Editor’s note: Cartoonist Darrin Bell has dedicated this week’s installments of “Candorville” to his late grandfather. He recently blogged about their relationship.
My first memory of my Grandpa Roscoe was when I was about three or four. Like most black people of his generation, his living room furniture was shrink-wrapped in plastic. I didn’t know what that meant. I climbed up onto the couch, and as soon as I stood up, I slipped and fell off. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I knew it was going to hurt. Just then, a figure rushed in through the door and caught me in one hand. I looked up, and it was my grandfather. He looked so strong, so big, so still. Like a statue.
The statue smiled at me, put me back on the couch, and then in an instant he had disappeared around the corner into the dining room. I peeked around the corner thinking I’d see him, but he was gone. I remember panicking, thinking I’d never see him again. But he’d just gone on ahead to the barbecue outside. When I went out myself, I saw him and I was happy.
My grandfather lived to be 94 years old. He endured and prevailed over racism with class and dignity. He fought in World War II at the Battle of Guadalcanal and many other places. He raised a family. He drove cable cars and then a bus for Los Angeles’ Rapid Transit District for over 40 years, and when he retired he turned his attention to creating the semi-annual Bell Family Reunions. He became the family historian. He was our living history. Grandpa Roscoe lived his life exactly how he wanted to, with integrity, humor and perseverance. He was devoted to his church, to his family, to the community and to helping and setting an example for young people in Sunday School and beyond.
Everything I ever did well in life was in an effort to make my grandfather as proud of me as I was of him. But I always suspected I could never quite measure up to what he wanted in a grandson.
I found out in the mid-’90s that I was wrong about that.
My grandfather subscribed to the Los Angeles Times because it was running my editorial cartoons, even though he resented the paper dating all the way back to how it covered the 1965 Watts Riots. Years later, he carried around a rolled-up copy of the L.A. Times comics page, to show friends, family and even strangers what his grandson did.
One of my best friends
Later in life, I got to know him. When I moved back to L.A., I started interviewing him on camera about his life. And to my surprise, over the next few years he became one of my best friends.
My friend gave me the most incredible, indescribable honor there is:
He chose me to be with him to the end. Mine was the last face he ever saw, the last voice he ever heard, the last touch he ever felt in this world.
Several weeks ago, my fiancee and I moved in with my grandfather because he’d had a stroke and didn’t think he should live alone anymore. As we pulled up with the moving truck, my uncle Nathaniel Crawford was leading Grandpa Roscoe out to his car, to take him to Kaiser.
He was never the same. He declined rapidly after that. When doctors asked whether we wanted him in the hospital or at home, none of us had to think twice. Grandpa worked hard for his house; he loved it as if it were a member of his family, and there was no way we would allow him to spend his last days surrounded by strangers and tubes in an unfamiliar place.
I knew that this meant I would be the one to find him, when the day came. And I tried to prepare myself for that.
I had the honor of being his primary caretaker, and together with my fiancee Makeda Rashidi, Uncle Nat, my Aunt Alta Faye Crawford and my grandfather’s companion Dr. Bennie Reams, we made sure Grandpa was never alone. I cared for him from sunup until I put him to bed, and then I would check on him throughout the night. A few times, I had to choose between staying by his side and going into the other room to draw my cartoons or update the website, and for me it was an easy choice.
He rapidly went from walking around (quickly) with his cane to using a walker to needing a wheelchair, and finally to being bedridden for the final two weeks of his life.
I spent priceless hours talking and laughing with him, watching over him, learning from him, sharing stories, sharing TV shows, sharing photos, sharing visits from family and friends, sharing moments helping him do things I never thought I’d enjoy helping anyone do … and lastly – when he could no longer speak and was somewhere far away from us all – I would just rest my hand on his chest, sit beside him and share the silence.
Begging God for more time
I begged him to start eating, told him that when I have a child he’s going to be named after him and I’m going to want him to help me raise him. At night, every night, I would rest my hand on his forehead and say a prayer over him, then lean over and kiss him on his forehead, and say “Good night, Grandpa. I love you. I’ll see you in the morning.”
I was strong for him when I was in his presence. But then I’d go into my bedroom, close the door behind me, and sometimes weep like a baby in the arms of my fiancee. One night, I just buried my face in my pillow and cried, “I’m not ready!” over and over again. I begged God for just two more years with Grandpa, but not if it meant he’d have to suffer.
