Grandparents seem to fall into one of two distinct groups: they can be unknowable entities that we are forced to visit through obligation; shriveled creatures who seemingly live on another plane of existence as relics of times gone by. Or, they can be loving mentors that support us and willingly give sage advice; human teddy bears who want to see us succeed in life and look forward to our accomplishments. I have been lucky enough to have the second type on both sides of my family. My maternal grandparents are still living to this day; this is my remembrance and tribute to the two no longer with us.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that I only have fond memories of my grandma Shinker. This could be chalked up to the fact that I was a child and only experienced life with her for a handful of years, but she was a truly calming, kind, and loving presence in my life. A lot of time was spent in the houses of both paternal and maternal grandparents, and each home had their own distinct set of memories. I remember putting puzzles together, playing with the toys that once belonged to my father and aunts, and convincing grandma Shinker to buy me a new Lego set when the opportunity arose. She was a loving woman who gave all she could to her children and grandchildren, and she was a shining light in my childhood. However all lights must eventually go out, and hers began to dim.
The implications of a cancer diagnosis can be difficult for anyone to understand, let alone a nine-year-old. I don’t remember exactly how my parents broke the news to my sister and I, but I do remember being told grandma Shinker was sick and that she would start wearing a wig. I don’t think I truly understood the severity of her illness at the time, let alone that the reason she wanted to wear a wig was because she was going through chemotherapy. My grandma was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, but she was a fighter and went through treatment that sent her cancer in remission. . . for a time. Her cancer came back and, after taking her previous experience into account, she decided to forgo any further treatment. I don’t want to imagine what it must have been like for her to make that decision; everyone who knows someone that has gone through chemotherapy is aware that it takes a horrible toll on the patient, but one cannot truly comprehend without going through the experience themselves.
I didn’t find out that she had consciously made the decision, nor about the fact that she had gone into remission and that the cancer came back, until I was older. At the time, all I knew was that grandma couldn’t move around as much as she used to and was basically confined to the recliner in the living room. She had a nurse with her and was hooked up to an IV most of the time; these frigid and sterile changes invading my world of warmth and comfort upset me, and I fear I may have come off as cold to my grandmother because I wasn’t sure what was happening; I just knew that something had changed and it frightened me.
She passed away on June 17th, 2002; I distinctly remember where I was when we found out because my family was on vacation in California with my maternal grandparents. We had just finished watching the parade at Disneyland and were walking toward the exit of the park while reminiscing about the fun we had that day; that is when we got the call that grandma had died. We stopped and, in a huddle, gave our grief voice right there in the cartoon avenues of what claimed to be the “Happiest Place on Earth”. My grandfather was there with her when she died, as was one of my aunts, so grandma wasn’t alone at the end; this is a comfort to me.
I only remember fragments from her funeral. Again, I was a child and still couldn’t grasp what death really meant. I remember sitting impatiently during the wake, I remember that the song “On Eagle’s Wings” was part of her service (I can still recite the refrain and melody from memory), and I remember my parents later gave me a book to help deal with the grief that would follow. Our family changed that day, and I know the loss of my grandmother shook my grandfather to his core. His companion of almost 50 years was taken from him by that fiendish cancer, and though my grief was deep, his cut to the marrow.
Grandpa Shinker became more emotional, especially around the holidays, and I now realize it was because he was so in love with our family and saddened that his wife wasn’t there with him to see us grow. He loved his children very much, and his grandchildren were his greatest pride. He had a distinct laugh, partly because he was a life-long smoker, and was always interested in supporting the activities his grandchildren participated in. Grandpa had been a teacher, a principal, and superintendent at different schools in Nebraska throughout his career, in addition to coaching football and basketball, and this all was an integral part of who he was. He would receive annual tickets to the high school basketball state championships, courtesy of his career as an educator and coach, and my father and I would often accompany him. I had a microscopic stint playing basketball as a child, but none of his skill was passed down to me, though this didn’t deter him from supporting me in doing what I loved.
