One last goodbye
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
I find myself glancing at the picture often these days.
He is doing his best to hold back that megawatt grin – one capable of upstaging even his favorite baby blue golf pants – but I know my grandfather must have been ready to burst on the inside. No one would blame him. It is not every day that someone gets to pose next to Willie Mays, Gordie Howe, Johnny Unitas and Joe DiMaggio. The chance meeting took place at a charity tournament back in the ’90s.
Richard Maletz, the balding banker from Huntingdon Valley, flanked by the Say Hey Kid, Mr. Hockey, the Golden Arm and Joltin’ Joe. I still find it hard to believe my eyes.
One thing always came to mind when I gazed at the unlikely fivesome: My grandfather is the luckiest man on earth.
I was mistaken. I now know that Mays, Howe, Unitas, DiMaggio and all of us are the fortunate ones.
I realized this last week, when everything changed.
Maybe it was exchanging words and tears with those that crowded the pews at St. Christopher’s Church outside Philadelphia on Saturday. They came to pay their respects to a man of great integrity and unyielding personal conviction. A man who left an indelible impression on everyone he met.
A man whose heart gave out far too soon.
Maybe it was hearing the stories. Stories of an American hero, a chief quartermaster on the USS Harrison during World War II, a member of “The Greatest Generation”. His fleet was routinely strafed by Kamikaze aircraft and engaged in some of the fiercest engagements in the South Pacific – Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal, to name a few.
He fearlessly navigated the Harrison into battle and into prodigious ocean swells. The fact that he could not swim seemed of little consequence.
Stories about a man who gave everything but asked for little more than a smile or a handshake in return.
Maybe it was the letter from a waitress at his favorite restaurant.
“I just wanted to let you know how truly fond of your grandfather I was,” she wrote. “He was a wonderful man, and I will miss him. Thank you for sharing him with me.”
Maybe it was scrolling past his name in my phone for the first time.
Maybe it was finding three binders full of jokes in his office, and coming to grips with the fact I’d never hear that gravelly baritone laugh again.
Maybe it was dropping off nine bags of his clothes at Goodwill.
Maybe it was visiting his house, which is uncomfortably silent now. The lawn where he taught me how to grip a knuckleball and a 9-iron, where I picked up stray branches and did other chores in exchange for a few precious minutes of playing catch. The shallow creek down the hill that I aimed for when he pitched to me (I used a cane I found in the crawl space for a bat).
The kitchen table where we used to scrutinize box scores and thumb through the Inquirer over bowls of Cream of Wheat. The television around which we huddled to watch the Phillies and the Eagles.
The chair where he used to sit for hours, watching the news, completing crossword puzzles, reading my articles. The chair where he took his final breath. Where, on Memorial Day, with a half-eaten Hershey’s bar and his well-worn Harrison ball cap at his side, he fell asleep.
We lost a friend that day. We lost a role model, a church money counter, a golfing partner, a comedian, a story teller, a good tipper. We lost a hero.
I’m one of the lucky ones. I have experienced loss, but I also realize how much I have gained.
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It’s that time of year — hikers and mountain bikers must be aware that seasonal closures are taking effect on multiple trails in the area today for the winter for the benefit of wildlife.