By Brock Wilbur
Richard Reece died for the first time in 1988.
I was playing with Ghostbusters action figures in my room, as was the standard activity for the majority of my fourth year of life. Then I noticed my mother in the doorway. Tears stained her cheeks. Her jaw quivered. When she tried to speak, the sound that broke free was that of a wounded animal. She staggered forward and braced herself against my dresser. For the first time in my life, I experienced fear. Not the “fear” that caused me to flee the room whenever the weird clown stole Pee Wee’s bike in the movie; “fear” in all capital letters, underlined and bolded, because the end of the world was approaching and nothing could be done.
Grandpa had a heart attack. Mom was leaving for Lawrence, Kansas. A babysitter was coming over. Or something. She left.
I hid in my closet, grasping tightly the action figure of Dr. Egon Spengler, my favorite Ghostbuster. I didn’t cry. I just held that tiny plastic man, and pretended he was God. I pleaded that he make Grandpa Reece okay. I said I would do anything. I whispered apologies for whatever I had done wrong to make this happen. I bargained for several hours with a tiny Harold Ramis to not let my grandfather die.
In Lawrence, Richard Reece had left a KU football game with his wife, Ruby. Filled with disgust by the awful performance of the Kansas team, it seemed that fleeing the game in the third quarter was the only way he might retain his sanity. In the parking lot, he stuttered and fell. My grandmother, all of four-and-a-half feet tall, screamed for help. It was the middle of the game, in a satellite parking location. It was deserted. Even if Ruby were capable of a decent shout, the roar of the stadium and the marching band would have drowned it out. She stood over his convulsing body, watching him fade.
A lone, frustrated fan happened to be leaving the game at the same time. He happened to have parked nearby. He happened to be a heart surgeon from the local KU Medical Center. He happened to happen upon my grandfather.
Richard Reece’s life was saved by terrible Jayhawk football, an irony he would never overcome.
He was dead for nearly ten minutes before they brought him back to life. Quadruple-bypass heart attack. He remembered what happened during this time, but would never tell me about it. I’ve often wondered if that meant he encountered overwhelming awe, or nothing at all.
Richard Reece lived across the street from my grade school.
The final bell would ring, and I would run the hill which sloped through the playground of Meadowlark Ridge Elementary. Some days, my mom would be there waiting. Other days, I’d be left in my grandfather’s care. There would be no negotiating on Tuesdays. Tuesdays were Grandpa days. No one else was allowed into our world.
I enjoyed a steady diet of fruit juice and Wheat Thins while he read aloud from the greatest books of all time. Histories of the world and biographies of great leaders, or the novels and short stories which defined him as a boy. He never revealed the solution to a single Sherlock Holmes until I had racked my brain over it first.
We’d break to watch cartoons. When Animaniacs made a joke or reference that I did not understand, he used it as a jumping-off point. Ten minutes later, we’d be at the public library; a Jules Verne collection and a VHS copy of Citizen Kane in hand. With Batman the Animated Series, he was always as enthralled as I by the dark and realistic world occupied by characters far more realistic and dense than could be found in any non-animated entertainment. He’d laugh harder than me at the antics of The Tick, although I’ll never know if his laughter was with the show, or at the show.
It was required that we sneak off to Dairy Queen for ice cream, or (once a month) to Lindsborg, Kansas, home of Little Sweden. We’d walk the main street and sample fine desserts from a small family-run shop. For twenty-odd years, Richard had been coming in, and he always asked for more chocolate syrup. They never seemed to learn their lesson. Or maybe they just got a kick out of his comedic frustration at the inadequate amount of deliciousness they served up.
After ice cream, it was onwards to the small toy store. Amongst the educational toys and science kits, there was a back shelf containing the only Playmobil toys in Kansas. One Christmas, I got the Playmobil pirate ship. The next Christmas, I got the castle. Grandpa’s small guest room became our makeshift stage for the unending saga of “Pirates vs. Castle Guys.” Each subsequent trip to the toy store in Lindsborg involved the acquisition of some new small piece. A cannon. A sail. Grandpa would take me home and teach me to tie dozens
of different knots as we upgraded Blackbeard’s ship. Each week, I would control one faction, and he the other. We would create elaborate adventures, often involving the ship leaving the confines of the guest room. Grandpa would read from our favorite story, Edgar Allan Poe’s little known swashbuckling tale “The Gold Bug,” while I re-created it on the carpet of the living room. My men sacked the toaster and levels of the refrigerator on a dozen separate occasions, the arctic tundra of the freezer only once.
