The call came the day after Christmas. "Grandpa's aneurysm ruptured."
I was at home in Virginia, about to embark on my annual holiday tradition of playing Monopoly with my children. My grandfather was being airlifted to Yale-New Haven Hospital for emergency surgery. Silent, I put down the phone.
"What's wrong, Dad?" my 11-year-old son asked.
I'm not going to be able to play this year, I told him. Time to pack.
I'd known for more than a year that my grandfather had an aneurysm. But a specialist discouraged pre-emptive surgery on account of age.
That meant living with a ticking time bomb. When the aneurysm eventually burst, survival time would be about 24 hours.
Eventually had arrived.
I immediately called Yale and tracked down the vascular surgeon on call. He told me there were advanced surgical procedures that might prolong grandpa's life. The surgical team was poised to try. "I can see the chopper now," the surgeon told me. "Your grandfather is on the landing pad."
In the commotion, I told the surgeon that my grandfather didn't want surgery.
"But," the surgeon began.
No buts. And no tubes down his throat. No dye in his veins. No bag to catch urine. He had a living will that specifically stated: "I, Merle Shelton … request that … I be allowed to die and not be kept alive through life support systems."
My instinct was to tell the surgeon to do everything possible to keep my grandfather alive. But my conscience said otherwise. Ever since my grandmother passed three years ago, he had been dying from a broken heart. His body was breaking down, too. And he had Parkinson's. Life had become all about managing pain. Now that Mother Nature was calling his number, he wanted to bow and walk off stage.
A little while later the surgeon called back. "We're going to let nature take its course," he told me.
I grabbed my black suit and started the trek up I-81 toward New England in hopes of arriving in time to say goodbye. The long drive gave me time to reflect.
No man influenced me more than my grandfather. My mother and I moved in with my grandparents when I was 11 months old. From that moment my grandfather raised me like his own son. I grew up calling him "Pop." My children claim him as their grandfather.
To me he was John Wayne, Mickey Mantle and Douglas MacArthur all in one — gritty, heroic and a soldier. In World War II he was a torpedoman in the South Pacific when the Japanese surrendered. He served in the Korean War, too.
War is hell. Maybe that's why my grandfather's favorite place to be was on a lake in a rowboat with a fishing rod, or deep in the New Hampshire woods, tracking a deer through snow. Nature was his heaven.
Outdoors is where he opened up. He never said much. He just showed me things, like how to sharpen a pocketknife; tie knots with rope; bait a hook; clean a gun barrel; use a compass; and keep my feet warm in sub-freezing weather.
At home in the yard, he taught me to straighten a rose bush with twine and a stake; plant vegetable seeds; chop and stack firewood; oil a mitt; and choke up on a bat.
He introduced me to The Beatles, The Doors and Sinatra; to Walter Cronkite, The Andy Griffith Show and Perry Mason; to goose-down vests, felt-lined boots and flannel shirts; and to pretzel rods, blue cheese dressing and buttermilk.
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