This afternoon, I listened to a gorgeous rendition of “Danny Boy.”
It was eerie, and I was on the edge of tears—not from the singer’s artistry, though she’s excellent, but because of a tiny coincidence that I think only one or two other people know:
Today’s my Gandaddy’s birthday. Carl Roland West was born on May 1, 1898. He died between his birthday and mine in 1989, the year I turned 21.
“Danny Boy” was my Gandaddy’s favorite song.
If you caught me offhand, I’d tell you that this is one of the few things I know about him. This isn’t accurate, but a reflection of how remote our relationship felt to me. This through no fault of either of ours—he suffered two near-fatal clotting events in 1968, the second right around the time I was born.
This part I know by heart: with only a fraction of probability in his favor, he survived both surgeries. He came out almost completely paralyzed on his right side, aphasic, and speechless. He then re-learned everything, including to walk, to talk, to read, to write. The story goes thus: a physical therapist, to encourage my Gandaddy, offered to bend hospital rules and let newborn me up to his bed for a visit…if he learned to sit up. It is reported that he conveyed that he would be goddamned if any grandchild of his was going to see him in any goddamned hospital, learned to walk, and went home.
So I know he was breathtakingly persistent. Or stubborn, if you prefer that word. Many did!
Also from stories, I know he was a hungry learner and a wit, delighting particularly in punning. That he could add rows of numbers ten columns across in his head. That he had a “lead foot” when driving a car. That he had small patience for anything less than excellence. I suspect, though there are fewer tales, that he had had a sharp temper.
From looking back, I see that he loved good food—I started eating in ‘white tablecloth’ restaurants with him and my Ganmommy when I was 3. That he enjoyed point-device dressing, since his own appearance was as crisp as he could manage, including a fedora every time he left the house. That he had profound reserves of graciousness, demonstrated daily under the pressure of his disabilities and the radical re-shaping of his life they caused.
And all through my childhood, I knew that I was loved beyond life itself.
He delighted in giving gifts—shopping extravaganzas with my grandmother, a ruby cocktail ring for my 21st birthday, among other things. But even though he’s now been gone longer than I knew him, I see better the many gifts he left for me. Some, like the sharp temper and the lead foot, I bet My Sweetie wishes he’d given to my sister instead! But on the whole, I treasure all the gifts he left for me,
including his daughter (my mom). Whom, I understand, is very like him.