The stories expanded into the real world as we went on summer vacations to his small chalet hidden in the mountains of Colorado. We’d explore the forest and caves in the mountain, where he’d inform my sister and me about the ghosts or bears or monsters that were almost certainly nipping at our heels, then pause for half an hour to explain what kind of tree we were under, or what materials the miners once extracted from the region. I always insisted he fill us in on these geo-biological factoids later, when we were safely downwind from the impending nightmarish monstrosity. Even while fishing in the small trout pond up the path, he would instruct my sister and me to cast our lures for the deepest part, where we might catch a crocodile.
I was incapable of going to sleep. It was my family’s greatest frustration, and remains a struggle I deal with to this day. But Grandpa had the richest, soothing baritone voice. He shared this gift widely, reserving it for church hymns and a collection of twenty songs from his youth, whose lyrics were posted in his shower. And while young Brock Wilbur could never be calmed or controlled by teachers or family members, Grandpa needed only lull a few soft refrains of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” to put me deep into a coma.
Richard Reece recovered.
He walked several miles a day, and had to watch what he ate, including a permanent exile from ice cream. Grandma and my mother both warned me that he could die if he ever had more. But Richard Reece was a man without vice, save one. So we engaged it just as regularly as before. Each trip through Dairy Queen was “our little secret,” and it seemed only logical to me that he be afforded that outlet. He’d given up so much, including most of his favorite foods. A banana split per week would probably aid his health more
than any medicine. At least, that’s what he said. And he used to be a doctor. These young punks didn’t know what they were talking about.
The doctors also forbade him from watching Kansas Football. In reality or on television. It’s an odd instruction to see listed on prescription paper. He cheated a little with the radio in his car. But he was smart. Akin to never mixing alcohol with medication, he never mixed ice cream with football. Grandpa knew his limits. Driving with the game on was the only time I saw him wear his seatbelt.
Richard Reece died for the second time in 1989.
He briskly walked the exact mile from his house to our house on a Saturday morning, then sat down on my father’s recliner as we watched cartoons. I laughed so hard at one point that orange juice came out my nose, and was stunned that, for the first time ever, Grandpa was not laughing with me.
Nor was he breathing.
The ambulance arrived five minutes later. I ran upstairs, but I couldn’t find Egon Spengler. I knew that meant he wouldn’t make it.
Richard Reece recovered.
The ban on ice cream was handed down from on high this time. As he put it, there would be no “fudging.” He loved a good pun. He didn’t like the yogurt he was forced to endure. “If there’s no chocolate, what’s the point?” was a philosophy he’d have to abandon.
He became more frail. The first one had been a wake-up call to embrace a more active lifestyle, but this one took a chunk out of him. The physicality was occasionally concerning, but his zest for life propelled him forward. He never slowed down.
He and Ruby purchased a computer. With a color monitor. A device obviously sent to them from somewhere in the distant future. He had instilled in me a love of the original Star Trek series, so in 1992, when Interplay started making Star Trek adventure games, we played them together. Slogging through the 12 discs that the original came on, our constant battle was not with Klingons, but against adventure-game logic. Each level was designed with sections so unintuitive that the only hope for progression would be calling the dollar per-minute help line or purchasing the guide book. But we rarely surrendered to this consumer fleecing, opting instead to try every single line of bizarro logic we could conjure, in hopes of keeping Captain James T. Kirk alive. The red shirts never avoided vaporization. Sorry, guys.
I was growing up. Piano recitals, sports teams, and even dance classes. Yes, that. While Tuesdays remained our day, my schedule was filling up.
Tuesdays faded away.
