Good-Bye Grandpa

William Kenneth “Ken” Forbeck, my dad’s dad, died on Friday. He had just made it to 92 years old back on November 1, All Saints’ Day in the Catholic tradition. He’d spent the last several months in a nursing home after a bout with pneumonia last winter, from which he never recovered his strength—and a new round of pneumonia and a couple other infections finally caught up with him.

Grandpa grew up in Pittsburgh, where he was a star athlete. He once ran back a punt 65 yards for a touchdown to win the city championship. When World War II came around, he tried to enlist, only to be turned down because of a heart murmur. Determined to get around this problem, he moved to Detroit and tried to join up again, but failed.

While working in a munitions factory in Detroit, he met my grandmother Angie. The Polish equivalent of Rosie the Riveter she worked in the same factory with him, and they hit it off fine. They married in ’43 and had my father in ’45.

They moved to Monroe, Michigan, soon after, and had two girls, my aunts Kathy and Pam. While there, Grandpa ran Ken’s Auto Parts, which he owned until he retired, a place I remember well from my childhood. The scent of engine oil always brings me back.

After that, he and my grandmother moved up to Buckley, Michigan, where they lived on a large stretch of land my grandmother had inherited from her parents. I remember spending many days hiking and fishing on the land, up near where Hemingway did the same things as a boy, in more rugged times.

Grandpa loved to play golf, bowl, and sing. He lent his voice to a barbershop quartet and his church choir for decades. He often burst into song just for the sheer joy of it. He once had a dog named Bandit, a huge Husky/Shepard mix, who would howl along with him whenever Grandpa would hit the right notes.

After my quads were born, I didn’t make it back to Michigan to visit my only surviving grandparents all that often. Grandpa’s failing health made the eight-hour drive to my place difficult. I didn’t see nearly enough of him over the past few years.

However, my son Marty and I joined my brother and his daughters, plus my father and stepmother, in a visit this past October. It was the one and only time I saw Grandpa in the nursing home. A series of ministrokes (we think) had muddled his memory, macular degeneration had done a number on his eyesight, and the earlier pneumonia had stolen his strength.

Despite that, he was thrilled to see us, and we him. My father, brother, and I watched the first game of the World Series with Grandpa, a lifelong Tigers fan. (As the only Brewers fan in the lot, I’m the odd man out.) Even though Detroit lost, we had a great time hanging out in the common room and sharing some beers.

Late in the evening, after the shift change, the night nurse came in to scold us for feeding Grandpa beer, concocting a policy against it on the spot. (My attorney/father asked to see the policy and got only blank looks instead.) Despite that, we packed the beer away. We’d been drinking it for two hours already anyhow.

As my brother Mark pointed out, he’d bought Grandpa—a lifelong Bud man—his last Budweiser. That’s something to be proud of, I think.

During our visits, Grandpa often sang a few lyrics, almost under his breath. Often, the lines came from “Babyface” from Thoroughly Modern Millie, a song he’d always liked to sing to his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

One time, though, he breathed out a stray bit from another tune:

There will come a day when youth will pass away.
What will they say about me?

That’s, of course, a line from “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody,” which Louis Prima made famous in my Grandpa’s day. Even though I don’t think anyone else heard him, it shook me to hear the words coming from him. Then I remembered the song’s next line:

When the end comes I’ll know I was just a gigolo.
Life goes on without me.

Grandpa sensed that the end was near, I think. I’m just glad I got to hear him sing about it one last time.

Good-bye, Grandpa. We’ll miss you every moment we have left.