Thursday, 17 May 2012

Eulogy for Grandpa Jerry

As most readers of this blog already know, my very dearly beloved grandfather, Gerald Lesonsky, died last Friday night. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in December 2005 and, after a few years of relatively little change, suffered another few years of severe physical and mental deterioration. My reaction to the news was equal parts sadness and relief.

Grandpa Jerry in 2008 or 2009, when Grandma was in the hospital for surgery.

Brahna and I were in a supermarket parking lot in Bozeman, Montana, when we got the call. Since we had been on this trip, I had been dreading "the call" every time I saw my home number pop up on caller ID. There wasn't a question in my mind as to whether we would fly home. How could I not? What else would I do on Monday afternoon while everyone else was at the funeral? I needed to be there.

At a last-minute cost amounting to nothing less than extortion, my parents were able to find us a flight leaving early Sunday from Jackson Hole, at the southern edge of the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. Directly between Bozeman and the airport was Yellowstone National Park, which our original plan had us exploring for three or four days before heading east towards South Dakota. We decided to compress Yellowstone into the one day it would take to drive down to Jackson. We'll cover all that in a future post.

I'm not going to write about every minute detail of this detour-from-the-detour the way I have about the rest of the trip. Nor do I want to write all about my feelings or about how I have or have not fully absorbed the loss. I trust nobody will take this choice as callousness or unnecessary secrecy. The plain truth is that the funeral service and the two days I sat shiva were exactly as cathartic and comforting as they could be. From the eulogies at the funeral, the warm comments of relatives and friends, and the tears on the faces of those nurses and assistants who cared for him in his final months, I know that Grandpa has left us all with only fond memories and joyful thoughts, and that despite the terrible illness that stole his final years he lived a long, full, and happy life. The spirit and joy he contributed to this world cannot be measured and will not be forgotten.


We will return this blog to its normally scheduled progamming in the next day or two, picking up where we left off in Portland, Oregon. For now, for those who did not attend the funeral, here is the text of the eulogy I delivered on Monday:
Grandpa Jerry was born a grandpa. You may not have known that. I’m sure that surprises some of you who could’ve sworn you knew him as a brother, as a husband, as a father, or as a friend. But as far as I know, as far as I remember, he was born with a bushy moustache and a round, hard belly. He was always chewing on a tooth pick, and he worked at “the store.” 

I loved to sleep over with him and Grandma. He would come home from the store at around 6 o’clock, would take off his belt, and would spend the next few hours absolutely crushing me at Monopoly. Even for a while after he was sick, he would crush me. I remember my confusion and sadness when I finally did beat him, a year or so after his diagnosis; we didn’t play again. As bedtime approached, I’d lie with him in his and Grandma’s ridiculously hard bed and watch one of the only two shows Grandpa seemed to know existed on television: one was called “the hockey game,” and the other was called “the stocks.” I’d curl up into his arm and fall asleep.

There are a few things I remember fondly about Grandpa that I just want to share with you, in case nobody else mentions them:

Grandpa always carried a lot of coins in his pocket. He said it was for good luck. He often broke out into nonsensical jibberish song, a cross between Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof and an off-key white Louis Armstrong doing scat. He made up words like “geetchegoomie” that had us kids in stitches. I used to tickle the soft underside of his double chin. He was always a good sport about it. Grandpa had this smell about him that was basically just the smell equivalent of the word “grandpa.” Depending on who you believe, he quit smoking either the day Cassie was born or the day she, a small child, told him he should quit. He had chicken legs. He would switch his answer every single time one of his grandkids asked whether he ever smoked pot. He had one rule in Monopoly: no trades until all the properties had been bought. Utilizes excluded. He loved Frank Sinatra.

In October 2008, almost three years after he was diagnosed, we all went apple-picking. It such a beautiful, sunny day—Grandpa’s favorite. While everyone else was out in the orchard, I sat with Grandpa and interviewed him about his life, using Cassie’s tape recorder. His short term memory was pretty limited, but his long term memory was still pretty sharp. He told me everything he could remember: about his quiet, super-intelligent father—Happy Jack—who commuted from Brooklyn every day to the post office on 8th Avenue, before borrowing some money from his brothers to open a haberdashery store in Floral Park, just a few miles from here. Grandpa agreed that he inherited from his father that calm, subdued demeanor which we all loved about him. He told me about his mother, who lost nearly her entire family in pogroms in Poland before fleeing to the U.S. She never talked about her past, and was always satisfied with what she had. The family was poor, Grandpa told me, but they were close with one another and were never deprived of the important things in life, the ties that bind. Time and again, Grandpa circled back to his mother and the cancer that took her life when she was still in her 40s and he was around my age. Choking back tears, he told me about going to visit her, how he would walk outside and look up at the sky, and say to the man upstairs, “take her, take her, instead of letting her suffer in that way.”

I soon understood exactly what Grandpa meant. As things got worse, I would end all my visits by hugging him super tight and whispering that I loved him. I wanted to be ready for the end and told myself I was. After all, Grandpa was no longer his old self. That seemed to make it easier for me to let go.

But the more and more I said goodbye, the more difficult it was to ignore the bright flashes of his personality that would shine through on those visits or even over the phone. To yet another of my dad’s questions about 50s baseball players or big band-era swing, he’d say, “Oh c’mon Al who remembers?” He’d call me “kiddo” and say “heyyyy how ya doin!” He’d call my girlfriend “honey” and remember a trip he took to Jerusalem in 1995. Just hearing him like that would make my day. There’s no doubt: Grandpa was himself to the end. His last words, from what I hear, were said to a nurse, who had just given him his medicine: “So long, baby,” he said. It really couldn’t be more perfect than that.

I have this theory that you carry some of your ancestors with you, literally in your head. You see the world a little bit through their eyes. You are them. In a small way, they are always in there with you.
Shortly after I found out that Grandpa died, I had a brief moment to myself. I wanted to say goodbye for real this time, to tell Grandpa I would always love him. I closed my eyes and tried to tell him. He was there with me. Somehow I know that he knew.

My apple-picking interview with Grandpa abruptly ends when I spot the Cohens’ old red minivan coming down the hill. I probably didn’t want anyone else interfering with our conversation, so I tell Grandpa we’ll finish another time. And then, right before I turn off the recorder, pretty much out of the blue, he says this: “It wasn’t a bad life, I’ll be honest with ya. I guess I bitched and complained at the time, but it wasn’t a bad life.”
Grandpa Jerry on May 1st, 1949, his 17th birthday.

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