Jeff Benedict: Saying goodbye to grandpa, the great man who raised me

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 7 2015 2:37 a.m. MDT

Merle Shelton (Provided by Jeff Benedict) Merle Shelton (Provided by Jeff Benedict)

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.

He saved his two most valuable lessons for when I got older: always put my wife and children above everything else; and do whatever it takes to provide and care for them.

When I first started writing, he questioned whether I'd be able to support a family with a pen. But he encouraged me. I knew he became a believer when he'd call and say: "Jeffrey, are you writing today?" I'd tell him that I write every day. He'd say: "Good. You just keep writing."

He wasn't a religious man. But if he doesn't make it to heaven, I don't have a prayer.

Speeding past farms in West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, I could smell the leather of his boots; hear the sound of his duck call; and see the tattoo on his forearm and the smoke rising from his cigarette. Then my iPhone vibrated. I answered. Grandpa's pain was intolerable. So the doctor upped his morphine. Sedated, he would likely sleep the remainder of the day.

I drove faster, intent on being there when he woke up.

Three hours later, another call. "He's gone," said the voice.

Long pause.

I couldn't swallow. A lump formed in my throat.

No matter how much you believe in heaven or an afterlife, death has a way of reducing us to desperate beggars. Especially when you lose a father. Please let heaven be real. Please let him wake up on the other side. Please let me see him again.

I was just outside Allentown, Pa. He died when I was driving through the state he was born in.

I called my wife and she informed our children. Minutes later my 11-year-old son texted: "NO!!! Grandpa is gone? No!!!"

For the next three hours I drove in silence through New Jersey, over the GWB, past the city and up 95 to Connecticut. At New Haven, I turned on the radio. The Hollies sang:

It's a long, long road

From which there is no return

While we're on the way to there

Why not share

And the load

Doesn't weigh me down at all

He ain't heavy, he's my brother.

I wept the final 35 minutes to his house. I entered through the kitchen door, like I always do. His car keys were on the counter next to his baseball cap and prescription containers. There was a pile of unopened Christmas cards on the table, including one from us. The newspapers were piled up, too. The news — politics, the economy, the scores — is trivial when death arrives.

In the living room I half expected to see him in his favorite chair. He did everything from that chair — answer the phone, work through crossword puzzles, watch the Yankees and Giants, read the paper, smoke cigarettes, eat TV dinners, nap and remember his Josephine. Her picture was by the telephone cradle.

Beside the chair I found his pencil clipped to a page in his crossword book. The last word he filled in was "Abuts," the correct answer for "Borders on."

Then I looked at the couch. His green wool blanket flowed to the floor, like a bath robe that had fallen off him on his way to the ambulance. I put it to my nose and inhaled deeply. It had his scent.

His unopened presents were still under the tree. His L.L. Bean boots were by the basement door.

Finally, I walked into his bedroom and sat on the bed. It's the same bed I used to lie on when I was a little boy and he was a strong man. Alone, I let myself be that boy for a minute. I cried.

Then I remembered the poem he wanted read at his funeral:

Sunset and evening star

And one clear call for me!

And may there be no moaning of the bar

When I put out to sea

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,

Too full for sound and foam,

When that which drew from out the boundless deep

Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,

And after the dark!

And may there be no sadness of farewell,

When I embark:

For though from out our bourne of Time and Place

The flood may bear me far,

I hope to see my Pilot face to face

When I have crossed the bar.

No more tears. My sailor has crossed the bar. And I have a eulogy to write.

Jeff Benedict is a best-selling author and a columnist for SI.com. He can be reached at jeff@jeffbenedict.com. He is the author of "POISONED: The True Story of the Deadly E. Coli Outbreak That Changed the Way Americans Eat."

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