I played baseball (one of the few sports I was good at) and he would come to games when he could while we lived in a different state; I quit before 7th grade, and he was so excited for me when decided to take up the guitar. We attended a family reunion that year and I decided to take part in the talent show they had organized. My grandpa talked me up to all of our relatives and, though I had only taken lessons for six months and played a medley of the most overplayed classic rock songs (“Back in Black”, “Iron Man”, “Smoke on the Water”, you get the idea), he was incredibly proud; I still think about him every time I pick up my guitar to play, even if it’s just for a handful of minutes. My grandpa could be a bit gruff sometimes, but he always kept interest in the lives of his grandchildren and children. He wanted to be there with us, and I think doubly so since he was now alone for the first time in five decades.
As the years passed, my grandfather sought companionship and found it in a female friend. This was difficult for a lot of us, especially for the grandchildren, because we couldn’t help but feel like she was an attempted replacement for grandma. In retrospect, she wasn’t; she was simply there to help carry the burden of my grandfather’s grief for a time. Eventually, my grandfather’s health began to decline, so I would help him mow his lawn because he wasn’t able to do so without feeling weak before finishing. This was a chore I didn’t look forward to, especially since his mower was an untrustworthy old machine that would backfire like a gunshot if you didn’t start it correctly (“Yeah, sometimes it does that,” he would chuckle after I nearly soiled myself from pulling the mower’s starter too hard). Grandpa would come pick me up from my parent’s house and drive back to his place; these car rides were either completely silent or broken up by the country sounds of Conway Twitty.
A couple of years later, after my family moved back to Minnesota, his health took a sharp turn for the worse and he was put on kidney dialysis. Grandpa had stopped taking care of himself and I think his grief was eating him up inside, so he decided to just give up. Again, this is a decision I now logically understand in retrospect, though it caused us all to worry. Around the time my family visited him in the hospital, he learned he was at a crossroads: he could either try a new treatment, or simply give up and wait for his body to shut down. I like to think that our visit is what helped him decide to continue to live and try the new treatment; we left that day with hope in our hearts.
He passed away a week later on April 18th, 2009. I had a crisis of faith after his death because of how quickly he was snatched away from us. I will never forget the day my dad came rushing into the house and said, with anguish already in his voice, “Dad’s dying.” He left immediately and was there so grandpa wasn’t alone at the end; this is a comfort to me. I cannot imagine the pain that my father felt from the revelation that his own father was gone, or the grief he must carry to this day. The funeral took place in the middle of a school week, so I was only allowed to go to the wake; but, I was able to see my grandfather one more time before he was buried next to my grandmother. His death hits me harder because of the shattered hopes that surrounded it. However, he was reunited with his love, and that is the way I chose to remember losing him; it would have been selfish for us to keep him from that.
I cannot help but feel I was blessed to know my grandparents for the time I did. I often wonder how they would react to the events and decisions in my life if they were still alive; I do my best to act with their memories in mind and hope to do them proud as a man, though they only knew me as a boy and teenager. I still remember the way their voices sound, the way they smelled when I gave them a hug (him surrounded by the musk of stale cigarettes, her in a subtle, but warm perfume), and I count myself lucky. Out of the six grandchildren they had, only three knew both of them, five were old enough to at least remember grandpa, and the youngest of us was born two days after his death. She will only hear stories and, though I am glad she didn’t have to feel the pain of losing them, I lament that she never got to meet them; they would have loved her endlessly.
The perceptions we have of our grandparents are formed in youth, but it is interesting what we find out after growing up, especially after our grandparents have passed on. I didn’t think much about the family dynamic between my grandparents, my father, and my aunts; I have learned more as an adult, but the revelations of how their family was at times haven’t tarnished my memories or love for my grandparents. Every family has fights, triumphs, and faces adversity; each child has a different experience and relationship with their parents than that of their siblings. My grandparents were good people who passed on their values to their children, who in turn passed it on to theirs, and who made better lives for the generations that came after them.
I cannot speak to the lives of Marilyn “DiTonto” Shinker and George Shinker, Jr. because that is not how I knew them. I didn’t know them when they dated, or when they were newlyweds; I didn’t know them when they had their first child, when my grandfather went back to school for his Masters degree, or during the other important events of their lives. I did, however, get to know them as grandma and grandpa Shinker, and for that I am truly thankful. We can’t help but wonder what we will leave behind in this world when our time comes; our legacy is built by the things we do and the lives we touch. As long as I am able, I will keep the lessons taught to me by my grandma and grandpa Shinker at the forefront of how I conduct myself, and I will continue to remember them; in this way they live on, and this is a comfort to me.