‘Happy trails’ to a father, husband, brother and grandpa

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 28, 2001

Wednesday, February 28, 2001

My grandpa died last Thursday.

No matter how much I may want to hide from those words and no matter how much the harsh reality of the sentence hurts my ears, I can’t hide from the truth. He’s dead.

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The fact that he died is really not surprising – he was 76 and he had Parkinson’s disease. But I, and every one else, didn’t expected him to go so fast in the end. We were told on Feb. 18 that he was going downhill fast, the nurses told us to hurry to his bedside on Feb. 21 and he died on Feb. 22.

Now that I think about it, all of the signs that he was dying were there weeks and even months before he went, but none of us recognized any of them. He stopped eating candy (his favorite food group) and he stopped making coherent sense when anyone in the family spoke to him. It was textbook, textbook.

But textbooks rarely describe emotion and emotions, well, they can cloud what is right in front of your face.

I thought my grandpa would be with me forever. He was always so strong, he couldn’t possibly die. He was my Roy Rogers and my Paul Newman (he looked like a combination of both). He was handsome and funny, one of the funniest people I’ve ever known. He was the person at family gatherings who would wear his shirt backwards or stand behind the cameraman to get the children to laugh. And he always had a story. Have you heard the one that goes, "Mrs. Nickels made some pickels on a rainy day…"? Well I have, many times, because of grandpa. And I laughed every time.

He was father to four children – one son and four daughters, one of which was my mother – and grandfather to seven – six girls and one boy. And he was a cowboy – one of the best horsemen I ever saw.

He would do anything for me, for those of us in his family. He bought us grandchildren mopeds, horses, goats, bikes and candy by the truckloads. Yes, these were things, but he bought them for us because he wanted us to be happy – to know that he loved us. He also gave great hugs and kisses.

I think one of the hardest parts of getting older is learning the faults of your elders, learning they are not perfect. Of course, no one is, but discovering that truth hit me hard as a teenager. Grandpa was not a perfect person by any means. He was a harsh disciplinarian to his children and never spent enough time on any crop or animal while farming to make a success of the family acreage.

But a disease changes someone, especially one like Parkinson’s. The tremors, hallucinations and gradual immobility of Parkinson’s disease peeled away grandpa’s vanity and pride and made him a softer human being. He began to look inside because he couldn’t depend on his body to get him through. Cowboys aren’t supposed to cry, but this one did. He started to cry a lot. It got to the point that when we would speak to him and tell him about anything that had happened in our lives, he would cry.

One day around Christmas, I, along with my mom, sister, grandma and niece, went to visit him at the nursing home where he lived. As I stood over his bed, he said, "I made a mistake" and started to cry. I reassured him that whatever he thought he had done wrong, it was OK, and he quieted down, but it was clear he was running through his life and the actions he had taken on the path that brought him to his bed in the Meadow Lane Health Care Center. I can’t imagine how it must be to be confronted with all the things you’ve done in your life, both negative and positive.

When I arrived in Benson (my hometown) on Wednesday, I drove straight to Meadow Lane to see him. I was not prepared for the sight of how he looked. He was thin. In the two months since I last saw him I think he had lost about 20 pounds. He was breathing in a pattern the hospital literature called "fish out of water" breathing. In other words, he was gasping for breath – and he couldn’t talk.

I talked earlier about grandpa being a textbook case. Well, the process of his death was a textbook case. Over the course of the next day his breathing became more shallow and his arms and legs grew cold. His face became ruddy as the blood in his body was confined to his trunk and head.

Grandpa eventually left us at "amen." His pastor, Dennis McManus, came in and said Psalm 23 and then he prayed. At the word "amen," grandpa breathed his last breath.

The next few days were a blur. Arrangements, family members arriving from distances near and far and too many tears. It was so draining.

My cousin and I talked as we stood by his casket before the funeral. She wanted to open his eyes. I wanted to keep the mortician from closing the casket. To never see him again, to never look into those beautiful blue eyes was an unbearable thought. It is still an unbearable thought nearly a week after he died.

No one could write a textbook of instructions on how to be my grandpa, Gene Dudley Neuhaus. Even if someone tried to follow the instructions to the letter, they would fail miserably.

In my mind I know that he is free from pain and from that confining body, but as of right now I can only say that I miss him. I can rationalize that he is now with his grandson and my cousin, Adam, who died nearly four years ago of muscular dystrophy, but right now I just miss him. I miss the cowboy, the flawed man, the joker who was my grandpa. I miss his voice, the bald head that bothered him so much and him telling me I am "number one."

My only comfort comes from the song Roy Rogers used to sing as he closed his TV show: "Happy trails to you, until we meet again…" Thankfully, somewhere, on the other side, there is a cowboy who can rope, ride, and tell stories again. And if and when I get to heaven, I know he will be ready with a big hug for me.