I told this story to someone I met last night and she said I should write it down, so here goes:
My grandfather lived to be 91. He was a healthy, active man most of his life, but in the last several years his health began to decline. He had cancer and was determined not to let cancer eat away his life, so in his late eighties he shoveled his own sidewalks – and those of his neighbor. A heart attack was a much better way to go. He did have heart problems and suffered a stroke, as well as other illnesses that took away his mobility, but my grandfather was also a stubborn man, and he hung on. I spent some time with him so my grandmother could go to church (he stayed at home until the last few days, and my grandmother, a strong, stubborn woman in her own right, cared for him). One day my aunt told me that he’d complained that he felt useless. That hurt us. He may have been confined to his home, or even his bed for much of the time, but he still had a huge impact on our lives. I wrote him a letter telling him how important he was to me. Even though he lived just a mile or two away, I sent the letter through the mail because the formality seemed to give the letter more weight. It perked him up so much! My aunt suggested that for his upcoming 90th birthday, we all write him letters. She assembled the letters in a scrapbook and decorated the pages with photos and embellishments. At his 90th birthday party, we each read out letter out loud to him. The common vein through all of the letters was his singing. When my grandfather was young, he had pneumonia. His doctor said he should live in the west for a while to allow his lungs to heal, but his parents couldn’t afford to send him. One night when he was about 16, he packed up his belongings, left a note for his parents, and went west – by himself. He spent some time working on a ranch in Wyoming, and I believe that is where he picked up some of his cowboy songs. My favorite was “The Old Gray Mare,” but most of the letters mentioned “Strawberry Roan.” My uncle was the last person to read his letter, and he told of finding an old cylinder recording of my grandfather singing the Strawberry Roan. He had it converted to a CD, and he played it for us. It was silent in the room, all twenty of us holding our breath so we could hear the recording of a much younger Grandpa singing. Suddenly a quavery old voice joined in – my grandfather, singing a duet with himself. It was a magical moment, and it makes me happy and sad to remember it.