In 1999, I moved from Ottawa to Toronto to study cinema and philosophy at the University of Toronto. My grandfather, Arthur Owen, graciously invited me to live with him at his home on the city’s east side.
It was a unique period in both our lives. It saw the final stages of his wife’s – my grandmother’s – transition to permanent residence at a nursing home because of failing health, the completion of my university degree in 2004, the passing of my grandmother at 88, then the eventual blossoming of a new romance between my grandfather and his second wife.
But it was really that first event soon after I arrived – grandma’s move to the nursing home – that most affected everything that followed. From that point on, my grandfather and I were basically roommates. It was just the two of us, day in and day out, both figuring out a new and sometimes strange and scary stage in our respective lives.
At first we experienced a lot of the usual roommate growing pains that everyone goes through when they’re learning to live together – what to do about dishes and cleaning and so on. Mind you, there wasn’t much to negotiate with an 85-year-old man when you’re a first-year university student, so it was mostly me learning to live with him.
I had never spent any time with my grandfather beyond our annual family vacation visits from Ottawa, but I quickly learned that he had a regular routine that included swimming, working out, bible study and meetings at the church. And he wasn’t shy about expressing his disapproval of any disruption to his routine. In truth, I felt like a nuisance, as if my mere presence was a disruption. I tried to keep a low profile, but we definitely had some rough patches.
I had difficulty leaving the kitchen as spotless as I found it. My music was often too loud. And on one devastating occasion, my friends managed to flood the downstairs toilet, leaving the living-room carpet and hardwood floors with severe water damage.
Thankfully, we were able to get past all that, and over that first year became fine roommates. I learned how to keep things as he liked them, and he learned to tolerate my youthful inconsistency.
Then came a night when we were watching tennis on TV. At first we both sat there with our dinners, engrossed in the match. Then he just started talking. At first it was about the match, but it soon drifted to other things – my grandmother, his life. He spoke of mistakes he believed he’d made in his past and things he wished he could have changed. He told stories. I mostly listened and asked questions here and there.
Everything seemed different after that. He was excited to see me when I came home from class. He would ask me for help with odd jobs around the house. But mostly he would share his thoughts and we would talk. We became friends.
One day, I woke up to the sound of a harmonica. He was playing it softly while he sat in his study. I didn’t even know he could play the harmonica.
I wondered what significance these bits of music had to him, why he had carried them all his life. I realized this was a special opportunity, living with him at this period in his life. So that day I started a journal – observations, stories and tidbits of his life during our five years as roommates. It’s not complete and there are large gaps, but I’m glad I kept it. I was reading it recently. It’s amazing how much I had forgotten.
He talked a lot about how much he loved my grandmother. They had married in 1940 and had lived together in this same house since 1950.
One day, he came home from visiting her at the nursing home and told me how sad he was that she could no longer play Scrabble because of her failing vision. It was one of the few things that still gave her great joy. I suggested there might be a larger version of the game available that would be easier to see. He said even if they had to have it made, he would go anywhere and pay anything just to be able to give that joy back to her. Unfortunately, we never found one.
When she finally passed on, I saw his loneliness in the everyday – the loss of her phone calls before bed every night to say a goodnight prayer, his near-daily visits to see her.
Then his second wife eventually came along. You can only imagine how strange it was to see my 90-year-old grandfather playfully saunter into the house late one night, long past his usual time, and confess that he had just taken a woman he had met at church out to coffee and had a real connection with her. I was stunned. Then he bounced upstairs and into bed. I felt like I was the aged grandfather watching the young man fall in love. They married soon after that in 2005.
He talked about his three children, his eight grandchildren and his 13 great-grandchildren. He loved them all so very much.
But what he talked about more than anything else was his faith. Now, he was a practical man, a logical man, a man of numbers. He worked most of his life as an accounts manager for IBM and Heinz. Yet he believed more than anything in the love and hope of grace; that no matter our flaws, there is hope for us all.
He died in October of natural causes at 96. I think he would want his legacy to be that love, that hope. I will remember him as my grandfather, my roommate and my friend.
Colin Munroe lives in Los Angeles.