The final words Grandpa Roscoe spoke with his voice, before he lost it, came when I was putting him to bed a few weeks ago. He struggled to say it. He said, “I love you, Darrin.” Then he tried to say “good night,” but nothing came out. I never heard his voice again.
Whispering my thanks
At 4:30 a.m. on the morning of April 21, I checked on Grandpa Roscoe. His breathing was shallow and punctuated by gasps. Otherwise he was motionless. I realized he was only hanging on for menow. I laid my head on his chest and listened to his heartbeat. I cradled the top of his head in my right palm and I stroked his right arm with my left hand. I raised my head and whispered into his ear. I thanked him for making me the man I am today, for trusting me and for letting me care for him. I told him what he’s meant to me all my life and what he’s meant to the family. I told him again that my unborn child would be named after him, that I would tell him all about him until he was sick of hearing it and that I would live the rest of my life in a way that would make both Grandpa Roscoe and Little Roscoe proud of me. I told him for the first time it was OK for him to rest. That I would be OK That we all would be OK. That HE would be OK, and that I would see him again.
Then I did what I had done every night since I moved in: I laid my hand on his head and said a prayer over him. Then I leaned in and kissed him on the forehead, said “Good night Grandpa, I love you. I’ll see you in the morning.” I felt him lightly squeeze my hand. I backed away, not taking my eyes off him, watching his stomach rise and fall as he breathed. I turned out the lights. I stood at the doorway forever, just watching my grandfather. Finally, I went to bed.
When I checked on him two hours later, my Grandpa was gone.
He gave me the greatest gift one person can give another: He let me be with him as the world began to fade from his eyes. He let me watch him and care for him and hold him as he had one foot in each world – I saw him go far away… and then slowly fight his way back whenever family visited. I knew he was only coming back to check on us, to make sure we were all going to be OK, to give everyone who visited him a last chance to commune with him. And then, as soon as they left, Grandpa would rush back to wherever it was he was going.
I got to see him have his conversation with God and with his loved ones who went before him. I got to see him looking miles away. I got to ask him what he was thinking, see him consider telling me, and see him smile a little bit as if he’d slowly been made aware of a glorious secret. Every time, he would stop himself from telling me the way you stop yourself from speaking when you don’t want to spoil an incredible surprise.
Grandpa’s greatest gift
Among all the gifts Grandpa Roscoe gave me in the end, the greatest was this: I no longer have any fear of death, because I know for certain from being with my grandfather – from watching how every time he came back to us he came back with more peace and more excitement about where he was going – I know for certain that there’s something more, after the end of this.
Grandpa Roscoe is not gone; he’s just gone on ahead. And I know that when this shrink-wrapped world falls from my eyes like it finally did from Grandpa’s, my grandfather will be there to catch me again.
We laid Grandpa to rest on a sunny day in Inglewood, Calif. I spoke at his funeral, to try and share the gift my grandfather gave me. Every moment is burned into my memory. The first Navy honor guardsman asked if I would receive the flag, then she slipped off her white glove, touched my hand and gave me her condolences. My brother, my cousins and I put on our white gloves and carried my grandfather’s bronze-colored coffin across the bright green grass and rested it on his grave. I sat with Grandpa Roscoe’s sister and brother beyond the foot of the coffin on the east. My brother and Grandpa’s oldest grandson Eric sat to my right. Everyone else gathered to the south. We stood, and covered our hearts as the second guard slowly played taps.
My Uncle George gave a final salute; he’d served in the Navy in World War II, alongside my grandfather and three other brothers who’ve already gone home. The guards removed the flag from Grandpa’s coffin, walked toward me, and parted, stretching the red, white and blue cloth until it was perfectly straight. Then they folded it. They stepped over other names in the grass on their way to me. The first guard handed me the flag.
She slipped off her glove one last time and knelt before me. She said quietly, to me alone, that she was authorized to give me the condolences of the president of the United States. As she said this, my eyes watered and I smiled at the same time, because from the beginning of my awareness of Grandpa Roscoe to the last moments I glimpsed his coffin over the crisp, white-uniformed shoulder of the honor guard, I was never, ever, anything but proud of him.