The very first memory I have of my grandpa is of him sitting behind the wheel of his car with all the windows rolled down as his wide, toothy smile hovered over my tiny head. Of course it was scorchingly hot because the only time I ever really got to see my grandpa as a child was in the summer. Every four years our family would be moving between duty stations due to my father's job in the Navy and we'd come back to the dusty roads that cut across the quiet town of Sandwich, Illinois. For a few blissful weeks I'd get to enjoy the loving arms of my grandma, the wet crunch of charcoal roasted sweet corn on the cob, and car rides to the local airport with my grandpa.
He never was a very talkative person, and as I was a child I don't suppose he really had much to talk to me about anyway. But that didn't stop him from loading me into his car every now and then and driving five minutes down the road to the regional airport. This was the 80s, well before 9/11 changed the way people interact with airports forever. No one batted an eye at the hulking bulk of his giant four door sedan pulling off the road and parking along the drainage ditch that ran perpendicular to the airport's runway. We'd sit there for what seemed like ages without speaking a word, the void filled with the hushed tones of Hank Williams Jr. or Reba McEntire on the radio. Both of our heads thrust toward the sky as we gleefully watched airplanes take off and land over our heads.
I'd shift and twist on the frying pan of a seat below me, my thighs sticking to the seat as sweat pooled beneath my skin. In retrospect it seems silly, but I'd imagine that these planes were arriving from and headed off to all sorts of exotic destinations. Cairo! Paris! "How exciting!", I would think, never realizing that they were most likely headed to places like Cairo, Illinois and Paris, Tennessee. But that didn't matter. Imagine the food they would eat! Imagine the sights they would see! As my head tilted and tittered from window to windshield, my imagination had already transported me to far off, distant lands.
While I was fairly accustomed to travel by this point in my life, it was something I associated with work. My father's job would move us from Navy base to Navy base on a regular basis, so the only time we went somewhere new was to make it a new home. The concept of travel for pleasure was something I had never considered until I found myself sitting next to my grandpa between a cornfield and an airfield letting my imagination run wild. I was giddy from the thrill of this possibility.
Eventually I'd be jostled out of my daydreams of Egyptian pyramids and Parisian cathedrals by the throaty rumble of the car's engine roaring back to life. Grandpa would turn his head to me with that wide, toothy smile and and tell me it was time to go home. He'd angle the car back onto the road and we'd drive the five minutes back to the house, all while visions of far flung locales meandered through my head.
On November 8 of last year, my grandfather passed away. His health had been steadily declining every since my grandmother passed two years prior on Halloween. I suppose I had been mentally preparing for his death for quite awhile. It sounds so awkward to say something like that - "mentally preparing for his death." That's just the reality of life though. But knowing that something is coming doesn't make it any less painful when it arrives. And despite progressively knowing the end was getting nearer those two years I still found myself woefully underprepared for his passing.
I had just gotten off a fourteen hour flight from Chicago to Abu Dhabi when I received the news. I connected to the airport's free wifi and suddenly my phone exploded with messages from family. Conflicting information from different sources left me confused and agitated. Someone said it didn't look like he'd make it through the night. Someone else said the prognosis was good and he might make a full recovery. I didn't know what to do so I simply found a quiet corner of the terminal to sit down and pull myself together.
It was the most helpless and isolated I'd ever felt in my entire life. I wanted nothing more than to hold his hand one last time and I was 7,000 miles away with no path home. I wanted to cry but the tears didn't come. Instead I hopped onto the internet to find a way home. A lot of money, an overnight stop in Mumbai, two intense immigration interviews about my strange trip, and a stress-filled 32 hours later I was on the ground in Chicago holding his hand.
It was cold and frail but that didn't matter to me. It was the hand that held my Grandmother's and promised eternal love. The hand that held the bottle for my infant father. The hand that held the squash in all the goofy photos I wanted to take as a child. And it was the hand that turned the steering wheel of the car on all those drives to the airport that I treasure today.
He passed away a few hours after we left the care center that night. A few days later I had the great privilege of carrying his casket into St. John the Baptist Catholic Church where he was remembered with the most tender love and devotion friends and family can give. He's buried exactly where he wanted to be - next to my grandma in a quiet plot where the sky is big and red birds sing. The cemetery is five minutes down the road from the airport and on the day of his funeral I couldn't help but laugh and quietly cry as we drove past. Despite the bitter winter winds I flashed back to the heat of summer and wide, toothy grins.
He's been gone for several months now but he lives on in so many ways. Every airplane I spot flying overhead is a reminder of the smell of kicked up cornstalks dancing under propellers. Every photo of an airplane I take is the memory of my hand extending toward the sky as planes buzz overhead. Every plane I board is a reminder of the gift of wanderlust my grandpa gave me all those years ago by giving a young boy a reason to dream a little dream.
For my roots. For my wings. I am eternally grateful.