The Greatest Man I Ever Knew

163020_193161870699889_5287880_n

The red and blue flashing lights, the will reading “do not resuscitate,” the sound of my brothers cries. On January 15, 2009, my grandfather, who I called Opa, which means grandpa in Dutch, died while my entire family was at his house celebrating my sixteenth birthday. With the patriarch of our family missing, it has been difficult to continue life as usual. He was quite a remarkable man and his position in our family will never be replaced.

On May 24, 1927, Johannes Jacobus Rustemeyer was born in the Netherlands. He had a harsh childhood, filled with extraordinary experiences. His mother died when he was four years old, leaving him with an abusive father to raise him. Being the brave spirit he always was, he often took the blame and beatings for his six other siblings. After four years of single parenting, my great grandfather put all his children in an orphanage. He ended up returning a year later to retrieve his daughters and leaving his sons behind. The following year, Adolf Hitler needed young men to work. At the tender age of ten, my grandfather was forced into a labor camp in Poland. When he was finally liberated, he returned to a war-torn Holland and joined the Merchant Marines at fourteen by forging his father’s signature. During his service, he travelled to every continent, except Australia. At age twenty-four, he journeyed to America and immediately enlisted in the armed forces when promised a speedy citizenship in return. My family often reminisces about the first thing my grandfather did fresh off the boat. He walked around, found the nearest bakery, and went in pointing at a strawberry shortcake. Paying for it with the little money he brought with him, he proudly sat on the corner outside the shop and ate it, truly feeling free for the first time. A few years after that moment, one day, while on leave from the Korean War, my grandfather met Rachel Pietropaolo. After months of being pen pals, that same woman became my future grandmother. The two had six kids and eventually six grandchildren.

Unfortunately, after the birth of the sixth grandchild, my little brother, Opa began to show signs of Dementia, a deteriorating brain disease. Having little family history to warn us, the diagnosis was a shock. It was beginning, it was a small annoyance. Opa would forget to turn off a light when he went to bed or leave the water running after he left the sink. However, his condition progressively worsened and ultimately developed into full-blown Alzheimer’s disease. There was no brushing off the symptoms anymore. In fact, my grandmother had to quit her job as a paraprofessional at the local elementary school because my grandfather could no longer be left alone. Alzheimer’s is a frightening sickness that causes delusions as well as memory loss and we witnessed both through Opa’s suffering. The incidents were many, but three stick out in my mind more than the rest. First, he started to forget who the grandchildren were. He called my brother “the boy,” my sister “the girl,” and me “Ann Marie,” which is my mother’s name. Although he didn’t remember any of us, I was called by a name because I look very similar to my mother in her younger years. Next, when he was in the hospital for a congestive heart failure scare, Opa woke up extremely disoriented and wanted to know why strange people were in his kitchen. This made him very anxious, and he ended up running out of the room with a catheter bag trailing behind him down the halls. Finally, he was once in his house and started to believe that the police had bugged it and were spying on his actions. When my uncle, who works for a patrol board, attempted to calm him down, Opa became very violent and took a swing at his own son. Those times were so emotionally draining for us all. I don’t know how my grandmother did it day after day. It was difficult enough seeing him every weekend as we did. The man who we had loved and cherished for years no longer was himself, trapped in a mind that was holding him prisoner. After a long, eight year battle, the heart that endured parental abandonment, the body that survived the starvation of a work camp in the Holocaust, and the mind that could navigate the roughest seas, succumbed to an incurable illness. It will be five years this January since his passing, and I still vividly remember the day he left us.

My birthday began as an enjoyable day. I loved the decorations my friends had made for me on my high school locker, and I even received a surprise cake during my lunch period. Also, I was excited to see my cousins later that night at my grandparent’s house to celebrate my special day. This year, we arrived at the house at five o’clock, which was earlier than usual because my grandfather hadn’t felt well and we didn’t want to keep him up late. An hour into the party, Opa mentioned that he had to leave the room. After a while, we realized something was amiss. My uncles and father went into the other room to see what was wrong. Meanwhile, my grandma gave me a pair of diamond earrings that she said Opa selected especially for me. I opened the box when suddenly, a loud moaning came from the other room. Immediately, my dad rushed in, ordering all the grandchildren to go outside into my family’s minivan. We had no idea what was going on as we waited in the car, trying to comfort one another. That is when the police car pulled up and my brother started to cry loudly. Soon after, my aunt opened the driver’s side door to quietly inform my older cousin and me that our grandfather had suffered a heart attack, not wanting to alarm my already upset younger cousins and siblings that were in the backseat. His living will that read “DO NOT RESUSCITATE,” kept the EMTs that had arrived from doing much. Soon we were told to go into the house and say our goodbyes to our now departed grandfather, who lay in the hallway covered by a sheet. I refused to go in. Having a photographic memory, I did not want the image to haunt me. Guests who had arrived late were in tears from the news. They greeted me with a brutal mix of “happy birthday” and “I’m sorry for your loss” sentiments. It was a horrible combination of emotions. That night, my family went home and we all slept in my parent’s room, trying to comfort my mourning mother.

The funeral was a solemn, cold day. I never shook the eerie feeling that I had while saying the final goodbye to my grandfather in the funeral home, knowing that in the next few hours his body would be cremated. Surprisingly, I didn’t cry the night of his death or even at the funeral service. In fact, it took until the month anniversary of his passing for me to finally let out all my emotions. It didn’t hit me until then that day I would never see Opa again in my mortal life. Before then, it felt as though he was on vacation, but soon he would be at the next holiday gathering. It was difficult to deal with after that sobering revelation, but eventually I got through it. I never stopped missing him nor was able to think about the day he died without having all the sad memories flashing back, but I was capable of accepting reality. Not being around while the family was all together or when we visited my grandmother was a strange, empty feeling, but, as unwanted as it was, soon we all got used to it.

I love my Opa and would give up all possessions to spend one healthy day with him again. He babysat me for the first four years of my life, taught me how to count, and even used to put me in a wagon and bring me to the local park in his town. I will never forget those memories. I’ve learned several things from him and the life he led. To this day, he teaches me lessons as I reflect back on the experiences he went through while examining my own life. I try not to take people for granted, especially my family. I know they are not going to be here forever, so I tell them I love them every chance I can. I also try to live each day to the fullest like my Opa did. He knew how precious life was and how to savor it. Almost five years later and even writing this piece is difficult as I think about my grandfather and the tragic end to his life. However, I now think optimistically and how he was very sick and did not deserve to live that way. There are even times when I can feel his presence around me, like when I sit in his chair at his house or when I find a dime, a sign that my family has deemed as a gift from Opa, letting us know he is with us during tough times. My birthday may never feel the same and I may miss my grandfather everyday; but I stay positive hoping that I will meet him again in Heaven someday.