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Friday, November 6, 2009

Remembering Grandpa Russ

Back in June I blogged about the passing of a man who I had thought of as a grandfather-figure since my childhood. This week another person that I had come to view in the same light walked through those pearly gates.

We got a call from Mike's sister late Tuesday night letting us know that Grandpa Russ had fallen earlier in the morning, was in the hospital and that things were not expected to get better. We wrapped up things at home and got to the hospital pretty quickly. When we got to his room, we were met by Mike's parents (who had been at the hospital all day) and Mike's aunt and her husband.

Grandpa Russ was not conscious, but he was breathing on his own and the medical team was doing everything they could to make sure he was comfortable as he slept. Occasionally he'd move his legs or clench his fists, but he wouldn't open his eyes. He couldn't say anything, but I think he knew we were there.

Mike and I spoke to him and reminded him that we loved him and that he just needed to relax and get good rest because everyone was taking care of him. His breathing seemed calmer when someone was holding his hand or talking to him. He knew he was loved.

I walked into that hospital room telling myself that I had to be the strong one. I had to be the one Michael could lean on when we faced reality. After all, Grandpa Russ had lived in the same house as Michael the entire time he was growing up. He was a fixture in Michael's childhood memories and a fixture in their household even after he was grown and out of college - this would no doubt affect Michael in a way I had probably not seen him affected before.

I suppose I just wasn't prepared for how much Grandpa Russ had affected me. Within minutes of walking into that hospital room, reality hit and I lost it. I was being hugged by Mike's mom and Mike was stroking my back. In a way, I failed. In a sense, Mike and I have been able to lean on one another to stop us from toppling over. It has been difficult and although Mike has been doing well, his grief is unfamiliar and sad and I never know quite what to tell him, or how often I should hug him. When he's vulnerable, I have complete control of my emotions, I can talk to him and listen and when he's strong, I become a big blubbering mess. So. Balance.

Mike and I started dating in 2004 and while I had always had a rough idea of what the "Layton Legacy" was, I was not prepared for what it meant to walk into the Layton home on Christmas day. I swear, there were probably 45 men, women and children there and I was introduced to everyone by name within the first 20 minutes. I am 95% sure I met Mike's secret sister, Kim, who everyone tells me does not exist. In any case, coming from a family where our warm Christmases were always just between our happy family of 4 (with occasional guests) this was nerve wracking. God forbid person A would ask me to get person B a drink, because I couldn't remember who person B was and would have no idea who to move towards.

As always, their house was vibrant with kids running around all over the place, siblings laughing, reminiscing and helping out in the kitchen. It had been a while since Mike had seen some of his nieces and nephews and was eager to catch up with all of them. I was the brand new girlfriend and I didn't want to get in anyone's way . I didn't want to be a burden on Mike as he enjoyed this time with his family.

And there he was.

Grandpa Russ sitting in his chair at the kitchen table smiling as he watched the hustle and bustle of your standard Christmas dinner at the house on Pinto. I had met him before, I think, maybe when I was in high school - but I didn't remember adults very well back then. He said he remembered me from when Mike was in high school, so I sat. We talked about things for a long while - probably food, and Christmas and family. Dinner was served and I went to sit with Mike at another table.

Every holiday or family dinner at the Layton house would go much the same way for a while. I couldn't remember who Mike's siblings were or how many he had and who was married to whom and what children went home with what parent, and which one had 4 kids and which one had 3, and who lived in California and who didn't and where the heck did Kim go!?

Grandpa Russ was constant.

We'd come over and he'd be in his chair and I knew that I could grab a coke and sit in the chair next to him and we could talk until dinner was ready and I could be comfortable and I could ask him over and over again which sister that was and who that child belonged to without getting embarrassed for still not being able to keep this big family straight. He was happy to tell me all about it.

Even after I finally learned everyone's name and forgot about imaginary sister Kim, the most comfortable place for me to be was still sitting in the chair next to Grandpa Russ.

When Mike's parents would go out of town, we'd go to their house so that Grandpa wouldn't have to be alone and Mike could make sure that he ate dinner and was ok. We'd bring Apple over and she'd go crazy in his room acting like she owned the place. Grandpa loved it. The last time we did this was a little over a month ago and he was having a harder time getting down the stairs so we sat in his room with him eating In-N-Out. He insisted that he didn't want to be a burden and that we should go eat downstairs at the table. We insisted that we wanted to eat upstairs with him and set up a dining room for the three of us. He ended up showing us all the treasures and family heirlooms that he had kept with him and the stories that he could remember going with them.

He was born in 1913 - what a century to live in. In 1913 the 16th and 17th Amendments to the United States Constitution are ratified, the Mexican Revolution is being fought, Woodrow Wilson succeeds William Howard Taft as the 28th President of the United States, the zipper and stainless steel are invented, and the first automobile road across the United States is dedicated. Most people ride around in horse and carriage and the trolley is a fancy new transportation device. He lived through tuberculosis, cancer and heart attacks (with unbelievable stories to go along with them) as well as the Great Depression, the invention of the telephone, x-ray, sonar, radio, television, antibiotics, Velcro, the microwave and sliced bread (literally.) He talked about how wonderful his wife, Mike's grandmother was, and how good his daughter and her family were to him (Mike's parents.) He lived an amazing life.

He was loved and respected and I don't think he ever knew how much of a crutch he was for me. He always worried about being a burden as he got older but he was the person who unknowingly gave me solid footing when I was so nervous about being liked. He took away any pressure I had put on myself to make the right impression in front of Mike's family. I didn't have to say much or be funny or smart - he'd let me sit there and just listen which is all I wanted to do.

I'm a little nervous about going back to the Layton house now that the chair at the kitchen table isn't claimed. I feel as though I should be stronger and less affected, but I can't help it. By now I know and love Mike's family as if they were my own and I don't need Grandpa to be my safe zone, but I really enjoyed just sitting with him during our visits, and I'll miss that. It will be hard to not notice how empty that chair is now but I'm glad I spent time sitting next to it when it was filled. I have boat loads of stories to tell our children about their awesome great grandfather and his adventures in the days before TV.

Much love Grandpa Russ. Say hi to Grandma Millie for me - we never met, but I know you missed her the most. You'll always be in our hearts.


  1. Very eloquent. 2009 has brought all of us and our friends an unconfortable number of lives lost too early or celebrations of lives well lived. Perhaps it is a greater recognition of these things as we grow older or perhaps a confluence of things has just contributed to a bad year for us.

    "a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance"

  2. Thank you for writing this and for thinking of Grandpa as fondly as you do. It was a honor and joy to have him in our lives for the time that we did.

  3. that was so great. it's amazing the effect people make on us and how we become better people for ever knowing them. i'm very sorry for your loss it sounds as though he was a true blessing in your family.

  4. I'm really sorry for your loss. He sounds like he was a very beautiful human being. I never met him and after having read this I feel that the world lost someone special. My thoughts and prayers are with you and Mike.


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