Thursday, May 17, 2012

In the Wink of an Eye

My maternal grandfather, Raymond Washburn, died peacefully at 3:00 this morning at the Philip Hulitar hospice center in Providence, RI. He would have reached his 92nd birthday in two weeks, on the Tuesday after Memorial Day weekend. We moved him by ambulance to the hospice center around noon this past Sunday - adding an anxious solemnity to Mother's Day for his daughters and wife. It had become clear after a difficult Saturday night that he didn't have much time left. By Wednesday, he was no longer opening his eyes and was unaware of his surroundings, his visiting family, or the staff. It had been a difficult 18 months or so for that side of my family as he started this slide into dementia shortly after his 90th birthday. He had been on oxygen since June 2003 and had stoically dealt with other physical ailments, as the elderly so often do, including a quadruple bypass. He was a fighter. His mind had always been his strength and suddenly even that was failing him. By his 91st birthday, at our traditional annual cookout to celebrate three generations of birthdays all occurring on that one holiday weekend, I had to re-introduce myself to him.

My Granddad was a quiet, dignified man who was always extremely sharp, with a bright wit, and a constant mischievous twinkle in his eye. He could convey more with a subtle wink than most people could say in a verbose soliloquy. He was hungry reader, consuming large quantities of books, including favorites written by Robert B. Parker and James Patterson. He nourished a large appetite for watching sports as well. It basically didn't matter the game; he enjoyed almost all of them in a regular buffet of televised athletics.

Some of my favorite memories of him were discussing the Boston Red Sox or the New England Patriots. Over my own life as a Patriots fan, he took me to my first training camp at Bryant University and I was able to return the favor years later when I had season tickets by taking him to a game at the old Foxboro Stadium. In 1985, I cried confused tears in his living room when my scrappy team of heroic Davids failed horribly in the Super Bowl against an historic Goliath from Chicago. On New Year's Day 1995, our family gathered at the Layfette House in Foxboro for my grandparents' 50th wedding anniversary. A number of us, including my grandfather, spent large chunks of the party sneaking off to the bar area where we watched a Bill Belichick led Cleveland Brown's team knock the Pats out of the playoffs 20-13. For awhile, throughout high school and college, my Christmas gift to him each year was tickets to a Providence Bruins game with me, my Dad and sometimes my Uncle Joel. Hockey was one sport he didn't watch on TV, but still loved going to the games nonetheless.

He carried his love of sports into his own participation in bowling leagues well into his late 80s. When he was forced to stop bowling a few years ago, after falling and injuring himself. I was similarly forced to confront the idea of my grandfather's fragility for probably the first time. He was disappointed to lose his time and camaraderie at the bowling alley but tried to remain active at home, in their large yard, almost until the end (against the advice and wishes of his wife and children!). As recently as last Saturday, unbeknownst to my grandmother, he got dressed in their upstairs bedroom, shuffled downstairs, and was settled in his chair, following the routine he had for years. I can't say for sure, but I suspect that even on that day before he moved to hospice, he still found the time and energy to sneak a tasty morsel of something to his cat and constant companion, Tiger.

My grandfather's 90th birthday celebration in 2010 at Eggs-Up in Cumberland, RI, his favorite (and regular) breakfast spot. I always got a kick out of the amused expressions on his face when my grandmother was telling a story. She is infinitely more loquacious than he was.

He left behind an impressive legacy: a 67-year marriage, six children, 14 grandchildren and 11 great-children (with a twelfth on the way). His children created their own lives and their own families from West Virginia to upstate New York. To this day, the smell of pipe tobacco immediately conjures an image of him snapping a match then taking a satisfied first puff. Whenever I see a car with dealer's plates, I remember visiting him at work at Pierce Chevrolet in downtown Pawtucket. In fact, I purchased my first car from Mandeville Chevrolet in North Attleboro, where he was then lending a hand with their accounting after his "official" retirement.

I was fortunate enough to be able to spend time alone with him early Sunday afternoon. I turned the Red Sox game on and thankfully it was one of the few games this season in which they played well. Despite being quite confused about that day's change of scenery, the anxiety of the ambulance ride, and buried within the cruel fog that had clouded his mind for so many months, he still seemed aware that it was a Red Sox game. He raised his eyebrows and seemed surprised when I told him that they were playing poorly this year. It's probably a tiny blessing in disguise that he was able to maintain much fonder memories of his favorite baseball team than the rest of New England has right now. For a moment, after the nurse pricked his arm with a needle, he was himself again. Charismatic, charming and harmlessly flirtatious. He smiled widely and introduced himself to her, "I'm Raymond!" Turns out, that was the last time he ever spoke. I swear he even tried to wink.

Raymond Washburn 1920-2012. While maintaining a quiet patience, unfailing dignity and a robust mind, he always met the world with a twinkle in his eye.

1 comment:

  1. If anyone reading this blog post has a favorite memory of Ray Wahburn to share, I think it would be great to capture everyone's specific memories in the comment thread. I would like to show them to my grandmother at some point. Thank you!