Checking Out Early – Grandpa’s Heart

The first accidental overdose I knew of was my Grandfather Eddie-Boy. Whenever we saw him and my Grandmother Hildegard, the issue of drinking was always in the air. Mom needed to make sure they were sober enough for us kids to see them. If Eddie-Boy showed up with a 2 day old beard it was likely he’d been tying one on.

Hildegard was the bigger drinker of the two – I can remember her face flushed choral red and her bleary eyes gleaming sharp, beady-blue as she offered us a bowl of Cheetos, believing they were the greatest treasure in the world. Eddie-Boy was always so warm to be around, but Hildegard scared me more than a little.

EddieCarThe day she fell and broke her hip it shattered so badly because of her decades of alcohol abuse. We were at home in Utah when it happened, she died in the hospital out in California. She was so compromised by alcohol over the years that her body just couldn’t put itself back together.

Eddie-Boy was devastated. Even though the insulation of alcohol had padded their relationship, his love for her ran deep. It seemed like sometimes, after her death, he had an easier time keeping his drinking under control. Perhaps it was because his five daughters spent more time with him, or Hildegard wasn’t around to drag him into trouble.

I got to visit him a lot more after she had gone. He would take me to meet his tennis friends or show me how to swap in a new motor on one of the Hoover vacuums he was repairing. Though he never had an easy time keeping a roof over his family’s head he was a true Renaissance man. San Francisco Chef, world class tennis player, and do-it-yourself skid row survivor.

I remember thinking the hole in the bottom of his car, covered up by plywood was the coolest thing. Wow, Grandpas can get away with anything! I’d secretly shift it aside when I could, watching the road blur beneath my dangling feet. I think he always wanted to take me into his heart, maybe there just wasn’t a lot of room left there.

Eventually his drinking and the sorrow of his loss caught up with him. My Mom took me with her to fly out and pick him up from the hospital. The doctors told him his heart was enlarged – if he continued drinking he’d be dead in a few weeks. I was in the back seat when we dropped him off at halfway house for recovering alcoholics.

It was one of those moments when I realized how small I was and how big the problems of the world were. I stared at my shoes hanging over the edge of the back seat while my Mother dressed her father down in a way I never knew she could. She tried to yell him off the path he was on. “The doctor said if you keep drinking you’ll be dead in a few weeks” she screamed. Perhaps I was there to remind him there were other, littler people he might think about living for.

I could see the weight of his burden as all guile was stripped away by the onslaught of my Mothers fury. He was a man used to carrying an world of sorrow on his back, his own death might not have seemed heavy at all by that time. Its strange when your own Grandfather can be chastised in the same way as you: made to feel so small and empty headed.

The time it took for him to kill himself with alcohol after we left was measured in weeks. His daughters always said it was of a broken heart. I don’t know if Eddie-Boy thought he was leaving to go to his beloved Hildegard or if he simply wanted to undo his life altogether. He had given everything over to alcoholism, surrendering to its supremely destructive power. It feels like the same force to me as a suicide, just wrapped in the softness of a lifetime of alcohol.

I believe an energy of some kind had found its way into his heart many years ago. He had grown to accommodate it, moving more of himself aside as it grew and grew. The alcohol probably made it easy to give up more and more space. He lived there until there was no more room for him.

In Eddie-Boy I saw how these forces rob us of the best and the brightest in who we are. I was always inspired by his many talents, and his ability to befriend so many people. We all stood by helplessly as the years of onslaught by his unwelcome guest wore him down before finally taking him.

The steel he used to sharpen his knives hangs in my kitchen now, I sometimes brandish it against the impermanence of life. He was known for his ability to improvise fantastic dishes with whatever was laying around the kitchen. I hear his voice when feeding my family. I think his chef’s eye and love are there to help guide me in choosing the right ingredients, and making sure things are cooked just right. I may only have the company of his ghost, but at least its something.

previous chapter: “The Girl In The Soap Bottle” ~ next chapter: “A Younger James Dean”

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