I only had one grandfather. The paternal one died during the historic influenza epidemic of 1918, when my dad was only seven. More on him at a later date. The one on my mother’s side was a huge influence in my life.
I must have met him at birth, because my mother had moved in with her parents when she was due. My first memories of him evoke a giant of a man, dressed in one of those circular hats British men used to wear when they went on safaris in Africa. In reality he was short: at best five foot seven. Very slender; maybe 150 pounds soaking wet. Frontal baldness; skin tanned to an olive shade by years of exposure to the sun. Smart; even though he never finished elementary school he read voraciously and retained all of the information he took in.
When I came into this world he was a farmer. In his younger days he had owned a dry goods store, but hard times and a love of the land drove him to purchase 90 acres six miles out of town (which in those days of no telephones and bad roads felt like 100). He grew sugar cane, tobacco, and coffee, and oranges. There were chickens galore, which were used for meat and eggs. A few cows gave milk. I remember there were years he had pigs. And the four dogs. He loved those dogs almost as much as he worshipped me. Which is why I write about him today.
He adored me. There were seventeen grandchildren that I can remember, yet he clearly and sometimes shamelessly chose me as his favorite. Whenever I stepped off from the “public” cars that drove me from my home to the small town that he lived in, he broke into a huge grin and gave me a hug that lasted a minute. He smelled of leaves and fruit, and yes, there was a touch of cow and dog mixed in. He always had a stubble of beard that managed to graze my face. A few tears were a standard part of the apparel.
“Paquito,” he would say. He would cry some more. Then we were off to the farm.
In retrospect I realize that I could not possibly have seen him more than twice a year, yet the moments I spent in that place remained deeply ingrained in my soul, as if half of my childhood was spent there. There were two cousins close to my age that usually came at the same time that I did. They became my brothers. We enjoyed the privilege of being drenched in sweat on a daily basis, our skins turned brown with dust and mud, without having anyone tell us that we needed a shower. We were bit by mosquitoes and stung by bees. We fell so many times that our knees were constantly scabbed over. We picked berries, and ate grapefruits and guavas right off the trees, and came to the farm house at sunset exhausted and ready to do it all over again in the morning.
Before bedtime grandpa took us into the balcony and told us a scary story, neatly divided into chapters so that we could not get to the ending until the night before we left. Horrible stuff about children being kidnapped by the devil, and pirates that ate kids alive. The most inappropriate subject matter ever for a child to hear, at bedtime to boot. And we loved it.
I must have been four, or five, when he took me aside one day.
“All of your cousins are either stupid or irresponsible. You’re the only one I can trust. You’ll be the doctor. You’ll take care of me when I get old.”
Again, a terrible thing to say to a kid. It worked. I never considered another career. I clearly remember that the kids I played with wanted to be baseball players, or cowboys, or policemen. I felt sorry for them. Why would anyone want to be anything other than a doctor?
There was the day that I was alone with him. He took me around the farm, always his favorite machete at his side, constantly whacking away at weeds and growth that invaded the trail that he had hewn out of the jungle with years of hard work. We climbed a steep hill. When we reached the top I saw a clearing on the other side of the mountain. He had somehow taken down all of the trees; he had fenced his cows in and grown something that they would eat. You could see the river curl around a bend in the distance. Everything was bright green, as you see only in the rain forest, with specks of other colors provided by wild flowers. I was a child who had no notion of spirituality, and I was moved. He paused, panting for a minute, his eyes soaking in the view.
“Your mother gives me a hard time because I don’t go into town on Sundays to go to Mass. But this is where I pray.”
I learned, in a second, the best way possible, about how sacred every aspect of Creation is.
The few times that he took us into town he wore his Sunday best. Clean pressed pants and shirt. A gold watch that hung from a chain that looped around the right front pant pocket. He would buy corn, and feed, and make arrangements to sell eggs and coffee. I never saw a piece of paper or a pen involved in any of these transactions. No currency. Just dozens of handshakes.
Every merchant treated him with respect; almost deference. Many of them took me aside to tell me how lucky I was to be related to this man. I wove this fantasy in my mind; that he was wealthy and influential beyond plausible imagination. He owned so much land; he had a gold watch; people looked up to him.
I got older, and so did my cousins. We no longer wanted to be dirty, or to sweat. We wanted to meet girls, and there were none of those among ninety acres of coffee and wilderness. We stopped going to the farm. My grandpa was hurt; I could tell; yet he understood about the women and he made it clear that he never expected us not to grow up. There was a time during one of the family reunions that he caught up on my progress at school, as he always did. I told him that I had been accepted into medical school. He smiled, but not nearly as much as I had anticipated. As if he had known this was going to happen all the time. Which I guess he did.
“I will be your first patient. Come listen to me when you get a stethoscope.”
Which I did, two years later, with much fanfare. He opened his shirt. I was shocked by what I heard. An irregular heartbeat. Two different, very loud heart murmurs. A few lung wheezes. He saw the concern in my face and he laughed.
You have a heart murmur. Two.
And wheezes. And atrial fibrillation.
“I know. I’ve been waiting for you to treat me.”
I’m just a student. I don’t even know what the murmurs mean.
“I can wait. I’ve done OK so far.”
As I progressed in my medical training I marveled at how he had thrived with a rheumatic heart disease condition that would cripple anyone else. I later learned that he had tuberculosis as a child. This man made a living out of untamable forest while he was seriously ill.
When I got older I learned of some unpleasant realities. The wife that he was so devoted to, my loving grandma, had kicked him out of her bedroom years before I was born, due to some dalliances he had indulged in. Two of my uncles told me he had been downright abusive with them. The major shock: he was dirt poor. He ate what he grew; he had no cash in the bank. When a hurricane blew the crops away he borrowed money, on a handshake, to get started again.
He was the happiest man that I’ve ever met. He had nothing.
He was a very flawed human being; he had the same lust and propensity to anger that we all seem to be born with. He must have had periods of panic, where he did not know how his next electric bill would be paid. I never saw any of that.
Over the years I’ve reflected on all of the lessons he gave me. For so long I tried to be the perfect son, and student, and father. Every time that my humanity brought me down to earth; that I saw how I had failed in my quest to be everything to everyone, I developed a sense of grief and displeasure with who I was and what I had done. Too late I have come to terms with what I jokingly now call my dark side.
Grandpa’s ultimate legacy. We will never be the giant that our grandchildren think we are. We do the best we can; we love the land and the people who shape it. We pray this will be enough.