On rare occasions, we still played Pirates vs. Castle Guys, although the story lines matured. I’d been reading Stephen King since the 4th grade, so many of the plot lines got dark. Fast. Grandpa played along, even when his comfort zone had been left behind. He couldn’t see the computer screen the way he used to, and there hadn’t been any new Star Trek games, so that activity drifted away. But my love of books had grown so insatiable over the years that we put all our efforts into that. There were at least two large bookshelves in every room of the house, often more. All leather-bound and beautiful, from an age before even him. I would read hundreds of pages in an afternoon, pestering him every few minutes to clarify details or strange words.
His waning eyesight deprived him of the ability to read aloud at his old pace, so the duty became mine. As I read, he often drifted into sleep or “rested his eyes.” I kept reading and emphasizing funny moments whenever possible (and sometimes adding my own) in hopes of hearing a chuckle.
Just to make sure he was still breathing.
Richard Reece adopted a new role in my life.
I was off to middle school across town. My summers were booked with traveling basketball leagues, community theatre, and lawn mowing. When I had no opportunities to spend at his house, Grandpa adjusted to be there for me.
He never missed a game. Or a performance. Of anything. Sometimes, he’d show up to rehearsals or practices. I’d even ask him to not come, for games I knew we’d lose or for choir performances of songs he’d already heard us do dozens of times. If thunder, rain, heat, tornadoes, and physical disabilities were incapable of stopping him, he wasn’t about to listen to me.
A community-access television broadcast of our middle-school vocal group was his favorite VHS tape. Despite the Christmas music, and the performance abilities of twenty 14-year-olds, he played it year round for the rest of his life. Each year, I became more and more embarrassed, but never said anything, as his pride seemed to grow proportionally.
Richard Reece died again. Many times.
Throughout my time in high school, the health issues began to multiply. He missed the first of my basketball games during sophomore year. I didn’t score a point. Later, he was plagued by infections. So many invasive surgeries had left him vulnerable to disease, even a common cold could find a way to grow into a greater threat. He still never missed a football game, even if my mother had to wrap him in six layers of blankets. And then his mind began to distort.
One day, Grandma drove his car and discovered an entire banana split, melted and runny, under the front seat. He had driven to Dairy Queen, hid the ice cream under the seat to smuggle home, and forgot about it by the time he’d returned.
In college, I got the phone calls. Every few months, my family knew it was the end. A fall down the stairs. A staph infection. Waking up in the middle of the night, hallucinating, and screaming that he could see the Angel of Death. Once, his blood was so filled with poison, the doctors couldn’t understand what force was keeping him alive. Another time, his body temperature raised so high his brain began to cook. In the hospital, he contracted other diseases on top of the ones he was being treated for. At home, he struggled to move of his own volition.
My mother became the primary caretaker of both Richard and Ruby. It took a toll on her, and I was never there when she needed me most.
Celebrating his 85th birthday took an entire week.
He’d always said he’d live to see eighty-five. We still don’t know how he made it. Every member of the family came to visit. I drove home. His other children and all of their children packed in vans and traveled to Kansas. He may have been my best friend and my biggest fan, but he was just as proud of every other person in his family. As we gathered around to sing “Happy Birthday,” his smile stretched so wide I know it must have taken every ounce of strength he had left.
Before leaving town, I tried to hug him as he lay in the mechanical chair which kept him propped up enough to see us. He refused any help that I offered. Instead, he began the process of repositioning, grabbing a cane, and gripping the walls around him to rise to his feet. He hugged me goodbye. All smiles.
The next night, he went with the family to a local shop, and declared for all to hear that he was having a banana split. This was not up for debate. They watched as he worked his way through the sundae, which was completed in its entirety, despite the several hours required. My father walked him out to the car my Grandmother was driving, and for the first time in years, Grandpa put on his seat belt. He smiled and waved goodbye to everyone.
He passed in his sleep later that night.
After a lifetime of violently struggling to stay alive, the final moments were his most peaceful.
Richard Reece died for the last time on July 13th, 2008.
