Seven days ago, my grandpa, Eugene Frank Blanski, the namesake for my own middle name, passed away at the age of 90 after 4 years of being a widower, and only 10 days of a battle with cancer.  Today, I am in a hotel in Bujumbura, ready to board three flights to get me back the Minnesota to be with my family during his funeral.  I am so thankful that I got to spend 40 years with him, and that all three of my children knew and loved him.

In 2012, my family came to stay with he and my grandma at their apartment in Minneapolis.  He was about 80 years old at the time, years after a big heart bypass and knee arthroplasties, but he laid down on the carpet, wrestling and tickling little Maggie and Ben, and I'm not sure which of the three of them had the best time.

When they were done, I watched him quietly crawl backwards into the adjoining sitting room.  I peered around the corner to see him bracing himself against a bookcase to get himself back up into an upright position.  It wasn't easy and he almost slipped at one point, hitting his forearm again the shelf.  Seeing that he was again standing, I went back and sat down in the living room.  In a couple minutes, he reappeared and called me into the other room.

He wanted me to look at his arm.  Between his paper-thin skin and his blood thinners, there was a nasty gash, but I thought it would heal without stitches, which is what he wanted to know.  "It's the dardnest thing.  I don't know how that happened," he said.  

Of course, I knew.  And I think we both knew that telling anyone would risk others telling him that he should act his age and not try to wrestle with toddlers on the ground.  He had no regrets and no interest in getting that kind of feedback, so he stayed quiet.

Later I would read Atul Gawande's Being Mortal where he states that with advancing age, we want autonomy for ourselves, but safety for those we love.  I thought back to Papa on the carpet, Papa struggling to right himself, Papa running silly risks for the sake of being silly with my kids.  I decided then that I would keep this story for myself, and only share it after he died.

In 2018, my family had a reunion at some cabins at one of the TVA lakes that are scattered around Tennessee, invariably hilly in order to have dammed the river and made the lake in the first place.  My parents had bought a golf cart to take my grandparents around.

While putting my shoes on in our cabin, I heard my mom shriek, and I ran outside to see something I had never seen or thought I would see: My grandpa at 87 sprinting full tilt down the steep forested slope between our cabin and the next.  He had decided to forgo the golf cart and just take the hill slowly.  But then he found he was unable to stop the acceleration.  As I ran after him, I pictured him slamming into a tree and (again, the blood thinners) that would be the end.  Instead he felt on his side, dodging the forest, and landed on his back in a soft bed of leaf litter just as I careened up next to him.

After seeing that he was alright, and clearing him for cervical spine fractures, we slowly got up.  Amazingly, he got away with that stunt with only the few cuts and bruises that are in the photo above, and he was out roasting marshmallows with my niece Sierra the next night.

All that to say, I still admire his choices even if they were sometimes wrong.

Papa and I were so different.  A successful CPA who helped build his own firm, he wanted me to learn sound principals of financial management.  When I was in college, he arranged for his financial advisor (who was actually named Poindexter, a coincidence that I still find humorous) to call me in my college dorm just to ask if I had any questions about mutual funds and investment.  Neither of us really wanted to have that call, I think, but we did for Papa's sake.  Not only could I have cared less, but at that point in my life, may even have had some kind of vague moral opposition to learning financial management.

We never lived in the same state, though he and Grammy would visit often.  So why did I feel so close to this man, who was so different and often far away?  Because he loved me, and I absolutely knew it.  More than that, he approved of me, and I knew that, too.

The day after hearing about Papa's passing, I went out, as I always do a couple days a week to meet my friend Lijalem, an Ethiopian surgeon working at Kibuye, for a few minutes before heading to the hospital.  We sit on the porch of the kids' school and pray for the day of work that is before us.

He had heard that my grandpa had passed, and as he approached me, he put his arm around my shoulder and gave me a hug.  He sat down across from me, and with sorrow in his own eyes, he said, "Eric, I'm so sorry to hear about your grandpa.  Did you love him very much?"

It has been an amazing thing to be surrounded by African friends in a time of grieving.

Yes, I did love him very much. 


Anonymous said...

And he loved you well!

Anonymous said...

This made me cry, what a sweet tribute to your grandpa. I’m glad to know a little about him. I hope I am that young at heart when I’m old. We are praying for your time with family!

Anonymous said...

Oops this is Rachel S. :)

Holly Kirby said...

Eric this post was a most perfect tribute to your Papa. I met him a few times in our time all growing up together in Smyrna and he and your grandmother were very dear people. Your words here in this blog were such a great reflection of the love and acceptance he gave you. It is evident in these words. So sorry for your loss but so glad you got to experience his love and care!

Anonymous said...

A precious ‘collection of stories’ that endure forever in your family. I remember Eugene ‘Gene’ on my first trip to Peru! He was younger than I am now, and we were concerned about him traveling, but he was strong, steadfast, and cheerful throughout the trip! The legacy he has left is priceless to all who experienced his indomitable spirit with the smile that lit up his face.❤️❤️ Thank you for letting us know and please give our love and hugs to your mom.

Jean said...

Thank you, Eric.
Papa was a special man who dearly loved each and every member of his family.
What a fantastic grandpa and great grandpa! How blessed all of you are to have known him so well.
So thankful Maggie, Ben and Toby (and ALL his "greats") were able to create memories with him.

Anonymous said...

I’m so sorry for your family’s loss, Eric. It sounds like your grandfather was a lovely soul. I’m sure you made him proud every day. Sending you love, hugs, and traveling mercies in the days to come.

Anonymous said...

From Megan Newton

Anonymous said...

Eric, your Aunt Linda shared your beautiful post about your Papa Gene. He was my Uncle Gene, my Dad and your Grandma were siblings. I loved him, too, he was someone who knew how to live fully and love completely. Thank you for sharing your memories. ❤️ Sally Billstrom Schroeder, San Jose, California