The Man Who Stood As Tall As Trees

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Huntsville, June 2013

“Men aren’t built like they used to be.”

I glanced at my dear friend, Rebecca, and her flaming red hair. Internally, my thoughts flashed to the great men in my life, my father and grandfathers, and a lingering image of my Grandpa Cook zipped through my mind’s eye. I shrugged, choosing not to comment. I had lost Grandpa Bob not even a year ago, and the hurt was still raw.

“They just don’t care the same way they used to,” she pressed on. I obviously was not getting out of this one.

I ruminated for a second before answering, “I know a few good ones, they’re around somewhere.”

Rebecca rolled her eyes. “Someone our age. Dylan and I had another fight.”

We continued the trek up to Thompson Hall while she spoke and I listened quietly. Thompson was the building that housed all our Agricultural courses. She was headed to Beef Cattle Management, me, to Forage and Range Management. Dylan had apparently made a comment about the number of male friends Rebecca had, so on and so forth. I did my best to try and actively pay attention to the conversation at hand, but my mind was elsewhere, swimming with thoughts of my grandparents, and how it seemed that things were so much simpler when they were our age. Both sets of them met during college, and promptly set a date for the wedding, and that was that. For my mom’s parents in particular, their romance story was one for the ages.

Left to right: Me, Rachel, Grandma Cook, Sarah, Mom, and Dad, behind Mom, outside their home in Schertz, Texas, circa 1996.

Doris, my grandmother, and Ramon, my grandfather, were set up by a mutual friend that thought that they would be a good match. At the time, my grandmother wasn’t interested, she was a simple country girl from Rockne, Texas, and hadn’t seen any part of the world except for the town in which she lived. There was no need for adventure, though at times, I believe she craved to be able to travel and be free of the responsibility of mothering her older sister with special needs, Teresa.

Grandma and Grandpa, who was attempting the Clint Eastwood smolder.

Grandpa was a stark contrast to Grandma. She stood little more than five feet tall, with a cute button nose and soft blue eyes, and a warm chuckling laugh that could fill a room. She was always working on some sort of fabric or wool craft, and throughout her lifetime, I don’t think I can remember a time when she didn’t have a project in her hands, needles whirring away as if they had a mind of their own. When they were together, which was nearly all the time, she was referred to as “The Little Grandmother.” Grandpa was nearly six and a half feet tall, with sharp blue eyes that disappeared when he smiled, hands so big they could cover my entire head as a child, and a deep gravelly voice that rumbled through his endless storytelling sessions of his travels and adventures. My earliest memories of him always involved how big his hands were around my little ones; being hoisted on his shoulders and feeling as tall as a giant. Growing up, he was a son of a Navy man and a sharp-tempered Slovakian turned first-generation American mother, so he left home in his teens and joined the Navy.

I was so absorbed in my thoughts that I realized that I had stopped in the middle of the hallway, in front of a few photographs of Agriculture students at my college almost a hundred years ago. I glanced at the photos, remembering that they came from the time that my grandparents were setting out on their life together, then set my mind to nitrogen rates in soil and their effect on legumes, and headed to class.

The family members that made it to my wedding: (Left to right, back) Uncle Joe, Uncle Chris, Mom, Uncle John holding Noah, Aunt Mary, and my dad. Front row: Grandpa, Grandma, Mary Ellen (Gary’s widow), and Aunt Kay.

It was only a few moments into the lecture that I began to allow my mind to drift again. This wasn’t the usual habit for me, as I found the course quite interesting, especially with Dr. Bateman’s tangible excitement when he spoke about plants. We had been invited to his home a few weeks prior, and he maintained one of the most spectacular gardens I had ever seen. To this day, six years after graduating from college, that course was, and still is, one of my favorite classes. For me, it was common practice to sit in the front row, raptly absorbing his words like a sponge, and scribbling notes as quickly as my pen could dance along the page. As I wrote the rates of nitrogen supplementation for cold-weather legumes, with my grandparents on my mind, I smiled when I remembered the story of their wedding day.

