if I was in town for an extended amount of time, I would spend a day with him. He always asked about my jobs and my classes and I asked him how the food was where he was living. Of course, it was always horrible and he always wanted to leave. But we had fun, even if he did make fun of me for dozing off in his guest chair on occasion.
"You came to visit, and all you are doing is sleeping? You could have done that at home."
Sometimes I would check him out of his facility and take him to lunch. One afternoon we picked up food and went to the local river and people watched. He made me laugh with sarcastic comments about almost everyone who passed by. After eating at the river, we drove the ocean and walked to the boardwalk. That's where I took a picture of him with the ocean in the background. I like this picture.
Although there are many of other pics of he and I, I wish I taken a selfie of us at the beach. I think it also would have turned out good.
On a side note, I like how the picture above compares with the below picture from a Long Island beach in October 1949. In '49, he was 23, World War 2 was over, he was recently married, and the world was in front of him. In the above picture, he has seen so much and the world is behind him.
A few years after we went to the beach, my Grandfather settled in his final home, a 24-7 care facility. The logistics of getting him out were too great, so I continued to visit him there every other month or so. In 2018, I took another international job, this time for nine months in the Middle East. When I returned, I brought him a small wooden camel. It stood alongside his family portraits and his other few personal belongings.
As the years went on, and his memory continued to fade, our talks got more and more abstract. He couldn't carry on conversations for more than five minutes without intermingling the real world with something he saw on television. Family members were suddenly living on ranches with Indian invaders, but it was ok because they had their old car and they were going move to North Carolina and remember that guy who had the store on 42nd street, he was a good guy. But the other guy on 52nd, he would rip you off. And there was a two-story building on the base when he got off the ship and if he didn't pack his clothes and get out of his room soon, the lieutenant was gonna look for him.
Sometimes it was challenging to keep up with the conversation, but that didn't diminish the fact I still enjoyed visiting. And I was proud of the fact that even to his last days, when he remembered maybe only ten names, I was still one he knew and recognized.
Like many other relationships in 2020, COVID-19 made seeing my Grandfather difficult. I didn't see him for most of the year. But I did get to see him in December 2020. He was inside his facility, eating and enjoying himself, and my mother and I were outside the window, talking to him through a six-inch opening. I couldn't give him a hug, but I could see him and talk to him. Merry Christmas 2020.
A few months later, his health took a severe turn for the worse. I was scheduled to go on yet another long trip, this time to Hawaii and Korea for over two months. But after seeing my Grandfather, I asked my boss if I could be taken off the first leg of the trip. I wasn't going to miss saying good-bye to my last grandparent. Not after missing both of my grandmothers. And definitely not this grandparent.
But a miraculous thing happened over the next few weeks after I saw him - my Grandfather regained his strength and returned to his 95-year old norm. With him doing better, I took my chances and went to Korea for a month. While there, I bought him a small piggy bank signifying the year of the ox. When I came back to the states, my mother gave it to him. She said he enjoyed it.
He passed away last weekend, a few months after my return. I like to think he waited for me to get back. When I stopped by his room on the night he died to see how my mother was doing with the final arrangements, the ox bank was on the same shelf as the wooden camel, alongside my Grandfather's other treasured mementos.
Not many people can say that their Grandfather was their friend. But mine was. Joe Walicki was a great man and I very much enjoyed his company. I like to think he would say the same about me. He will be missed dearly.
Here is his obituary, which I had a hand in writing. His funeral is Monday, where he will be buried alongside my Grandmother at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell, Florida. I will be sure to still visit.