Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Greatest Man I Ever Knew From the Greatest Generation

This morning my grandpa Aden Gunderson passed away.  He was 98.  We’ve known for the past few weeks that it was coming, and for the past 48 hours that it was coming at any time.  He was one of the last of his generation, also known as the greatest generation.  He survived his wife and 3 of his children.  He survived all of his brothers and sisters; virtually everyone he grew up with.  He survived pre-industrial farming before it became trendy.  He survived a great depression and a world war; the former as a teenager who had to work like a man, the latter as a soldier who had to leave his wife and 2 small children behind.  He survived a house fire and an unfriendly encounter with a black bear; and he came out of it looking better than the bear.  He survived disappointment and personal loss.  He survived 2 heart attacks and a stroke.  He lived until his internal organs finally wore out, having exceeded their maximum use.

He had an indomitable spirit.  I don’t mean in a way that was flamboyant or arrogant, but that he was a man who had mastered the art of making the best out of whatever circumstance he found himself in.  He spent a third of his life milking cows, day in and day out, rain our shine, hot or cold.  Even after selling the cows, he continued to occupy his life with productive activities.  Raising corn, caring for my grandmother in her twilight years, staying active in the senior citizen’s center, visiting his children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and recently even his great, great grandchildren.  He drove his car to town well into his 90s.  He liked to have fun too, he had a 4-wheeler that he rode until only very recently.  Most recently, he had a golf cart that he toodled around in.  I discovered from a neighbor about a year ago that he took his golf cart off-roading on a steep, lava rock covered trail.  This neighbor came upon him trying to push himself out after he’d sunk up to his rear axle in sand.  He lived his life as fully as he could up until the last.

I spent most of my childhood living a stone’s throw away from my Grandpa and Grandma Gunderson.  I knew them both very well.  However my relationship to them was very different from a lot of grandkids today.  Today my daughter and all or her cousins refer to their grandparents by their first names, Grandpa Brent and Grandma Elaine, or Grandpa Ross and Grandma Laurie.  When we were kids we referred to Aden and Afton as Grandpa and Grandma Gunderson.  My dad was the youngest in his family, being born about the same time as my oldest Gunderson cousin.  As such, when I came along, my grandparents were already fairly advanced in age.  I’m not suggesting that we didn’t love our grandparents, we did, or that they didn’t love us, because they did very much.  It was just different. My grandpa didn’t dote on us the way first time grandparents do; he already had nearly twenty grandkids.  He did, however, always have candy in his suit pocket when we sat next to him at church; he definitely saw his role as a spoiler and not a disciplinarian when it came to his small grandchildren. 

One of the things that stands out in my early memory of Grandpa was the Blue Bus.  As I mentioned previously, my Grandpa had a lot of grandkids.  At some point in the early 80s, he purchased an old school bus and painted it blue.  The original intent of purchasing the school bus was to use it to haul calves for the dairy, but it turned out that it worked even better for hauling his kids and grandkids to family vacations.  We all rode together in the Blue Bus to Yellowstone National Park, Green Canyon Hot Springs, and the Grand-daddy-of-them all, Lagoon Amusement Park.  We also spent many a summer evening at my grandparent’s home in Menan.  We’d play football and croquet on the front lawn, and look for kittens and play pirate ship on the haystacks.  My early memories of Grandpa don’t revolve around my personal interactions with him so much as they do the family environment that he and my Grandma had created.  By the time I was a teenager my Grandpa had started to slow down considerably, then I graduated from high school and moved away. 

