I published this post eight years ago, and again one year ago, and it feels right to do it again:
My grandfather passed away two months ago.
I have wanted to write a post about him ever since, and there are a thousand things I want to say in that post, yet it remains unwritten for one very unmovable reason: I have no idea where or how to start saying those thousand things. When a man lives 81 years, has 39 direct descendants, and impacts not only his family but countless other people as well, how can you sum up his life in a handful of paragraphs? You can’t.
But I do not have that problem when it comes to writing about Granddaddy and Christmas, after the way they converged three years ago.
Granddaddy’s love of God, family, and country; his zeal when talking about those things to anybody with whom he came into contact; his faith in the perfectibility of man; his irrepressible Scotch-Irish mischief; his unsurpassed diligence in everything to which he set his mind or his hands – those qualities will all be written about in time, but for the purposes of this post, suffice it to say that in the last few years of his life they were cruelly stolen by Alzheimer’s disease.
His mental sharpness started to dull about five years ago. In 2005 his memory faded as well, and the fading was fast. He carried on conversations with Nana without realizing it was her. Remembering how she looked in their youth but not in the here and now, he said things like “I wonder when Peggy’s going to come home” while looking into her very eyes.
When he and Nana arrived at our family’s 2005 Christmas Eve party, nobody expected to be recognized by him. Because I did not want to confuse him by addressing him in a way that would suggest he was speaking to his grandson, and because I knew his recollections of battling the Nazis remained vivid, that night I simply called him “Corporal.”
He asked if I was in the Army like he had been, and I told him I was not because of my diabetes. I told him that we nonetheless had some similarities, because just like him, my last name was
Stanton and my blood carried Scotch-Irish genes. He nodded and said it was good to meet me. He said I should come around again sometime.
Everyone at the party walked a tightrope, balancing holiday cheer on one hand with the sadness of loss on the other. The man we loved, who had known each of us by name just a year earlier, had for all intents and purposes ceased to exist.
But as the night started to grow long, something sparked inside Granddaddy’s mind. When most of us were assembled in and around the kitchen, he “addressed the room” and said it was great that we were there. He did not specifically acknowledge that we were all family; however, when he looked at my Aunt Sharon, the third of his five children, a glint appeared in his eyes and he spoke the word “daughter.”
He and Nana stood on the driveway as the party wound down. I stood there too, as did several others, hoping to give Nana some sense of normalcy. But it turned out that our presence was not needed, for while Venus shone brightly like the Star of Bethlehem, Granddaddy came back as if by magic. Looking up at the Milky Way, he spoke to Nana by name and said: “Peggy, I’m trying to remember the night we got married.” Some minutes later, when he said goodbye to each of us, his face bore a look of recognition and for that moment it no longer seemed that there was a stranger trapped in his body.
As his wife of 59 years drove him back to the house they had called home for 53 years, they talked about their life and their family and it was as if the dementia had never been. After finishing that 45-mile excursion from rural
Hernando County to urban Tampa, they sat up late into the night conversing and reminiscing and sharing life’s small but inimitable joys. They lay down in bed like they had done so many times through the years, and for that one holy night Granddaddy was Granddaddy again: John Stanton, Jr., child of the Great Depression, survivor of the Battle of the Bulge, husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, pastor, proud but humble, flawed but good.
When the sun rose, the dementia was back and my grandmother's husband, as she knew him, never returned. But they had gotten that one last night together on Christmas Eve, and had gotten it after everyone assumed it was not possible. As Nana said: “That was my Christmas miracle.”