12 February 2015

James Stuart Logsdon, 12/4/1933-2/11/2015

Pappaw and me, December, 1980.
His birth name was James Stuart Logsdon. For select few, he was "Jimmy". For most people, he was "Stu". For me, he was "Pappaw".

Few people have loomed so large in my life as my grandfather. He was not an outwardly affectionate person. He was born without a filter and could - and did - offend pretty much everyone with whom he ever held a conversation. My uncle tells a story of going to lunch once with him, where being seated next to a table of nuns did nothing to discourage his rampant use of four-letter words. He could be belligerent and even boastful about it. I still have not seen Gran Torino, but everyone in my family who has seen it insists that it must surely have been based on my grandfather.

But there was no mistaking his number one priority: providing for his family. My brother remarked yesterday that even though they weren't what you'd call "close", he always knew that if he ever needed any kind of help, he could call Pappaw and know without any doubt that he'd take the call and be there to solve the problem one way or another. Just knowing that kind of help was a phone call away has been reassuring throughout my entire life.

No single event defined his life as much as the death of my Uncle Stuart (James Stuart Logsdon, Jr.) a few years before I was born. I can't think of any subject that came up somehow or other in every single conversation we ever had than Stuart. He remarked often that he saw in me a lot of the same things he saw in my uncle, and that was certainly at the core of our relationship. It wasn't that I was my uncle by proxy; other family members have also attested to our similarities.

I have been chided throughout my entire life for not being more outwardly assertive, that I don't stand up for myself, that I'm a pushover, etc. I have instead always felt that I'm simply not a score-keeper in life, that I'm patient and forgiving, and that under that outward layer of perceived weakness is an inner strength. This was the case for my Uncle Stuart as well. Any time throughout my life that I've doubted my nature, knowing that these were the same inner strengths that my grandfather and others respected and admired in my uncle has assuaged those doubts.

Big Stu & Donnie, circa 1993.
My grandfather's best friend was undoubtedly his brother, Don. They got together daily, or very nearly to it. The fact that my grandfather could so casually alienate people with his tongue attests to their deep understanding of one another. I'm not sure I ever heard of them having any serious falling out at any point in their lives, a testament to Donnie's ability to ignore Pappaw's casual vulgarity and to connect instead with his better traits. I always felt that I, too, had that ability because nothing my grandfather ever said ever fazed me.

In 2000, I had the opportunity to take a two-week course in Cross-Cultural Studies in Barbados. I was working at Cracker Barrel at the time, and I could have paid for it myself - but not in the time that the professor needed the money in order to secure my arrangements. It was my grandfather who made possible my going. He didn't flinch at the price tag, because he believed in education and experience and wanted me to have as much opportunity for both as I could.

Repaying him was out of the question; that's the kind of man he was. Knowing his fondness for beverages of the adult persuasion, I brought back to him a 50mL bottle of Mount Gay Rum as a thank you souvenir. Just a few days ago, I found it in a cabinet in his living room, unopened. It was the only booze to ever go into that house and not be drunk, because he ascribed to it a sentiment that was never articulated in any other way. I was truly touched to discover that he had kept it these fifteen years.

Education was one of the things he emphasized the most over the years, to all four of his grandchildren. He himself had not been a particularly standout student (and I recently came across one of his report cards that attests to that!), but he had scratched and clawed his way up the ladder at Louisville Gas & Electric through hard work and shrewdness. He started in an entry level position, but had reached the position of Senior Public Agency Rep. External Affairs when he retired after 41 years of service to the company. A framed lithograph commemorating his career is one of the few things adorning the walls in his bedroom.

In a rare display of whimsy, wearing my Dukes of Hazzard hat at one of my birthdays.
He took great pride in his career, and rightly so, but he also knew that glass ceilings were constructed throughout his time there and that for his grandchildren to be able to realize whatever ambitions we may have, that we would need the college education that he never had. The days of working your way to the top on skill and merit alone were over; sheepskin was the key to unlocking the next door, and he wanted each of us to have one. I didn't attend my commencement ceremony when I graduated from the University of Louisville (such an event seemed unwise for a guy recently diagnosed with Crohn's disease, after all), but I know without a doubt that had I walked, he'd have been in the audience that day.