“I’ve always wondered if she knew of her parents’ disapproval of their nuptials, but deep down I think she knew and simply didn’t care what anyone else thought of her beloved Ramon. “

As Grandfather told it, Grandma was raised in a tight-knit Roman Catholic German community. Outsiders were treated with caution and an aloofness that mimicked the taut-lipped Amish, and it was a normal occurrence for generations to intermarry with distant cousins to keep the religion and German blood as pure as possible. When my Grandfather and Grandmother were finally introduced, Grandpa always said his heart didn’t skip just one beat, but several, as if she stole it from him in that moment. He claims he never got it back. These statements were usually followed with him gazing at my grandmother, or in her general direction, misty eyed with a slight smile. I remember every time this happened, thinking to myself that if I never found a love like that, then I wouldn’t marry, because this was what love was supposed to look like.

Grandpa and me, on the day I attempted to poke an alligator with a stick in Brazos Bend State Park, Texas.

When it came to asking for my grandmother’s hand in marriage, their future plans hit a bit of a snag when my great-grandfather flatly refused to give his blessing. My grandfather always said that when Grandma asked what happened, as she knew there was going to be a ring and a proposal, that she asked him if Grandpa had asked her father for permission for her hand, and was given the simple reply, “Of course I asked.” Naturally, though, he saw it fit to leave out the detail that the answer given was “no,” because her joy was too great for him to upset her. I’ve always wondered if she knew of her parents’ disapproval of their nuptials, but deep down I think she knew and simply didn’t care what anyone else thought of her beloved Ramon.

One of the many times I made Grandpa laugh, probably during a story at dinnertime in my parents home in Sugar Land, Texas.

When it came time for their wedding, she simply told her family that she was leaving, and hitchhiked (by herself) from rural Texas to San Francisco, California where she met Grandpa for their wedding. Cleverly, she had brought a note from her church giving their preacher permission to marry the two of them (how she got that letter I will never know), and they borrowed a church, flowers, and service a few hours before the next wedding that day took place. I believe that they asked a stranger walking down the street to walk her down the aisle, and they had no more than six or seven people in attendance. Grandma sewed her own dress from delicate lace and light blue silk and Grandpa wore his Navy uniform. Their pictures outside the church that day reflect the joy of simply being together that lasted for the rest of both of their lives.

Grandpa, my sisters and I (the unfortunate Native American costume from one of the many Elementary school musical plays)

They started a family almost immediately, first with my Uncle Joe, followed by Uncle Robert, then Uncle Gary, Aunt Kathleen, my mother Margaret, Uncle John, Aunt Mary, Aunt Helen, and Uncle Chris. My favorite cousin and I did the math at one point in time, and found that my Little Grandmother had been pregnant for nearly seven years of her life. My mom’s memories of childhood always bore the routines of having a family of eleven, and usually involved the typical sibling relationship stories, injuries, school, and vacations. It wasn’t until my youngest uncle had left the home to enlist in the Navy that my grandparents began to travel. They trekked through the mountains and forests of Alaska, Europe, the Czech Republic, and all fifty states in the U.S. save for one: Hawaii.

Grandma, on one of their many adventures. “The mountains are calling, I must go.”

Their adventures brought endless stories of their life together as the golden standard for true love and a marriage that lasted nearly sixty years until Grandma became very sick last June, and passed away a few days shy of their anniversary. During the funeral, I sat behind my grandpa, hand on his shoulder as he hummed through the verses of Amazing Grace and said the Lord’s Prayer for her. It was my first time in a church in a few years, as I had excommunicated myself from the Catholic Church for my own reasons, but I shoved my emotions aside and sang the familiar verses while he gripped my hand tightly. Leaving the funeral that day, my husband told me gravely that he didn’t believe Grandpa would hold on for long, and though I disagreed out loud with him, I selfishly hoped that he was wrong.

