When he was a young man, my grandfather was quite the formidable figure. Tall, handsome, and, dressed in his NYPD blues, the last thing you wanted to see in front of you if you were a criminal. Throughout his career, he was awarded several citations for bravery in the line of duty. In one instance, while moonlighting as a supermarket security guard, he ended up in a shootout in the streets with an escaped murderer, and my grandfather found himself being pummeled in the face with the butt of his own gun; only to somehow recover and subdue the suspect with the help of a 300-pound New York cabbie nicknamed, "Tiny."
This event in my grandfather's life would eventually be turned into legend in a book entitled Growing Up Bronx, as the author, then just a nine-year-old boy, witnessed the entire battle from his bedroom window. He even gave my grandfather a name that echoed with the stuff heroes are made of, "Whitey Grogan." If you didn't know, you'd assume Whitey Grogan was a mythical figure along the lines of Babe Ruth or Elliot Ness; which, to me, he was.
Didn't matter that his real name was "Abe," or that the guy I knew was more famous for swiping napkins and ketchup packets from McDonald's, as opposed to capturing criminals. To me, he was still Whitey Grogan.
Fast forward a decade later, and I'm helping my grandfather go to the bathroom, as Parkinson's has all but eviscerated every trace of the tough-as-nails, New York detective who once occupied this withered, shell of a man. When he passed on New Year's Eve 1996, it left a void in me that will never be replaced.
For the next few years, my grandmother attended an occasional dance or social function, but she always went alone, unescorted. I can't even begin to imagine the void he left in her. But, you don't raise three kids in the Bronx without a backbone of your own.
Meeting someone new is difficult enough when you're young. Meeting someone after almost a 60-year relationship has to be just terrifying. Add to that, the legacy left by "Whitey Grogan," and you can see what this short, jovial, unassuming, Hoboken-born truck driver, named Irving, was up against. I think the only thing in Irving's favor was that he didn't know. Sometimes, ignorance is not only bliss, it is a necessity.
At some point in 2001, my mother started saying the name "Irving" when mentioning my grandmother. At first, I was incredibly protective -- not only of my grandmother, but of my grandfather as well. Who is this guy who thinks he can come in and take the place of my life-long hero? And yet, here was Irving. He stood closer to five than six feet, waddled when he walked, could hardly hear you, and had a voice like Jimmy Durante. But, they were inseparable. Going on cruises, out to fancy dinners, etc. Maybe this Irving wasn't such a bad guy after all.
For the next few years, my grandmother and Irving were birds of a feather. Once, she even confided in me they still had sex -- or at least, "a form of it." I didn't know whether to laugh or cringe in horror, but I loved the idea of two people that late in life still trying to please each other.
I soon realized Irving was beginning to grow on me. He was always by her side and she seemed to really like him, as did we. Perhaps she even loved him? Whatever she needed -- doctor's appointments, a return to Marshalls -- Irving was there. He was older than my grandmother by a year, so he would often joke he was "robbing the cradle."
As I got to know Irving, I grew to respect him. Turns out, he fought on D-Day, went to school with Frank Sinatra, and he wasn't just a "truck driver." He worked three trucking jobs while supporting his family. He'd work from 9-5, go straight to another 'til about 10, then, he'd go to a third until about 6 a.m. He did this every day, for 40 years, with almost no sleep and no vacation time. The bottom line was, the man had an unbreakable spirit.
A few years into their relationship, my grandmother began having T.I.A.s -- mini-strokes -- which resulted in her driver's license being taken away. Having to rely on someone just to go to the market was a major adjustment for her... but there was Irving. Every day for months, he would chauffeur his best girl around town, saving my folks gas, time, and, more importantly, heaps of stress. Irving, it seemed, was not only a blessing for my grandmother, but for the rest of us as well.
When my grandmother fell and broke her hip, there was Irving. While most men his age sat gurgling into their oatmeal, 92-year-old Irving would drive to the rehab, stay there all day, and repeat the next morning. Eventually, after many, many months of watching this geriatric "Iron-Man," my mother developed an acronym; "TGFI" -- Thank God for Irving. It has become our mantra.
When my grandmother suffered a major stroke, just after finally recovering from the broken hip, who was with us at her bedside? You guessed it. The stroke left my once vibrant, always-singing, grandmother unable to speak, and in need of constant care. Nonetheless, it was Irving who arrived every day to help care for her.
While all this was going on, Irving was admitted to the hospital with a liver infection and it looked like he wasn't coming out. It felt like we were losing another member of the family. Miraculously, Irving cheated death, and, just days after leaving the hospital, was back at my grandmother's side.
Now, as I type this and my grandmother lay in her hospice bed, unaware of her surroundings, and we prepare for the final moments of her life, once again, it is with Irving by our side. This time, his son had to drive him, as a particularly tough day of dialysis has left him very weak. But you'd never know it. True to form, he hasn't complained a bit.
I've heard stories of men half his age who abandon their wives after decades of marriage for much less. These two have known each other only a tenth of their lives. They'll never share a ski trip together or a wild night in Paris. Yet, I still can't help but envy them. It's amazing how one person's selfless commitment to another can affect the lives of so many.
As I reflect on the saving grace this unsuspecting man with the funny walk has been to my parents, my family, and me, I can't help but think there will forever be two Whitey Grogans in my life.