Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Stan Willner

Live life for life's own sake.

That is the message I took from the life of Stan Willner.

On August 13th, 2014, Stan Willner, my grandfather, quietly passed from this world. He would have been 91 this year.

He'd been suffering, struggling with the same dementia and memory loss that took his mother.  He had been shifted around from one house or hospital to another as my uncle struggled to find the right care for him. He began falling down, but couldn't remember it happening. An exam revealed he'd been suffering a series of small strokes. He could no longer remember conversations or recognize faces. Finally, after coming out of the hospital to go back into another facility that said they didn't have the resources to take care of him, he laid down and he faded away.

But even when his mind was nearly gone, he never weakened. Time after time, he fell down. A single fall in her early 70s confined my grandmother to a walker for the rest of her days. Up to age 90, Grandpa Stan fell time after time and bruised his arms, his back, even his head, and came up the next day not remembering it happened and shrugging it off.  While other people ten years younger or more were confined to wheelchairs or in bed all day, my grandpa would go crazy if he couldn't get up and walk around. No matter what happened, he always walked away from it.

That's how I remember my Grandpa. Invincible.

The people we meet and know and love are made up of our memories of them. After they leave us, the way we remember them is what will keep them alive forever. We can choose to remember the good or the bad, and those choices color the story we tell ourselves about what someone was like. That story is what we draw from when determining the lesson a life can teach us.

My grandfather was never a man of great ambition. He almost never had a lot of money, and when he did he'd give it away or go out gambling. I remember once in Arizona, he hit 5 of the 6 numbers on the Lotto and won some not-insignificant amount. The first thing he did was give some to my mother, and then take me out to the store to buy any toy I wanted (I got a light-up laser a gun with like, SEVEN different sound effects). When my mom went into labor with my little brother in the middle of the night, Grandpa was at our house within minutes to watch me while they went to the hospital. Some days he would just swing around with his great big blue car with the rusted-over hood and take me to the golf course where he worked. I'd sit at the 19th Hole and play the arcade games, he'd introduce me around, chat with all the regulars and have a drink, and then he'd bring me home. No special reason, he just wanted to spend some time with his grandson. We'd hang out in his apartment, or go to the movies, or he'd take me out to rent a video game. If I was around, Grandpa would ask if I wanted to do anything. Even as I write this and remember, I honestly hope that I appreciated at the time how good he was to me. I really hope so.

Through all the years I knew him growing up, from age 60 to age 90, my Grandpa Stan never changed. He was quiet, he was mild, he was thoughtful, and he was kind. I know him as the man who was never far from something to read. Sometimes he would return books to the library because he'd get a few chapters in and realize he had already read them. Once I was telling him about the plot of a book I was reading, a semi-obscure fantasy novel, and halfway in he interrupted with "oh yeah, this sounds familiar." At the time I was annoyed - I thought he was bored of my explanation and trying to get out of it. Later, I realized no - if a book could be found at a local library, there was a better-than-average chance that yes, he had read it at least once.

He could live on bagels with cream cheese. Once, when I was two years old, my grandpa left the table while eating. When he returned, I had crawled up from underneath the table, donned his glasses and started eating his bagel while holding the newspaper out in front of me and happily declared 'I'm grandpa!"

Everyone who knew him and loved him should take heart in the fact that his life was quiet, peaceful, and yet somehow full of fun and adventure. He traveled across Asia and Europe, saw all of America, hobnobbed with stars and Presidents, had a set of whirlwind romances, and watched his two children grow into amazing people that gave him grandchildren he adored. Yet for all that, he was happiest going for a walk, playing a game of golf or bowling, or sitting in a chair and reading until he fell asleep. He lived life on his own terms, and that was all he ever wanted to do. There was never any grand scheme or plan in Grandpa Stan's life. He was just happy to be alive, and never thought much about the future. Every day was an opportunity to have a good day, and he had many more of those than not.

And from an early age, he had earned it.