All the cousins at Uncle Gary and Aunt Mimi’s house during Grandma and Grandpa’s 50th wedding anniversary. From left to right, front to back: Greg, Chris, Merydwen holding Evan, Russell, Grandpa, Seanna, Jean holding Ainsley, (middle) Paul, Grandma, Elizabeth, Me, Rachel holding Jackson, Adam, CJ, Julia (Russell’s wife, correction); (front) Laura, Meghan, Jennifer, Alice, Sarah, Julia, Gigi, and Connor.

He wasn’t wrong. Summer came and went, and with it, my Grandpa’s easy smile. He asked for stories, instead of telling them most of the time, and when the time came for him to start receiving dialysis for his kidneys, he refused. I began visiting him as often as I could, telling him my stories to help him smile. I told him about Houdini and my horses, about a narrow escape with a mountain lion when trail riding in college, about the most spectacular storms I’ve ever seen, trekking through West Texas on my own, reliving every funny memory I could think of. When I couldn’t visit, I called, and when I called, we would talk, usually about not much of anything at all. Despite mine and my cousins’, parents, aunts’ and uncles’ efforts, he was fading. His sadness was more and more apparent by the day, and while I understood he missed Grandma, I don’t think I will ever know how much until I go through the loss of my spouse, though I hope I never have to.

My husband, David, and Grandpa, at our wedding in Angleton, Texas, on March 12, 2015. They were very close.

Grandpa struggled with breathing, and became quite ill during Christmastime, and was hospitalized. I can’t even think of what he was diagnosed with, but I can remember sitting in the hospital with him, practicing using his breathing apparatus to help strengthen his lungs. The entire time he was in that hospital, I felt as if I was holding my breath, hoping that it wouldn’t be where his life ended. A few days later, he was brought back to his assisted living apartment and I felt like I could breathe again. He seemed back to his old ways, impishly harassing the staff and other patients like he used to before Grandma passed away. Most of the family was relieved, but my mother and I agreed that a sparkle was missing from his smile.

Grandpa and me, harassing each other during a family shindig in Katy, Texas, at Aunt Mary’s house.

Last Thursday, my cousin called me and asked if I had heard the news; that Grandpa had suffered a heart attack, and that the prognosis wasn’t very good. I remember telling her that since I wasn’t notified by anyone that something was wrong, I doubted it was serious and that she was more than welcome to come and visit. She agreed, and after we set the dates for her arrival and the duration of her stay, I hung up the phone and immediately called my mom. My stomach sank when she relayed the story of the past few days, of Grandpa being unresponsive and being taken to the hospital. He was going to be released but with twenty-four hour hospice care. My husband had known, considering that he works for my father at the family business, but had been sworn to secrecy. So that Saturday, my cousin, my husband and I all went to see my grandfather for what I feared to be the last time.

David with Grandpa during one of the final days. He had taken over after I was reading to Grandpa.

We walked in, introduced ourselves to the caretaker, hugged my Aunt Kay and Uncle Chris, and I braced myself for seeing Grandpa. His once merrily sparkling eyes were unfocused and he was so very pale. My stomach felt like a bucket of ice. At one point he looked at me, then my cousin, placed his hands on our cheeks, and wearily said, “My two sweet angels.” A few minutes later he beckoned my husband into the room, clasped his hand and told him, “You’re a really great book.” My husband covered Grandpa’s hand with his and said, “I know.” We spent the day comforting him and talking with him as he slipped away, his mind escaping into a copse of an altered reality I have no way of comprehending. The next few days crept by as Grandpa slowly deteriorated. I visited every day and read to him as family members came through and gave their last goodbyes. I watched them shed their tears and felt a twinge of guilt; why hadn’t I cried yet? This man, this wonderful person who meant so much to me, was slowly slipping into a coma, and still, I read him the Bible and Black Beauty, played his favorite music from his iPad (that I remember him conducting while watching the orchestra play in one of his most recent momentary glimpses of happiness), carefully measured the dosages of morphine in the reusable oral syringes, held his hand, and waited quietly for him to succumb to the quiet release of death that I so dreaded.