My Grandpa had a stroke in 2002 which left him partially debilitated.  His mind and body still worked pretty well, but his speech became much more difficult.  He knew exactly what he wanted to say, but had a hard time getting the words out.  He was still able to function after the stroke, but it was the beginning of a long downward spiral.  By the end of the aughts, Grandpa could no longer live alone and started splitting time between his 4 surviving children.  One of these was my uncle Glen who lived in Georgia.  Glen flew my Grandpa out to Georgia as often as he could, however on one of these trips Grandpa took ill and had to come back early.  He just about didn’t survive the plane ride home, and when he did come home it was obvious that he needed more intensive care than what my parents or any or their siblings could give him.  Thus Grandpa began his adventures in assisted living at the Homestead in Rexburg.  Grandpa did quite well at the Homestead, despite what he told my Dad and his siblings.  I know this because I worked in Rexburg for a year and a half, and on several occasions when clients would meet me and see my last name they would ask if I was related to Aden.  Invariably, they would tell me about how their parents or grandparents who had been in the Homestead with Grandpa Aden, and how he had been a friend to them.  Grandpa would give other ‘inmates’ of the homestead rides on his golf cart, and was generally very social and upbeat.  He convinced the management to let him plant tomatoes in the shrub beds, and everyone I talked to viewed him with the utmost respect and admiration.  Many of them said their parents and grandparents missed him dearly when he left.

Grandpa did what he was good at while living at the Homestead, he made the most of it; but it wasn’t home.  My uncle Glen passed away from heart failure in the fall of 2014, and I think this compounded his yearning for home and family even more.  He finally convinced my Dad to bring him back out to Menan about the same time that Ruby and I moved back from Canada.  I helped move him into the spare bedroom across from Mom and Dad’s room; the same bedroom where we had slept when we were little kids and needed looking after.  Much like a small child, Grandpa now needed a lot of help.  I will spare the readers the gory details . . . you’re welcome.  I will say that I took care of Grandpa by myself for about 5 days while my wife and parents were both away.  It was emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausting.  I have the utmost respect for my parents and their commitment to do it for as long as they did.

However, living so close and being involved in his day to day care allowed me to create a relationship with my Grandpa that I would never have had otherwise.  I got to cook and eat meals with him; often 3 times a day.  On most of these occasions I also got to go fetch his teeth out of his bedroom, because he almost always forgot them.  I got to watch him interact with my 2 year old daughter much the same way he did with me when I was that age.  I got to drive him around Menan on the 4th of July and watch him stop and reverently read the names on the WWII memorial in the city park.  I got to go on golf cart rides with him, sometimes to places we probably shouldn’t have gone.  I got to go to church with him, even though it was difficult for him to do.  I got to go on a road trip with him to a BYU football game on a beautiful October day, and I got to listen to him sing “Here we have Idaho” as we drove back and crossed the border between Utah and Idaho.  I got to experience first-hand his humility, his courage, and his love; above all, I was able to feel the deep and abiding love that my Grandpa had for me.

Because of the decision my parent’s made to care for my Grandpa in their home, and our decision to move close, I was able to experience all of these things.  However, perhaps the most sacred and cherished of these experiences was the last conversation I had with him in this life.  It was about 3 days before I moved to Salmon.  He was already on hospice care, and as a general rule he didn’t talk much.  I was dropping off a load of items that we were storing at Mom and Dad’s until we could find a place for them in Salmon.  Mom sent me into his room to check on him.   He was lying in bed with his eyes closed, a John Wayne Western was playing on his big screen TV.  He opened his eyes slightly and bade me help him up to a sitting position.  I gave him a sip of water and asked him if he needed anything.  He asked me if I was in a hurry to leave and I said no and sat down.  He had heard that I was moving and started asking me questions about my new job.  He was having even more difficulty getting the words out than usual, but I was able to understand the intent of his questions.  I talked to him at length about the move, why we were doing it and how it was going and so forth.  He asked me if I liked being a veterinarian, and about my family and life in general.  He had been in a lot of pain, and his body was all but wasted, but he was genuinely concerned and interested in me, and we talked for almost half an hour.  Finally, his energy gave out and I helped him lay back down and roll over to his other side.  I told him I loved him and I knew he loved me.  That is the last living memory I have of him; I moved to Salmon and he died about 2 weeks later.

