A Wave for Grandpa Bob

A Wave for Grandpa Bob

From Chicken Soup for the Soul Celebrating People Who Make a Difference

A Wave for Grandpa Bob

Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.

Thich Nhat Hanh

The old man sat in a plastic chair, smiling, waving at everyone who passed. They’d honk and wave back. “Every single person waves at me. I don’t know why,” he explained. “I have no idea who ninety percent of them are.”

Every day the eighty-two-year-old, who the neighborhood children called Grandpa Bob, traveled from his bed to his carport and no farther, waving at neighbors as he picked up the daily paper.

He inquired of drop-in visitors how they were doing and put a water bowl out for their dogs. Some of the neighbors were original homeowners from 1967, when the houses went for $15,000 and there wasn’t anything but black Angus cattle to the west, where interstates now run.

Other visitors were new faces, often from another country. Grandpa Bob befriended the Haitian family down the block, the Dominicans two doors away, and the Cubans across the street. Their children called him Abuelo Robert.

They may have noticed that his arms were bruised purple—he fell four times last year—and that his legs were giving out. They may even have noticed that he kept a portable phone clipped to his three-wheeled walker, just in case he needed to dial 911.

But if they didn’t notice, he sure wasn’t going to say anything about it. He wasn’t going to listen to any doctor, either. “What do I need to go to some doctor for? To find out I’m getting old? I already know that,” he would say. “Really, I’m lucky, because I don’t have any pain.” His calendar was bereft of doctor’s appointments. His real medicine? The best neighbors a guy could want.

The first big curveball in Grandpa Bob’s life came in 1982 when his precious wife, Hazel, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He was only sixty-two, but he did what he had to do. Bob quit his job as a warehouse manager. He and Hazel began to live off Social Security and what they’d saved.

“I’d do the same thing all over again,” he’d say. “If ever there was an angel in this world, it was her. She never spoke bad about anyone, never. You just had to know her.”

He spent the next twelve years caring for her, first providing encouragement and an occasional drink of water. Then, as her legs gave out, he pushed her for miles up and down a small park. Eventually he’d carry her to doctor’s appointments, then stay awake at night gazing at her during the rare moments she could peacefully sleep.

On July 24, 1994, he said good-bye to Hazel.

Bob shared the pain with his adult son, Robert. Not Robert Jr.—the Parrs gave one boy that name, but he died very young—so this one would be Robert H. He was a cop, and a good one: lots of decorations from the sheriff’s office and kind words from almost every peer. He busted scam artists, the people who rip off the elderly.

But then Robert H. felt a little pain in his mouth. Cancer took his tongue, then his larynx. Still, speaking by voice box, he won officer of the month. Finally, he was communicating by typing on a computer, still working until the day he died.

On August 17, 1999, Robert G. Parr said good-bye to Robert H.

“You never get over losing a child,” he’d say. “You just don’t. But you can go on. Enjoy each day. I’ve learned in eighty years to take it as it comes.”

“It’s bad luck losing your wife, but you wouldn’t want her back here suffering. There’s bad luck to losing a son, but you wouldn’t want him back here with no tongue.”

Here is where Grandpa Bob’s luck turned.

“I don’t have neighbors,” he’d say. “I have family.”

The morning would start with help from Emery, who lived a few houses down. Bob gave him a key a few years ago, so Emery would let himself in and set up the coffee pot.

Bob would pour a cup, and with the help of his walker, move out to his carport to sit and watch traffic. Three open chairs surrounded him, awaiting the day’s visitors.

His friend, Sue, would check in daily and buy groceries for him on Thursdays. Her son would do a quick regular cleaning of the pool, which Bob hadn’t set foot in since Hazel died. Another neighbor, Roni, would take his clothes to her house and wash them once a week.

His daughter-in-law, Robert H.’s wife, called daily. For a birthday present, she hired Maid Brigade to come in and clean his house monthly, which was plenty because he didn’t dirty it up much.

Another neighbor called Meals on Wheels, and the agency’s weekly delivery filled the refrigerator. The root beer that Emery would drop off washed it all down.

Grandpa Bob was grateful for the basics and for his neighbors but was even more amazed at how others were so willing to help keep an old man from feeling lonely.

Two Haitian ladies from the Catholic Church, apparently out on a quiet walk one day, befriended him. From then on, they delivered a rosary prayer regularly.

And the sister-in-law of the Dominican friend down the street gave him a spiritual boost, too, making his heart beat a little quicker every time he’d see her station wagon pull up. Out would pour five children, who surrounded him, held his hands, and warbled through a quick hymn and a prayer. They’d be back in their car and on their way, but not before he got five hugs and five kisses. “I really don’t know what they’re saying,” he’d say. “All I know is Feliz Navidad.”

Between visitors, he watched the mail for his Social Security check: $788 went quickly after taking out a portion to pay toward the annual $1,048 in house insurance and $1,300 in property taxes. He asked Medicare to pay for an electric wheelchair or buggy, so he could ride down the street, but no luck.

Yes, he’d heard of old folks homes, where the money goes farther and the care is professional. But he never wanted to go there. “I don’t want to live in a home. I have a home,” Bob would say.

If he lived in a home, he would miss his neighbors. Even the ice-cream man, who would turn down the music to shout “hi” out the window. “Someplace in my life I’ve just done something right,” Grandpa Bob would say. “But whatever it is, I don’t know.”

But then, on the first Saturday in November, he called a neighbor, and it was serious. An ambulance came and took him to the hospital. He had a form of gangrene. A payback for ignoring diabetes.

He lost a little toe. Then a leg. The neighbors steadily came to visit, and his circle of friends grew even larger: like Amy, the nurse, and Tami from the rehabilitation center.

Back home, the strangers accustomed to his wave began to worry. They taped notes to the plastic chair in his carport, asking of his whereabouts.

By Thanksgiving, he was back in the hospital, wondering where he’d be going and what would happen next.

“I want to go back to my carport,” he said one December day. But a week later, he said, “I want to be with my wife and my son.”

At 4:11 PM on Christmas Eve, Robert Parr Sr. said good-bye.

The neighbors and his daughter-in-law made all the arrangements, and it was at this time that Grandpa Bob’s stubborn streak paid off. You see, he never let them talk him into moving his beloved Hazel’s ashes from his home. He had kept them tucked away in a closet all these years, despite neighbors’ pleas that Hazel deserved better. So now his ashes would be mingled with Hazel’s in a dual brass urn, with the words “Together Forever” engraved on it and kept in a niche across from their sons’.

After Grandpa Bob was put to rest, almost everybody on the block whose lives he had touched—and who had touched him—gathered at the spot where they shared their lives: a breezy carport with four plastic chairs and a community dog bowl.

Nick Sortal

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