Tomorrow would have been my Grandfather's 83rd birthday.
Ben Bates passed away on tuesday, May 29th, 2001-- five years ago monday. I have always been struck by the fact that he died the day after his birthday, and so close to memorial day. He was a Marine, and a veteran of both WWII and Korea. I often wonder what he would think about the world today and the direction of the country. Chances are, he and I would get into some loud debates about the how the United States should face the future.
He was very much a student of the 'My Country, Right or Wrong' school of thought, and I do remember us having several heated discussions about wars and service to one's country. He once said to me, "When your country calls, you GO." I said that I felt that a man had to follow the call of his conscience, not of his elected leaders.
Well, one can imagine how that sentiment went over with him. He yelled so loudly in my face that it changed my hairstyle.
But he was funny. An passionate. And verbose. And intolerant. And Imperfect. Most of all, he was uniquely himself.
I really miss him. He was a hardscrabble guy, a red-blooded 'meat & potatoes' American who would probably flip if he found that I've been a vegetarian for almost three years and I've taken up meditation and a deep interest in Buddhism. I can just see him now, rolling his eyes and letting out a protracted "Jeeeeeeeesus CHRIST."
On the other hand, I have to say that he probably saved my life, and, in a way he is responsible for my evolving sense of what it means to be a part of the world.
You see, for many years, I was hiding what I felt was a shameful secret-- I suffer from the disease of alcoholism. I felt like I was hiding a 'double life,' and the weight of it seemed to drag me down to the point where it threatened my marriage and would have, eventually, wrecked my career. Luckily it never got to that point.
Many alcoholics have what is called a 'Moment of Clarity' where everything becomes crystallized for them, and the problem and solution become apparent in an instant. I experienced the same thing, only it was in a dream.
And the vessel carrying the message of change was none other than Ben Bates, right in my face, yelling at me to change my life.
About a year after he had passed away, I saw him in my sleep. I don't remember anything about the dream, other than in the grey fog of another fitful, booze-induced coma, my Grandfather's voice cut through the confusion and his words hit me like a hammer as clearly as if he was right next to me: "SCOTT, STOP DRINKING."
Of course, it took me awhile to do that, but I can pinpoint the birth of my ablity to deal with my own personal reality from that night. And whether it was actually him calling me from 'the other side' or a combination of memories of him mixed with my own subconcious desire to put down the bottle, I'll never know.
However I am sure of this: He loved me very much. And I can still feel it.
Yesterday I was going through some shoeboxes filled with rememberances and souvenirs from shows, etc, and I came across the leaflet which St. Stephens Parish handed out at his funeral in Pittsfield, Mass. Tucked neatly inside was a copy of his obituary in the Berkshire Eagle, and a copy of the eulogy I wrote for him. I'd like to share it with you now.
Eulogy For Bejamin F. Bates,
by Scott Wichmann, Grandson
11am Friday, June 1st, 2001
St. Stephen's Parish
"My Grandfather was a very special man to me. He was my idol, my role model, and my friend. I think Ben Bates is one of the great success stories of our time. He may not have ever been given national recognition, but that is beside the point.
Look around the room. He made us all possible.
He won a bet with a Marine buddy in Washington in the late 1940's. He bet his pal that he could get a date with a certain Virginia girl who was sitting on a park bench. Needless to say, he won the bet, and here we all are. And how lucky we are to have been the recipients of his unique brand of love. He showed he cared in crazy ways. I would spend the weekend with him, and he would wake me up at 5:30 am and say gruffly "Whaddya want for dinner?? I'm goin' to the grocery store!!"
It may have been early, but he was busy thinking ahead to when I'd be hungry. He cut all of our wants & needs 'off at the pass.'
He took care of all of us, babysat us or babysat for us, and had a delightful time doing so, even as he hid his delight from us behind a killer poker face. Benny was the last of a dying breed, the man that handles his business, bringing up his family in a changing world, while holding fast to the principles of hard work, discipline, and sacrifice.
How many times was he there when we needed him? I got really sick in 1994 and I remember him bringing me the Boston Globe and the Herald every day because he knew I loved the Celtics. He bought me the STAR WARS TRILOGY on video and watched all three movies in a row, rolling his eyes the whole way through while I repeated every line.
Birthdays, weddings, graduations, births, moving days-- He was there for everything, showing a dedication to his family that is sometimes lost on the modern american male.
I can't remember when he wasn't there. Along with Grammy, he was the other pillar holding up my life, and even after his own body began to betray him, he still remained a fervent family man, keeping track of his kids and seeing to their needs.
Towards the end, his physical capabilities began to diminish. He lost weight. He became delusional, frightened, and angry. We may miss him, but I like to think of him as free from all that now.
I think that on tuesday morning, May the 29th, 2001, Ben Bates awoke to the sound of birds outside his window. He softly found that he had the use of his legs. He could move his arms. He looked up in the cold grey dampness of a Berkshire morning and saw a light...
And in that light was my Grandmother. A beautiful vision standing there with arms outstretched, saying gently "Benny, it's time to come home."
And they walked together into the light, and all the fear, anger, and hurt disappeared. No more arguments about things that don't matter. No more miscommunication. Just love, pure and simple.
I'm certain that he is in a better place, one that is free from worry and hurt, and he's in his cosmic tree-stand, keeping a silent (maybe not so silent) & loving eye on us all.
I've learned a lesson from being Ben Bates' Grandson: Family Comes First. Nothing was more important to him-- He is an inspiration to me as I will set forth to start my own family very soon. I will take what he taught me and use it wisely. and so will you, I know. Look around the room. Ben Bates is alive and well in all of us, everyday.
I Love You, Grampy."