I met Jerry L. Fitzsimmons, Sr. under unusual circumstances. I’d been engaged to his son for less than a week and we’d been driving through Kansas on our way to McCook, Nebraska in our ’66 Mustang to meet his grandparents. From there, we planned to drive to Denver to meet his parents.
We never made it to McCook.
Instead, we hit black ice in Hayes, Kansas and my fiancé was hospitalized in a tiny clinic in nearby Colby. His parents arrived in Colby the next morning, just as young Jerry was being loaded into a plane for emergency transport . . . back to Denver.
So, I got to know my future in-laws by myself, on the drive to Denver. I ended up staying with them at their house for the remainder of my 30-day leave, visiting my fiancé at the hospital every day and bringing home reports for them at night. They visited their son when they could, but the day-to-day pressures of life and raising two small children at the time seemed to tug at their time.
I hit it off with Jerry, Sr. right away, not knowing the extent of his brokenness. His son had never expounded on the depths of the chasm between the two of them, only telling me they’d had a “rough time” in his teens. I called him Grandpa and Old Man from the start, long before we even knew if his son would survive, or if we would, indeed, marry and actually make him a grandpa.
During those 30 days, Grandpa and I bonded. I could make him laugh, and I enjoyed doing so, because his laugh was deep and booming. He never said “yes,” but instead said, “that’s exactly right,” which tickled my ear for some reason. We spent hours each night chatting and laughing. During those 30 days, I never saw him drink to excess. Nor did I see evidence of the bridges he’d burned between himself and his children, or the extent to which they’d continue to burn.
The choices Grandpa made over the next 10-15 years would pull him even further from his “first” family, as he and Grandma divorced. Over those years, my by-then husband still didn’t discuss the chasm, and we rarely seemed to have time to visit. Only recently have the wounds between them begun to heal.
In the years to follow, there were a few visits, stops during cross-country treks, “as long as we’re in the area,” but never specific trips to see him. And he came to see us in Virginia at least twice that I recall. All those visits were way too short. From those few moments spread out over 35 years, I must now draw all my memories of him. I already regret that I haven’t more, but we each chose, first through stubbornness and then through inaction, not to be closer. Because of that, his grandsons missed out on what could have been a sweet relationship. So did we.
Now, Grandpa’s laugh has been silenced. I’ll miss it tremendously, and will do everything in my power to remember the way it sounds, because it’s all I have.
Grudges and hurt feelings are tools that the world uses to keep us from enjoying love in its purest form, particularly among family. I think the greatest sadness to that truth is that restored relationships are often even more sweet than those with people we’ve loved freely all along, and so often we miss that. However, it takes tremendous courage to take that first step. While I’m glad, for my husband’s sake that he took that step, I will always mourn the years they lost.
I truly hope Grandpa left this world knowing that we do love him, that although we only understand a small bit of the battle he fought, we hold no grudge, and that, in our hearts, his booming laugh lives on.
Peace to you, Old Man. I pray you’ve found what you were searching for.
Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. — Ephesians 4:32