One might wonder why I am writing about my Grandpa in a veterinary blog.  I mean, he did milk cows and stuff, but the cows and Grandpa probably fall more into the territory of my older cousin’s memories than mine.  By the time I was old enough to be of any real use on the dairy farm, the cows and had been sold and my Grandpa had retired.  No, I am writing about my Grandpa because as a veterinarian I deal regularly with end of life decisions.  Not for people, but for their pets.  There are a lot of people, who view the bond they have with their pets as something akin to  . . . well their kin.  For many people, the decisions that come at the end of a pet’s life are agonizing.  Fortunately for pets, our modern society has embraced the practice of euthanasia for old and suffering animals.  While it doesn’t necessarily make things easier for the owner, I find that euthanasia done properly spares animals a great deal of pain and suffering, and brings a certain sense of peace and closure to their owners.  Furthermore, there are situations where an animal’s care would place an extreme financial burden on their owners, and in these cases euthanasia becomes an economic option that also satisfies the need to minimize an animal’s suffering.   

Some people have argued that euthanasia should be an option for people as well, especially when faced with chronic, debilitating illness or the ravages of extreme old age.  Euthanasia for people would ameliorate many of the expenses incurred by end of life care for geriatric people, and would ease the burden placed on the shoulders of their families, and one could argue, society as a whole.  For the past year and a half, I have been able to see my grandpa and my parents, aunts, and uncles go through all of these things.  I have seen him suffer and languish as his body slowly, excruciatingly shut itself down bit by bit.  I have seen the toll it’s taken on my mom and dad as they have diligently cared for him in their home rather than let him spend his last days in assisted living.  I personally have shouldered the burden of care on a few occasions when I stayed with my Grandpa while my parents took a much needed break.  After having seen and experienced all of these things, I can say unequivocally that euthanasia would NOT have been the best thing for my grandpa, and especially not for my family.

The purpose of life is not to live free of adversity or strife; that is a myth perpetrated by those who feel cheated at the prospect of a paradise lost.  Humans exist that they might comprehend joy; and without suffering, there can be no joy.  Therefore, to fulfill our purpose, we must necessarily experience suffering.  That’s not to say that we should go out of our way to find suffering; the suffering we need will find us when we need it, and sometimes we experience needless suffering because of our own bad choices, or the bad choices of others.  However, it is this ability to benefit from suffering, to comprehend joy, that makes us human; that separates us from the rest of Kingdom Animalia.  I have been around a lot of animals, and I believe that they can experience joy, or something very near joy, but they cannot comprehend the deeper purpose of suffering and as such, do not directly benefit from it.  As far as I can tell, they only comprehend what they are experiencing in the present.  Past experiences can serve as conditioning, but not necessarily as the building blocks of character.  They can anticipate the future, but not build it; they can react to their circumstances but not create them.

We, however, are capable of comprehension and character building; and we have the capacity to act and not be acted upon.  The experiences shared by my Grandpa and parents over the past few years have served to make us all better people, and have deepened the love and respect that exists between us.  I have watched my Dad become more patient and longsuffering, my Mom become more temperate and empathetic.  That’s not to say these traits didn’t exist in my parents before, but they have been magnified in caring for my Grandpa.  Even though he was largely being cared for, my Grandpa also cared for us.  He thought about and no doubt, prayed for his entire family.  For my part, living close to my parents over the past year and a half allowed me to develop a one on one relationship with my Grandpa that I never had as a youngster.  I believe that even in his very advanced years, he still had work to do and a role to fulfill.  He was The Greatest Man from the Greatest Generation that I ever knew, and I am forever grateful that we got to have him in our lives for as long as we did.


  1. Beautiful Todd. Loved reading it and love you.

  2. I'm sorry for your loss. You've got a wonderful way of writing, Todd!

  3. Hi! Todd, I called you, but nobody answered the phone. i am very sorry for your loss. you are a great human being as him. God Bless you.

  4. Thanks for the comment! Maybe you have the wrong number? It doesn't show your name in the comment section; if you let me know who you are I can find a way to get in touch with you.