Earlier today I got a phone call from my mother telling me that my grandfather had a heart attack. About 90 minutes later, I learned he died.
He recently fell in his ice-covered driveway and broke every rib on one side. One of those broken bones pierced and collapsed his lung. He'd been struggling to recover from that, but his blood pressure never made it to normal levels, hovering around 70/30.
We talked several times a week while he worked to get better. We were pretty close. Rogers is not my birth name, but rather the name of the second man that my mom married, a man who was a raging alcoholic. I never knew my bio dad until years later. The examples of men up to that point in my life were pretty much disappointments.
My grandmother, Nana, married Jerry after my mom married Rogers. Nana and Jerry lived in Rockford, Illinois, far from Sioux City, Iowa, where we lived. We saw them a couple of times a year.
Each time I saw Jerry, I saw that he treated Nana with great care and respect, unlike how Rogers treated my mother. Jerry was a strong union man, and not shy about his opinions. He always told me that if I had the courage to speak an opinion, I should have the backbone to sign my name to it - in big letters. He loved America - to the point where he wouldn't buy anything that wasn't American-made.
To me, he came to define what a man was, something my step-father, Rogers, never approached. When my step-father beat my mom and put her in the hospital, it was Jerry who drove from Rockford and beat the living crap out of the man who hurt my mother. It was the last time Rogers touched her.
I'd like to think that it was Jerry's influence that helped Mom finally choose a good man in marrying her third husband, Kerm, who to this day treats my mom with the same great care and respect that Jerry always treated Nana. Though Jerry came into Mom's life when she was well into adulthood, he loved her completely as his daughter. They had a remarkable relationship.
It was this giant of a man who taught me how to be an American, how to love a woman, how to play cribbage, and how to have manners at the dinner table. He was the closest thing to a dad I've known. And I'd like to think that God gave me influence over 6 young men - sons and step-sons - to help carry on what Jerry taught me.
Jerry's greatest gift to me was his unwavering belief in me. He loved my art, raved about my cards, and was always immensely proud of my achievements as though they were his own.
I'm lucky to have known such a truly great man.