My grandfather's favorite (and possibly only) hobby was horse racing. It was he who first took my brother and me to fabled Churchill Downs, during the Fall Meet of 1991. I remember vividly that on our way out, we'd stopped at a convenience store. I bought my very first Star Trek (#26) and Star Trek: The Next Generation (#25) comic books from a spindle there. The weather was dreary and drizzled, but the sheer excitement of going to Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, was akin to going to the Vatican with a devout Catholic.

I've been back to Churchill a few times over the years, and each time I made a point to call him for advice on placing a bet. Not because I necessarily needed the input - I didn't bet enough to worry about losing - but because it was a way to engage him. Those calls only lasted a few minutes, and he never said a word to me about them, but I know he had his TV tuned in and followed the races on which I'd bet, as much to see how I fared as because he was going to watch them anyway.

From left to right: My grandfather, his mother, and his brother.
On Wednesday, 4 February 2015, my grandfather suffered a stroke. I went to see him the next two days. On the first day, I recounted to him an anecdote from my last visit to Churchill. I was with my grandmother, her brother, and her sister-in-law. In one race, the #7 horse named Plenty O'Toole, the name of a minor Bond Girl in Diamonds Are Forever, the seventh James Bond (i.e., 007) movie. I felt like God wanted me to bet that horse. It was scratched. Despite his face being partially paralyzed, my grandfather rolled his eyes and smiled at the story. That was an important moment to me, because it confirmed for me that though he could not speak, but he could understand us still. And also that his wry humor was still intact, because he appreciated the story for what it was. It was, so far as I know, the last horse racing story shared with him.

He was unable to speak, but could squeeze our hands to answer "yes or no" questions. We all asked things like, "Are you cold?", "Are you in any pain?", and "Do you want a blanket?" He insisted he wasn't, wasn't, and didn't, respectively. He squeezed "yes" to some other questions, though. On Saturday, 7 February, my family left the hospital because the staff was going to remove his feeding tube and move him to another room. I had left my phone charger in his room and went back to retrieve it, just before the staff came in to do their business. I paused a moment as we made eye contact.

I placed my hand under his and I asked him pointblank, "Are you scared?"

Pappaw didn't squeeze my hand. He simply looked at me, and we both understood. He was ready to go. I said to him, "Don't worry about us. We're going to be okay. It's okay." He blinked, slowly. We held each other's gaze for a moment or two, and then I left. To my knowledge, that was the last conversation he had. Thereafter, he was heavily sedated with pain medication and remained unconscious for any subsequent visitors. It was comforting for me, and I like to think it was comforting for him, too.

One week to the day after he suffered the stroke, 11 February, my grandmother and I went to see him at the hospice care unit where he had been transferred. He was clearly unconscious, but had great difficulty breathing. It was clear he would not be with us much longer. At one point, he coughed up a little blood. Two nurses came into the room. One wiped his face, while the other swiftly removed his dressing gown and replaced it with a clean one. Just a minute or two later, at 9:30 on the dot, my grandfather passed away. I'm certain that the neat freak in him appreciated going out with a freshly cleaned face, wearing a fresh dressing gown, and the promptness of his time of death.

It will take some time for me to really process what his passing means for me, and for my family. I feel content that I did right by him there at the end, bearing witness without gawking, and showing him the dignity and respect that I always tried to show him. He left explicit instructions that his funerary services be devoid of pomp and circumstance; he hated such productions and wanted none for himself. Such gatherings are for the living, not the departed, but we will honor those wishes in a small service this Saturday. He gave far more than he ever asked in return, after all.

Pappaw & me. Note the LG&E company car outside the house.
For more on my relationship with my grandfather, read "The Great, Every-Other-Weekend Escape".
For more on my Uncle Stuart, read "'From the Jaws of Death' by Stuart Logsdon" and "What They Left Behind".