I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my maternal grandfather, Louis Segal. He died 15 years ago last month, and I keep thinking of the things I wish we could talk about today.
Papa, as we called him, asked me to take him for a ride to the bank the evening before he died. He got into the car and declared that he felt like “the last rose of summer.” I think he knew he was about to go, and wanted to pull out some cash to buy the family breakfast one last time. In the car, he told me and Erin about life as a kid.
The next afternoon, he took one last deep inhale, and that was that. He died in his favorite living room recliner after a very pleasant morning with family. I wasn’t there, but was told about it. He gave one of my cousins a ten-dollar bill just for the hell of it. I don’t remember where I was, but I can tell you that wherever I was, I was thinking about no one but myself.
That’s how I was back then.
Papa used to have a slogan to describe my selfish exploits as a teen and twenty-something that sounded almost like a sinister campaign slogan: “Bill Brenner. He’s off doing his own thing.” I bristled at that as a teen-age punk. I thought it was cool to be selfish, and he was pissing on my idea of cool. He used to say it whenever I skipped out on a family gathering or made excuses so I wouldn’t have to take him and Nana on errands.
He loved to chomp on a good cigar and eat things that were bad for him. I thought he was being stupid, but today I think he was just trying to live life to the fullest he could. He had parachuted into France ahead of the D-Day invasion in June of 1944. He was at the Battle of the Bulge that December. He took a bullet or two in the leg in Korea. He used to box in the Army and, according to my Uncle Bobby, they used to call him “Silent Segal” because he would take it on the chin quietly. He also beat down his opponents quietly.
He earned the cigars, in my opinion. I yelled at him once for having one. Now I smoke cigars and wonder what it would be like to have one with him, talking about the old days. As a 40-year-old I have an appreciation for the life he lived in ways that were beyond the comprehension of me as a twenty-something. The first time I realized what I missed was when I saw the movie “Saving Private Ryan” in 1998.
The beginning of the film is bone-chilling and almost beautiful in its rawness. You see scenes of soldiers lying on the beach with their intestines hanging out and you try with all your mental might to grasp what it must have felt like to be in the middle of that chaos. My grandfather was there, and could have given me the appropriate description.
He liked watching M.A.S.H., but it took me a couple years after his death to appreciate that, too. If he were here today, we could laugh over some of the show’s funnier moments. He’d also tell me all the ways the show was bullshit when stacked against reality.
Fast forward to 2011. Papa is long gone. I think he would have liked hearing my stories about the world of security, which I write about in my day job. He also would have been sad and probably angry with me for not talking to my mother. He might have stared at me as I told him about my addictions and mental disorders and told me to get a grip on things. But deep down, I think he would have understood.
He wasn’t insensitive. He was just of a different generation. His generation survived the Great Depression and saved the world from the evils of Nazi Germany. I can see where something like OCD might seem trivial by comparison.
He would have been sad to see his grand-daughter Melanie going to dialysis three days a week. But he would have been proud as hell of the positive spirit she gives off and the lack of complaining on her part.
The lesson of this post if to appreciate the older people in your life. Hug them. Learn from them. Enjoy their stories.
And, if you’re into it, smoke a cigar with them.