Reading another chapter of Black Beauty bedside.

Three days passed this way. I informed my students of his predicament when we returned to school, and the entire day I tried and failed miserably to distract myself from my grandfather, laying in his bed, barely breathing through his congested lungs. I continued the ritual of entering the apartment after work, greeting my aunt and the caretaker, asking if there was any change in his condition, even though I knew the answer would always be “no,” or “worse than yesterday”. I would then walk into the bedroom, try to ignore how frail and feeble this once great man looked, a shadow of who he once was, a massive tree never to crash to the ground of the forest, but here he was, barely clinging to life, and I couldn’t look away. So I held his hand, comforted him when he groaned in pain, kissed his forehead, and whispered for him to let go in his ear, over and over, so that he wouldn’t hurt anymore. I hoped desperately that he would hear me somehow.

My younger sister, Sarah, and her husband, Gabriel, at their wedding with Grandma and Grandpa in December 2017. To my knowledge, this was the last wedding they attended together.

The last night I came to visit him, I read six chapters of Black Beauty, even though my voice wavered as I stroked his shoulder. When it came time for me to take my leave, I hesitated, wishing for more time with him, but it was getting late, and I had to get home for dinner with my husband. I gave him one last sweet kiss on his cheek, then his hand, and leaned down to whisper into his ear. “I hope I don’t have to read more to you tomorrow, because that means you’ll still be holding on when we both know it’s time for you to go find Grandma. I love you so much. Please let go. We’ll be okay. I promise.” I stood in the doorway of his bedroom, heaved a large sigh, and bade my aunt and the hospice employee goodbye, telling them I would be back the next day to read more if he made it through the night. At one point in time, I might have asked whatever deity I could to keep him here, for just a little more time, but seeing him like this left an ache in my heart that wouldn’t fade. I thought about the glorious reunion he and Grandma would have beyond the veil of physical life, and the echo of their joy brought me some comfort as I started my truck and began the drive home.

The family with the grandparents at my sister Rachel and Ben’s wedding in Galveston, Texas. From Left to right: Sarah, Grandpa, Grandma, Rachel, Ben, Tony, Mom, Dad, and Me.

I came home, did some laundry, and ate dinner with my husband. We were watching The Big Bang Theory when I noticed I had a few missed phone calls.

Grandpa was gone.

I waited for a rush of sadness, of grief, of anything, but I felt numb. My heart felt raw and though I knew on a subconscious level that tears would eventually inevitably bubble to the surface, they didn’t come. A moment of panic bubbled up as the realization that I would never speak to my grandfather again. But then, I thought again about the reunion. The happiness. And the smiles on their faces for finally being reunited. I could almost hear Grandma’s voice saying, “What on earth took you so long?” I pictured her reaching up to cup his grinning face into her hand. I imagined Grandpa’s squinty-eyed smile, eyes brimming with tears, as he would sweep her off her feet into a joyously twirling hug. Here, he was the giant Sequoia tree again, proud, tall, and strong. Grandma would be weeping with happiness, and he would be greeting long lost friends and loved ones with joy and laughter, all while Little Grandmother’s hand was encased in his. And there, thinking of them and their eternal happiness of being a twosome once again in the afterlife, I found my peace. After all, this goodbye wasn’t for forever, just until the next time. Content with the image in my mind, I decided it would be worth the wait.

In Loving Memory of Doris Cook and Ramon Cook

May they never be parted again.

Corrections: Mixed up names in family photo with cousins; German to Slovakian descent for my paternal great-grandmother; mistype in order of birth of Uncles. Corrected 2/4/19.


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