A little over a year ago marked the 20 year anniversary of Jim Henson’s tragic death. At the time of his young passing, I was only 5 years of age, but I understood his loss. Just a few months after his death Henson Productions released a TV special titled “The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson”. At this point in my life, I had recently lost my Pop-Pop Kelly. But I was too young to understand death, while the Muppet special sort of explained it. It was almost ten years later when I figured out what real loss was.
When I was in Junior High, my best friend was my Grandpop Gebhart. We constantly visited my Grandparents (My mother’s side). In fact between family birthdays, holidays and random dinners at their house we probably visited them at least every other weekend. In Junior High, I became a Christian. My grandfather was always super supportive, always trying to teach me how to play songs on the guitar (though at the time I was hopeless), taking me to bible studies and just having spiritual discussions with me.
He loved music and film much like myself. He had a nice little room all to himself where he kept his records, movies and instruments. I’d sit in that room with him for hours, watching Mel Brooks films, listening to Spike Jones records and singing songs. He was the life of every party, with a never ending list of oldies. While he’d probably disapprove of some of the lyrical content of the Saint Mort songs, I know without a doubt he’d love my stage presence which I gained from him.
He’d play at parties and picnics, singing Louis Prima or Louie Armstrong or Nat King Cole or countless others. There’s not a single family member that can’t sing every word of his favorite songs like “When you’re Smiling” or “It’s a sin to tell a Lie”. Every other year we had a family reunion, people just gravitated towards him and his guitar. In the years since the reunions just never were the same; they were fun and I always left having a good time, but it was undeniable something (or to be exact, some one) was missing.
Around the time that I began high school, it was discovered that my grandfather had cancer. It was a tough year, but he was always so strong that he made all of us believe he would get through things just fine. One of my last memories in particular was at a party in New Jersey. My grandpop grabbed his guitar and started playing the classics. He teared up... no, he cried his eyes out. He was physically was in pain... but he wouldn’t stop playing. Song after song, people clapped and sang along. It was exactly the kind of person he was.
Soon however, he began losing the battle. He was in the hospital, a lot. I just couldn’t get the strength to visit him. Week after week my mother would come home from the hospital and I could see it in her eyes that, things weren’t going to end well. Still I couldn’t get myself to go. I wrote a him a letter. That was the best I can do.
I was out with friends when I got a phone call from my mom. They were giving him just another 24 hours before he’d be gone. I’ve heard many inspirational stories where someone is given a month to live and the defy predictions for decades. This isn’t one of those stories. The doctor’s estimation was pretty dead on.
I will never forget the viewing and funeral. Done up to truth grandpop style it was a packed house. People of all ages came to the viewing to pay respect to a man who meant more to them than any of us know. Family, Nurses, Friends and even in one case, someone who my grandfather used to bring mail to in his days as a mailman. The funeral was a happy one, as upbeat as a funeral could be. Dixieland music, happy thoughts. He died exactly how he lived.
Adjusting over the years was hard. The day after the funeral I was back in school. Teachers couldn’t understand; why should they? How many 16 year olds considered their grandfather their best friend? But adjust I did; I graduated high school and it was off to college.
The first year of college was difficult. Here I was, one of the first people in my family tree going to college, he’d have been proud. I took a cinema class and a class called the Evolution of Jazz. The A’s in both of those classes can only be attributed to him. He was the one that taught me how to tell Jazz and Dixieland apart. The difference between Count Basie and Duke Ellington. To be honest, it sucked.
I would leave class full of excitement and energy, on more than one occasion the thought in my head was ‘I can’t wait to call Grandpop and tell him what I learned this week.’ Then the next thought was ‘I can’t. He’s dead.’ Finally the thought ‘how could you forget that he was dead?’ That was the thought that hurt the most.
Days turned into weeks, week into months and months into years. Suddenly it was college graduation time. My grandmother came and gave me a hug and whispered ‘He was here, you know this as much as I do’. I don’t always know exactly how I feel about angels and spirituality and such... but I really want to believe she was right.
About two years ago I visited his grave for the first time since the funeral. Back before my grandmother moved from her house, I’d pass the graveyard on the way and just look at it. But one afternoon, I got lost coming home from a coffee and found myself at the church. I’ve written about this experience before so I won’t reiterate it all again.
A few months ago I decided to move to Los Angeles. The last time I saw my grandmother she gave me a kiss and said, “he’d be so proud of you”. I hope she’s right.
Here I am, 10 years after I lost one of the most important people in my life. I mis him, I still think about him. Every once and a while I’ll hear a new song and think ‘He’d love this.’ I’ll watch a movie and think ‘I wish I could show this to him.’ I don’t know how success should be gauged, but to me, if I can live my life the way my grandfather lived his, then I’m a success in my own mind. I love you Grandpop and miss you.