A Heartfelt Commemoration
Kelly and I walked into the grand ballroom in our formal attire. We had gone shopping with Chelsea the week prior, as she insisted we dressed well for the auspicious occasion. One hundred years of birthdays. It was hard to imagine. Twinkle lights and Christmas trees lined the room, and elegantly dressed people moved in a flow that matched the holiday music, greeting and kissing one another in rhythm. I almost felt out of place. Kelly nudged my elbow.
"I see Grandpa." She pulled me along as we moved from the stately entrance toward a side of the room displaying a massive screen of scrolling pictures. Photos depicted Grandpa as a very young man with his family in the early 1900s, then later years in the height of his career as renowned head chef of the Drake hotel.
Movie stars, politicians, dignitaries, socialites, and singers graced the screen, each with Grandpa in his chef's attire by their side. I had done some leg work collecting photos and articles that all featured him throughout the years. He was nothing short of impressive, the Big Man from Little Village as one article in the 1950s described him. He had seen so much, and I was learning to soak in as much as I could. Chelsea had collected all the family photos, and a beautiful montage of pictures and film scrolled behind us.
"Hey there, St. Louis." I smiled and bent down to kiss his forehead. "Hey, Grandpa. Happy birthday." We crouched next to him to make sure he could hear us amongst the crowd of people gathered around to greet him.
"Thanks so much for inviting us, Grandpa," Kelly said. "This is amazing."
"Ah, don't be too impressed, girls. They only highlight the big stuff. After a hundred years, they're bound to find something good to say," He chuckled. "You know, I'm glad I lived to be a hundred. It gives me a chance to hear what people would've said at my funeral." He let out a hearty guffaw, and the small crowd around him chuckled and snorted at his humor.
He wasn't wrong. That night, the speeches were plentiful and the accolades were astounding. Not only had the man salvaged his own father's failing business upon his brother's death, but he had also supported and housed three additional refugee families himself, ultimately employing them as tailors and shopkeepers until the business flourished again, all the while maintaining his status as one of the most beloved chefs in the Chicagoland area during his heyday. I learned much more than my research had unveiled, and realized that the lessons in hard work, sacrifice, and love that he would talk about during our weekly visits were the results of triumphs he had seen.
Then came his turn for a speech. Chelsea's son, Chase, now standing taller than his grandfather who bent with the use of a cane, escorted Grandpa to the stage. It had only been months since I met the family, but the squared, broad shoulders that overshadowed the pages of my novel in September quickly drooped in fatigue by December. I sighed.
He lifted a neatly folded paper from inside his suit pocket, gently unfolding it as the rustling paper echoed in the microphone." Thank you all for coming this evening," he began. "Thank you to my family–I won't name you all–and thank you to my friends. Young and old, new, and lifelong." He paused. "Although no one here has truly been my lifelong friend, but I'm happy that I can be that for all of you." He bent his head toward the audience with a grin and raised an eyebrow, looking over his glasses, as the crowd laughed and applauded. "I want to thank you for the lovely words spoken about me this evening, but please know that my greatest achievement has been that I loved and have been loved in return." His voice sounded as if it was cracking a bit with emotion.
A small hush seemed to waft over the room as people leaned in for a serious moment from the jubilant Grandpa."If there's one lesson I've learned in my100 years, it's that love–the kind that fulfills you, sustains you, and pushes you onward–is a love that gives. Oftentimes people told me that I would run myself ragged. That I was giving too much and killing myself in the process." Another long pause. "Joke's on them." His playful personality couldn't help but add some levity into the mix, as the two hundred-plus laughed and applauded again. "In a world of takers, be givers. In a world of finding yourself, find a way to help someone else. In a world of all-about-me's, be all about others. Because in doing so, you will find that others fill you up. When trying to be what is best for someone else, the beauty of what they pour into your life is most gratifying. Be diligent, be prudent in your choice of friends, discern, but ultimately, believe in people. And when they let you down, find the goodness in humanity that shines brightest in darkness. Love, and it will return to you. Be the good. Live long and prosper." He smiled slyly holding up his hand with crooked fingers still able to depict the Trekkie sign. The entire group stood to their feet, laughing, wiping tears, and applauding. He embodied what he said, and we all knew it.
An Unwavering Friendship
My weekly visits with Grandpa quickly turned into two or three, and I had convinced Chicago Magazine to pick up a historical piece on his life to be featured in several issues in over a few months during the year that followed. I had been writing feverishly, booking freelance articles as much as I could in order to gain a good standing with them and pitch my piece. They bought in. The editor wanted to meet the man, schedule a photo shoot in his home, and dig up any article that may have been done in the past about the captivating Roger Haberdash.
"Why would they be writing an article now?"
"Well, I'm writing the article, and I want to capture your story as much as possible."
