Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Week in Seven Words #116

It was a shock to hear that my maternal grandpa, Saba Yossef (Grandpa Joseph), passed away. In the past few years his condition had been slowly deteriorating, and he spent the last five months of his life in a hospital, fighting one infection after another (he contracted these infections courtesy of the hospital itself, where powerful bacteria are rampant and patient care is uneven, to say the least). But still, he was a fighter. This is a guy who evaded the Nazis when he was 12. He was a war veteran. He fought off colon cancer a decade ago. We kept expecting him to live somehow.

He liked to make simple, fresh dishes with few ingredients. Salads and side dishes. Though he wasn't a consummate chef like his wife, he was good at putting together quick meals, and his niche in the kitchen was usually one corner of the countertop where he'd stand chopping and sprinkling things and making use of whatever he'd found in the back of the fridge or the cupboard.

He also had a way with words, composing blessings, articles, essays, and poems. He spoke well, loved good conversation and swapping jokes. He was even eloquent in his sleep. He could nod off a little in front of the nightly news and start arguing with the newscaster (and he'd stir awake if you tried to change the channel). Though he had strong opinions he wasn't a preachy or rigid person; he liked to be on good terms with people and help them out. Discussions held in a relaxed atmosphere and helped along by good food and drink were much more his style than shouting matches.

Another memory of him is from a trip I took to Italy when I was sixteen with various family members including him. At one point we were in Siena during The Palio, the famous horse race that turns the city into a madhouse, and we'd split up into smaller groups for the afternoon. A few hours later, when we'd regrouped, we realized he hadn't joined us. No one knew where he was. Everyone else in my family immediately became worried or outright frantic - what if he'd gotten lost or attacked or had sat down and dozed off somewhere? - and off they went searching for him. I stayed behind to keep watch at the spot where we'd all agreed to meet, in case he came along. And I remember standing there calmly, not worried at all, thinking to myself that at any moment he was going to come down that street, smiling and relaxed, and wonder what all the fuss was about. And that's exactly what happened. He suddenly appeared, strolling along the street, his smile a trifle sheepish and apologetic, and immediately set about deflecting criticism, soothing worries, and trying to coax people into laughing. I'm not sure what happened - it's very likely he had sat down for a spell and dozed off - but it didn't matter. No worries.

The last time I saw him functioning well and full of life was in spring 2006, when he visited the US with my grandma. One highlight of the visit was taking a walk with him in Central Park. Before leaving for the walk I was asked to look after him, to make sure he didn't fall (he'd fallen a few times before, from what we came to realize were most likely mini-strokes that had made him 'blank' for a moment). He chuckled at the suggestion that anyone needed to look after him; he was good-humored, independent, and wasn't prone to worrying. We had a very good walk that day. We went at a brisk pace up and down twisty paths in the Ramble, and by the lake too. We talked about many things, from world affairs to guys to places we wanted to see. It was just the two of us for those few hours.

His laughter was gleeful. He also had a beautiful voice and liked to sing and hum at every good opportunity - at the dinner table or during a game of rummy or as he walked. For the past few years, living in the aftermath of a series of strokes, he could barely talk; his voice, when he could talk, was hoarse and flat. He didn't laugh either. But to the end he loved music, was moved deeply by it.

He found something of interest everywhere he went. To him there weren't boring places. When he visited us in the suburbs for instance he'd go exploring by bus or train or foot and visit places we'd dismissed as uninteresting. When I was a kid I used to think of it as one of his endearing quirks, but in recent years I've come to respect this approach, this attitude of always seeing the world through fresh eyes and not letting yourself become jaded. I liked going places with him, whether it was to listen to a concert or hop on a paddle-boat or just walk through a park, in part because he was very much interested in the world. He was alive to it.