My dad didn't talk much about his childhood. The stories I heard about him growing up were few and far between. I knew he loved muscle cars and was bored with Kansas. I knew his older sister was the perfect student and he was a bit of a rebel.
But there was much I didn't know. I didn't know what it was like for him to grow up in the 50s, or to be a teenager in the 60s. I knew very little of what kind of parents his parents were to him and his sisters.
Sure, I did hear a few "I was your age once" talks. But the end result was less "I know what you're going through" and more "don't repeat my mistakes." As little as I knew the childhood version of my father, my understanding of the younger version of his father was unsubstantial.
Realistically, my vision of Grandpa Casey is more myth than man. With my grandparents living in Oklahoma and my family in Seattle, I didn't often get to see them. I know he served in the military, but he didn't talk much about his days in the war. He was a mechanic and a trucker who had driven every mile of interstate highway in the continental 48 states. He would stop and visit every time he had a delivery in western Washington and I remember staring up in wonder at the size of the tires on his big-rig. He wore a cowboy hat, had a handlebar mustache, and grew chops that could make Elvis jealous. As a seventy year old man, he was in better physical shape than I was at twenty. Even in his retirement Grandpa continued to work out of his garage, fixing engines, welding metal art projects and iron gates.
With my limited grasp on my grandfather the person, I've created a superman image in my head. That he was a man's man - the definition of manliness. That he was made of steel, could bend iron bars with his bare hands, and knock down brick walls.
Of course, this mythological construct was fueled by the one and only story my dad told of life with Grandpa.
My dad was about the age my son is now. Grandpa was napping on the couch in their home. My dad thought his dad was invincible and wanted to test that theory. So, dad took a clothes pin, crept up to his sleeping father, and stabbed Grandpa's arm with the clothes pin.
This story and my rare interactions with Grandpa made him Superman in my eyes. Then I found out he had cancer.
Radiation seemed to be helping. He was strong; I was sure he'd be a survivor. A year passed. He was fragile but still with us. He continued to make efforts in his garage workshop.
Before starting his treatment, Grandpa and Grandma celebrated their 60th anniversary. Bekah and I packed up the kids and traveled out to Yukon Oklahoma to celebrate with them. Grandpa drove us to the airport to drop us off when it was time for us to go home. He helped us unload our bags and get everything to the ticket counter.
Zu (who was almost 2 at the time) interrupted his walk back to his car. "Gampa," she shouted, "WAIT!" Grandpa stopped and turned around. Zu ran from the ticket counter, across the airport lobby, out the doors to the passenger drop off area where Grandpa was waiting by his parked car. He squatted down in time to receive her embrace. Zu wrapped her arms around Grandpa and had one thing to say: "I love you."
I walked up behind her to carry her back to get our tickets and head through security. As I picked her up, I said one last goodbye to Grandpa and I could see he was choking back tears - trying not to show his emotions.
We were back in Oklahoma four weeks ago to say goodbye one last time. He recently he went into the hospital for surgery on some benign masses. One surgery turned into two surgeries and instead of going back home, he stayed at the hospital with complications.
I don't want to complain about his fight with cancer being unfair. Fairness is such a subjective ideal. Sickness is a matter that plagues the noble and the corrupt. For me, Grandpa's battle with cancer didn't make sense. This strong man - this manliest of mankind - succumbing to sickness, now laying weak in a hospital bed. I never imagined his last days would be like this. It may be irational, but I always thought Grandpa would go in a car crash or some improbable accident. My logical mind couldn't rationalize how this superman could fall to such irreparable frailness.
We went to visit him at the hospital three times while we were in Oklahoma. The first night, Bekah and I went to see him with my cousin. We stayed for a while, holding his hand while he drifted in and out of sleep. When awake, he kept staring at me, tears in his eyes, and the closest thing to a smile his diminished strength would allow.
"That little girl of yours..." he told me. He recounted the story of Zu's emotional farewell at the Will Rogers World Airport two years earlier. The one thing he needed to tell me was how much he loved my daughter. Not the time I lost a sock in his semi cab somewhere on the roads between Cheyenne and Yukon. Not his visit to Seattle for my high school graduation. Not the drive up White Bird Pass in the snow two days before my wedding. No marital advice. No life lessons. Just the knowledge that my daughter was important in his life.
And the peace given - intentional or not - that if my daughter's life held such an impact in the one time he had ever seen her, then how important was my life in the few times he had seen me?
While in Oklahoma, my dad and I stood by the Survivor Tree at the Oklahoma City National Memorial and had what is possibly one of the realest conversations I've ever had with my father. He acknowledged that Grandpa was going soon. Dad said that we take pictures to remember what must never be forgotten. Between the two of us, we got some valuable pictures. Of Grandpa holding JJ's hand. Of Zu giving Grandpa a kiss. Of my niece playing her cello in a private concert for Grandpa. Of the family together to remember Grandpa's life and to bid him farewell.
This morning, Grandpa's fight ended. Superman went home.