My grandfather passed away in December of 2019. He was one month shy of 96. I was named after him, in a way—while he was born Alexander Christopher, and I gladly carry on his middle name, everyone called him Punch. I never got to ask him how he got that nickname, but being named Christopher has always been a point of pride for me.
Punch was and still is one of the best men I’ve ever known. My father—Punch’s son—left when I was 9. He and I never reconnected until I was much older, and, as a result, I never considered that I had a male role model until I was going through counseling as an adult. My therapist helped me to realize that Punch was the man I wanted to become—kind, warm, intelligent, and wholesomely humorous. He worked hard to provide for his family. He cherished his roots and didn’t hide from his past. He was humble, and he was never afraid to show his love.
The last time I saw him was in 2014. My wife and I took a whirlwind drive down to Southern California to visit him at the home that he and my grandmother had owned since the ’70s. Between two jobs and preparing for my first semester of graduate school the following month, my schedule was hectic, but we felt that we needed to make time to see him. He had always come across as a stoic sort of man who exuded positivity no matter the circumstance, but after Mannon, my grandmother, moved into an assisted living facility, he had become much more vulnerable. When we talked on the phone on birthdays and holidays, he still retained his joyous aura, but it had started to become tinged with a touch of sorrow. The email forwards that he had sent regularly became more and more sparse. Suddenly, his home was emptier than it had ever been before. So, we left Sacramento early on a Monday morning in August with plans to return by Tuesday night.
On the way, we lamented what little time we had to share with him. We had tried to arrange visits with him before, but they always fell through; he would provide some sort of generic rebuff and quickly change the subject. We didn’t realize until much later that Punch had been trying—albeit unsuccessfully—to manage Mannon’s descent into dementia without assistance. What little energy he had at 90 years old was being poured into his marriage, which left him little time for putting up airs and entertaining guests. It took much convincing from my dad and his sister to get my grandpa to realize that committing their mom was in everyone’s best interest and that it wasn’t selfish.
When we finally made it to see him on Tuesday morning, the house was almost exactly how I remembered it from my youth. Everything from my grandma’s paintings hanging in the living room to the original in-wall oven from the 1950s was almost exactly how it had always been. The trees in the back yard were bowing with heavy, ripe oranges, and the tortoises they had always kept were still sauntering about. The only thing missing was Mannon.
We shared some instant coffee and donuts. We asked him about family stories that my wife and I had never heard before. We talked about the weather and college and baseball. We chatted about everything and nothing; more than anything, it felt great to just share the same space with him. And then, suddenly, he asked if we wanted to take a trip to see Mannon.
As we pulled out of the little neighborhood that I was so familiar with, my grandpa drove east across an overpass, took the first right, and followed it with the first left. The street dead ended at what looked like a Victorian hotel; it was four or five stories of ornate decoration, surrounded by greenery. We pulled in to the parking lot about five minutes after leaving the garage, and, after another five minutes of checking in at reception, we started making our way to my grandma’s room.
Punch told me he visited every day, and it wasn’t until we passed through the building itself that I really understood that he meant every single day. Everyone—the receptionist, janitorial staff, orderlies, other residents—greeted him by name, and he responded with contagious warmth as we passed through courtyards and winding hallways. When we finally got to her room, I don’t think that I knew what to expect. I had a grandmother that I remembered from my youth—the one who was a speech therapist, who painted, who helped me bake cookies, who would watch action movies with me—but the woman that we met was someone else entirely. She laid prone in a medical bed. Her hair had thinned tremendously, her face was pale and punctuated with bruises that I didn’t dare ask about, and her voice rattled with incoherence, but she was beautiful in spite of the somberness.
We sat and Punch let my wife and I speak to her first. My grandma didn’t acknowledge us, but we spoke anyway—of our love and appreciation for her, of our hopes for her and our sorrows. But when my grandpa took her hand in his, a familiar spark shone through the darkness. She became animated, and she began trying to speak, and that’s when my grandpa’s composure crumbled before us. He wept and spoke softly to her, pulling his chair so close to her that I couldn’t make out what was being said.
As we returned to my grandparents’ house, the day started coming to a close, but we found it so difficult to leave. We went through some old photographs and had lunch. My grandpa helped us pick enough oranges to fill two large paper grocery bags for the trip home, and though none of us wanted it to end, our lives in Sacramento were calling. So we said our goodbyes and headed north.
Mannon passed away less than a year later. My grandparents had married after Punch returned from serving in the navy during World War II. I can’t begin to imagine how much of life they experienced across their over 70 years of marriage, how intertwined they became, and how painful it must have been to slowly lose the mother of your children before your very eyes. Even though we didn’t have much time to spend together, the Tuesday that my wife and I got to spend with Punch was one of the most important and informing days of my life.