Stan Willner was one of four children, growing up in a middle class Jewish family in New York City during the Great Depression. They were never poor, like others. My great-grandfather, Max, ran a scrap business that remained successful even during the most desperate times. This probably had something to do with the fact that Max also got arrested by the FBI once for suspected mafia ties, but hey, he had to put food on the table. Max was meticulous, wore monogrammed suits and had a chauffeur. However, neither Stan nor his brother Eddy cared much for the business. They wanted to go out and have fun, enjoy their youth, and not worry too much about the world or their future. Max and his sons battled constantly, the hard-working and demanding Max constantly frustrated that he could not drag the same work ethic out of his boys. They fought and grew resentful, causing no end of grief to Bessie, my great-grandmother. Stan simply had no ambition towards working like his father, or much of anything in life.

Then our country was attacked.

After Pearl Harbor, the call went out, and he answered. Stan lied about his age and joined the army at 17. This kid from the city who never cared about much more than cruising around the neighborhood and going out with his buddies knew that his country needed him, and he cast everything aside to join the war. He went away from New York and found himself in the Pacific Theater, fighting as a paratrooper for the 503rd Regiment. At the Battle of Noemfoor, he earned a purple heart, breaking his leg on a landing and continuing to fight. The same battle saw another member of the 503rd earn the Medal of Honor. Stan recuperated and shipped out again, He was there at the Battle of Corregidor, the fiercest fighting the regiment saw during the war. For taking the near-impenetrable island from the defending Japanese soldiers, the 503rd earned the Presidential Unit Citation and the nickname "the Rock Regiment." For all of this, Stan, barely 18 at the time, was there.

When he returned from the war, he went home. Max was there at the train station waiting. With tears in his eyes, his father embraced him, and welcomed him home.

He was an American hero, the likes of which are slowly fading from this world.

It is hard for me to picture my quiet, slow-moving grandfather as the hero I know he was. I know him by his smile, his laugh, the warmth he exuded, the kindness and thoughtfulness in his voice.  Though he kept his medals and memorabilia, he never spoke about the war.

I do know one story. He was demoted once, and there are two stories surrounding that. The first goes that he disobeyed orders and ran out with a friend in order to save a nun they'd left behind in a village that was about to be attacked. I told that story to my grandmother and she cackled as only she could, then informed me that "what are you, crazy? He went out drinking with his buddies on duty and their commanding officer found them." The best part of that? With Grandpa, either one of those tales could be true and they'd both be completely in keeping with his character.

After returning home, Stan fell into a series of jobs here and there. He never worked in one place for too long. He waited tables, he ran a bar, he managed a hotel. He played pool, and cards, and stayed out late with his buddies. He bet on horses and took up golf. In the middle of all that, he married my Grandma Fran, whom was ten years younger than him, and had two children, a son and a daughter. He and Grandma divorced, and Stan left their home until the day she called him and told him that she could no longer take care of their kids. Stan returned home that night without hesitation so his children would never be alone.

He moved them to Florida and opened another bar. When my mom contemplated dropping out of high school, he put his foot down and told her she was finishing no matter what. She ended up graduating at 16 and going on to receive a Master's in Psychology. My Uncle Mike went on to put himself through law school, and once a month Stan would send him a card with $50 in it, which was all the money he could spare.

Stan went from Florida to Arizona to Las Vegas to California. He stayed wherever he was most comfortable and could have the most fun. He never lost that simple desire from his youth to just be able to do what he wanted. He was never rich, frequently poor, and often completely responsible for both, but he was happy. The future never concerned him much. He knew what he cared about most and so that was what he lived for. As long as he could do that, every day was a good day.

Perhaps the best way to sum up my grandfather when his memory started going is with my mother's birthday from last year. Grandpa Stan called her that day and left her a message, where you can hear the happiness and pride in his voice as he talks to his daughter, wishing her a happy birthday and telling her to call him back so they can talk later. Then he called her back and left the same message. Then he called her cell phone and did it again. Then once more he called the house and said "Marci, I might have said this five or ten minutes ago, I don't remember, but even if I did, happy birthday again."

He might not have remembered what he said two minutes ago, but he never forgot what was most important to him.

People are made of our memories of them. These memories are what we draw from to learn the lesson each life was put here to teach us.

For Grandpa Stan, it's easy. All my memories of him add up to form one message. Live life - and love life - for life's own sake. When you do that, the best stuff happens.

I love you Grandpa. I'll miss you always.

Every day is a good day.