Somewhere along the line Grandma and Grandpa McLaughlin had moved from Los Angeles to the foot of California’s San Gabriel Mountains. Dating back to the early 1900s, the town of Upland was full of half-timbered craftsman homes with river-rock porches. It seemed quaintly old-fashioned to a boy whose squeaky new suburb was still being built around him.
Like Upland, my grandparents seemed quaintly old-fashioned, too, even though they were only in their 50s. Grandpa Frank had been a dashing WWI flying ace. And I still picture Grandma Johnnie Belle–who owned an antique shop next to Grandpa’s glass shop, and worked part time at Knott’s Berry Farm–in a calico pioneer dress.
There were no interstate highways to Upland then, so our overland trips to visit seemed pioneerish, as well—if, that is, the pioneers’ covered wagons had stopped for burgers and root beer at A&W. Or passed a church with a neon cross featuring the words “Jesus Saves” (I was so clueless about religion, I thought it was a bank).
But this trip was different. Grandpa’s emphysema, fed by a lifetime of smoking, had triggered a heart attack! Still, after a bit of bed rest and oxygen, he’d recovered quickly. So we’d come to the hospital to take him and Grandma home. My wiry, muscular little man’s-man of a grandfather looked out of place in a hospital bed. He knew this, and put us at ease with a joke and a laugh. Except that his laughter soon turned to a cough. And the coughing wouldn’t stop.
A nurse hurried us out of the room. A minor set-back. He’d have to take it easy before returning to his power tools and gymnastics. And no more smoking! Twenty minutes later, the doctor came in. Grandma asked, “Will he have to stay longer?”
“No,” the doctor replied, “he…your husband has passed.”
It didn’t make any sense. Grandpa was only 58 years old. Just a week earlier I’d watched him execute a perfect iron cross on the rings at a family Valentine’s Day picnic (the hospital still had paper hearts on its walls). We were going to go out to dinner. “He had a massive heart,” they explained, “and we couldn’t revive him.”
It was the first time anyone I knew had died, much less begun to die in my presence. I didn’t know how to process the information. Grandpa had always been so strong, so real. But now, in an instant, he’d become a memory and death had become real.
Oddly enough, the other thing I remember about that week was that, after Grandpa Frank’s requiem mass a few days later, we ate at his favorite restaurant (the one we were supposed to have had dinner at with him), and I had onion soup for the first time. I hated raw onions, but cooked in a rich broth with cheese on top, they were wonderful. Things changed. Grandpas died. Onions tasted good. Things that hadn’t gone together, suddenly did. Things like life and death. And I now knew something I hadn’t known before: you had to savor this life…
Because it wouldn’t last forever.