"Before I'm gone?" He said in a sing-song tone with a wink, knowing that I was uneasy with his lighthearted approach to the subject.
"Yes." I said sharply, swinging my head toward him with my best scolding stare, but instead laughed at the thought of trying to correct him. "Your story is compelling–full of history that we shouldn't forget. I didn't get to know until your ninety-ninth year, and now I feel like I can know what you were like throughout your entire life, you know?"
"Ah, so this is a selfish project?" he chuckled.
"Very much so," I conceded, "I guess it is." I smiled, giving him a hug, and making sure that he took a rest on the sofa.
Kelly joined us after her morning shift at the hospital as we tidied up the house and updated the heavy drapes with lighter ones to get more natural light to shine through. "We can put the old ones back up if this is too bright for you, Grandpa," she said as he squinted his eyes open after dozing off on the couch.
"Oh, no, honey. This is really nice. I probably thought my eyesight was worse than it actually is because of how dark it has been in here," he let out a laugh which led into a cough.
"You should really let me take a look at you. A cough can be serious for someone your age. Let me just listen to your lungs, okay?"
"Well, you don't have to throw my age in my face," he chuckled, trying to stifle the cough.
Kelly laughed, shaking her head at him and climbing down from the chair she was on to hang the curtains. She walked to the sofa and felt his head, looking into his eyes. "Well, no fever. That's good."
"I feel fine, really. I just get tired a lot quicker these days, but at my age..." he said wagging his head in a mocking tone, letting his voice drift off.
"Oh, don't be stubborn," Kelly scolded, "Nikki's going to bring you in on Monday, okay? For our peace of mind." She kissed his forehead, then headed off to grab a duster.
The camera crew came and went, and Grandpa quickly drifted to sleep again before Kelly and I had gathered our things and left that day.
An Inevitable Departure
Monday came, and I met Chelsea at the hospital to make sure she found Kelly, hoping not to intrude too much on their family privacy. "I don't have to stay. I just wanted to make sure that you got here all right and that he's okay."
"Oh, please stay. I want to hear more about the piece in the magazine."
Kelly greeted us with a smile as Chelsea filled out all the paperwork and I led Grandpa to a seat in the waiting area. His name was called, and Chelsea and I were left to talk about the piece in Chicago Magazine, the concern for his health, and how her newfound freedom of retirement was treating her. Minutes turned into hours, and we anxiously awaited any news.
When it did come, it was somehow an expected surprise. He had pneumonia. It had weakened his aging heart, and they wanted to admit him for further observation.
Many Mondays followed that long day. And each one, you could find me by Grandpa's bedside for a few hours of the day, soaking in the moments that I could. Trying to fact-check when he was able, and showing him the progress of his very own historical feature piece. Late in May, a certain Monday arrived that I could take him the first in-print Roger Haberdash Story. I could hardly contain my excitement.
Entering the hallway I was all too familiar with, I looked through the large window of Grandpa's room, seeing a group of people around the bed. "Sing me a song," he whispered as I entered the room, standing behind the line of family members that surrounded him. One of the granddaughters started to sing Amazing Grace, as a few others joined in.
Chelsea walked to the corner of the room to a chair where her violin was placed. "I knew he would ask for music," she said, her voice choking.
I stood silently against the back wall as an observer, wishing I could make myself invisible and hover over each shoulder feeling the memories that they had shared with their beloved family member. No one had noticed me yet, and I increasingly felt as if I was out of place, so I started to tiptoe out. As I did, Chase saw me out of the corner of his eye and moved toward me.
"Hey, thanks for coming!" he said quietly.
"I didn't know...I mean, they must have called you all, and I don't want to intrude."
"No, please, it's fine. He would want you here," he said softly.
"I always come on Monday," I whispered. I didn't know what to say. Beginning to cry, I handed Chase the magazine. "I knew he'd want to see it for himself." I headed toward the door.
"Please come and give it to him yourself."
"I don't know if I can. You guys are having such a special time, and I probably shouldn't be here."
The violin began to play a slow sonata, and I couldn't keep the tears from flowing in abundance. People moved in and out of the room, swaying to the cadence of the music, and shifting here and there to say their goodbyes. Chase gestured toward me to come close to the bed, handing Grandpa the magazine. "It's done, Pops. Nikki brought you the article."
"Hey, St. Louis," his voice was barely a whisper.
I couldn't say a word. I kissed his forehead and felt warm tears flow down my cheeks.
"It's okay, St. Louis. I've lived a good, long life. It says so right here." He tapped the magazine with his finger, looking up at Chase with a sideways smile.
"Thank you," I finally muttered. "Thank you for everything."
He held my hand for a moment as I breathed in and out. "I truly can't thank you enough."
He slowly winked toward me one last time. Chase held my hand.