This is the last photo I took of my grandfather, William Ralph Whitlock, on June 9, 2012. I didn’t know it then. I’d come up to Fort Worth with the main reason to see my grandparents (my mom’s mom and my dad’s dad) and of course to see the rest of the family too. I hadn’t seen been up there since the first of April and knew it was time for a visit. I only wish I’d made more time that weekend, spent more time sitting with Grandad. Instead I made it a rushed visit, squeezing in after getting a pedicure with my mom, sister in law and niece. Zoe was worn out by that time and was being an incredible goose during our visit. We’d popped in and found my uncle there, already visiting with Grandad. Zoe, though shy sometimes at first, will get into her groove and become the little queen of showing off which is what she did the entire time. Grandad looked at her a lot, taking her in—probably exhausted just by watching her—because I know I am a lot of the time!
We chatted about the upcoming closing of my house, and he asked where Chris was, to which I informed him that he was working. I think we stayed 45 minutes before we left, hugging him goodbye and kissing his cheek. I turned around and closed the door behind me, seeing him facing the windows while seated in his wheelchair like he always was.
Chris and my 10 year wedding anniversary was the 14th of June and we spent it speedily as Chris popped in from work for a couple of days. We went out to eat at the Cheesecake Factory and my mom had even texted me that she’d grilled some eggplant and loved it. Chris and I went home to water our then-landlord’s yard as they were on vacation, did some chores around the house and settled in on the computers for a little bit.
Then my mom called me. When I saw it was her I figured she was calling to say ‘Happy Anniversary’ or to talk about eggplant but her tone of voice was not good. I have to say, it was not the tone of voice of the phone call I received on the Appalachian Trail informing me of my niece Ashleigh’s passing. That one was soul piercing. The quietness of her voice made me think she was calling about Red but the next words out of her mouth startled me, that she said Grandad had died.
It was such a strange moment. I had gone almost 32 years with two grandparents. Grandad’s wife died before I was born, and my mom’s dad died when I was a year old and I don’t remember him. It was pretty lucky that I had two grandparents alive for so long. And now I only had one.
It wasn’t like this wasn’t unexpected but it wasn’t expected either. If that makes any sense. Grandad was 86, had Parkinson’s, and in recent years had broken his hip and had it replaced, as well as had a heart attack and many other health ailments. Right before we left for the Appalachian Trail was when things had started getting worse for him and then eventually he was moved to the assisted living/retirement complex by my parent’s house. I felt like he’d made it through all of this that he would just keep on going. His mother, my great-grandmother, lived to be 96 and had died in 1999. Only recently his last sister had died and she was in her mid 90s as well. I’d thought he had one sister left but was informed that Grandad had been the last one of the family.
It was only in his later years that I felt closer to Grandad and less shy in front of him. Grandad was strict with manners; preferring to get you to say ‘Sir’ and all of the other proprieties, but beyond that I mostly remembered his yard because it seemed to go on forever. It backed up to a railroad track in east Fort Worth (as did my grandmother’s house) and over time the neighborhood went from decent to ghetto. There are old photos of the great garden that he used to have. One summer I came home from a visit and went over with my parents and we found remnants of that garden, with various alliums growing wild throughout the yard. My brother and I used to poke around the old sheds in the mid-section of the yard, and now that I think about it we used to get up on some old barrels and roll/walk on them. I can’t remember if Grandad taught us that or if we just did that ourselves. My brother might help me remember that. Just thinking about going on those barrels makes me question how smart that really was!
Grandad once had a mule, too. That’s when I learned the difference between a donkey and a mule.
Inside his house he had air vents in his floor instead of in the walls, like I was used to. I remember being very cautious going around them, thinking something was going to come out and snatch me!
And now I’m afraid my writing just won’t do any justice to my memories of him. When unpacking my boxes in the studio I came across a postcard I’d saved from his trip to Switzerland, one he’d sent to my dad. His handwriting was more legible than I remembered and he wrote about enjoying his trip and missing his family. Somewhere I have a handkerchief he brought back, tucked away in a small frame. He loved to travel; traveled more than I remembered. My parents had old reel movies put onto tape many, many years ago, and my brother and I used to watch those growing up. They showed my dad and uncle growing up in east Fort Worth along with trips out west with the family.
Because I was shy around Grandad I didn’t ask too many questions about his past, but he was a WWII veteran, having served in the Pacific theater. Only at the funeral did I hear of a story that involved him, his brother Houston and a sinking ship—one of the brothers saved the other. I’m not sure on the details but that story was told and now I wish I knew a little bit more.
Another story that pops into my head is one that was told around the table of my great-grandmother’s house when a lot of of the family was there. Apparently one time my grandfather had received an ‘F’ in school but didn’t tell his parents about it. When they found out they scolded him and of course he was in trouble, asking him why he didn’t tell them of the bad grade. His reply was that he thought ‘F’ was for Fine!
The more I think about it the more the little memories start tinkling out, but sometimes I wish pensieves were real.
I’m writing about this now, a month and a half later, but I really wanted to write about it shortly after he passed away but instead I was thrown into the forces of buying a house, moving, receiving visitors, trapping cats, and caring for my own sick, indoor cats.
He was here and now he is gone.