Richard Reece defined me as a human being. He created a child obsessed with the most beautiful things this world has to offer, and taught me that nothing was more important than knowledge, except the drive to never cease acquiring it. He taught me storytelling; how to write, speak, entertain, frighten, cheer, perform, destroy, and create. He probably wasn’t thinking about it at the time, but looking at me now, it would be difficult to argue that I’d be a writer, comedian, musician, or halfway decent human being without
Richard Reece set the impossible standard by which my life will forever be measured. He was the only human being I’ve ever known who was purely good. He had not an ounce of ego, nor a single disparaging comment to be made against any person, living or dead, even in the privacy of his own home. He wanted nothing for himself, and gave the world to those he loved. He so valued every small detail of his family’s life that he defined his happiness by our smallest successes, even the ones we thought were trivial or embarrassing. He would have never known how to appreciate only sections of a human life; he had to embrace it in entireties.
Richard Reece gave us all something vastly more important, and that was a lesson about the gift of time. Ever since the age of four, I knew the moments we shared were on borrowed time and a ticking clock. He had already died, yet somehow, I still got to hang out with him. Each time a medical emergency occurred, we were always told there’d be no way to save him if it had happened just a few years earlier. Technology kept up just enough to keep him ticking. I knew this about him early on, and for years, I stayed closest to him, knowing that he was the one I had the least time with, and that I needed to save as much as possible. In 5th grade, I even started writing down the things he said, explaining that I wanted my children to know him, too.
Soon, I came to understand that this ticking clock existed, not just for him, but for everyone in my life. I became extremely close with all my grandparents, knowing that they’ll leave us long before the rest. And then, following some health complications, I realized my own mother and father were on just as unknowable a deadline. Even my little sister could be lost
at any moment.
Having the roots of this knowledge take hold at such a young age, I’ve tried to live my life accordingly. I’m not always successful, and I still waste and ruin moments I’ll never get back. But an awareness of our limitations and unpredictable fate has defined my personality from the beginning. It may color my actions as absurd more often than I’d like, but I’d rather err on the side of loving too much than be left stranded with an unconquerable regret.
It’s the holiday season. If there’s one point of the year where you can take a step back from the machinations that drive your world, it is now. I know many of us don’t have a lot to give. You’re working on Christmas, or you can’t afford to travel home for Hanukkah, or even while you’re home, the world still requires so much of you that there’s no room to breathe. I know. I’m there, too. But the rewards of giving even a few minutes to the people that matter in your life yields exponential dividends.
I know Richard Reece has been here the whole time. He was back at the Colorado trout pond when my sister got engaged there. He was at her wedding. He nods in approval as I try my best, and shouts encouragement when I stumble. He watches my Grandmother each day of these long four years they’ve been apart, and waits, more patiently than she, for the day they can be together. I’m not saying he’s an angel. I’m not saying he’s sitting on some cloud or spying on us in our sleep. He’s here because he is imprinted onto each one of us. We were aware enough of his borrowed time to put our other priorities aside to share in his life while he was still here. And that made him part of us. That process makes me a richer, more complete human being, and I must find a way to do the same for those whom I need to be a part of me.
It’s the only way to get through life and leave behind no regrets. On that day in 2008, I had no final questions left unanswered. That calm will rarely accompany another loss in my lifetime, but why not strive for it?
As we lowered him into the ground, I got one last chance to sing “Sweet Low, Sweet Chariot,” and put him to rest. I’d been gifted an extra twenty years with him, and I treated every day like it was the last. Truthfully, we have an extra lifetime with everyone around us; it’s just rarely shown in such obvious terms. Don’t wait until it’s too late and be forced to beg a Ghostbuster for the kind of luck I was granted. Just treat others like Egon has already answered your prayers.
See you all in 2012,
Brock Wilbur attended Salina South High School before going on to complete a degree in screenwriting and communication at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. He currently resides in Los Angeles and is active in screenwriting, acting, stand-up comedy, and immigration law. He has appeared on television shows like “Scrubs”, and is in post production on a movie he wrote and acted in called “Your Friends Close”—which should released in the first quarter of 2012. Dr. Richard Reece, his grandfather, was one of the founders of United Radiology in Salina, Kansas. Brock can be followed further at www.brockwilbur.com