I never knew Orrie before Grandpa, so I can’t speak to Orrie the husband, father, uncle, brother, or coach. When a 98 year old man dies, there’s no shock, no punch in the gut. Beyond the inherent cruelty of growing close to others in this life which ultimately demands separation, there are no cries of unfair, no life left too early.
When a loved one dies there are the thoughts, memories, and lessons in the story of a death, and there are thoughts, memories, and lessons in the story of a life. As there are no cries for life being too short, it’s the lessons of how Grandpa Orrie lived that ring the loudest.
Most of us know the story of the Winfield basketball program that Orrie headed up which created the Hoosiers story before those scoundrels from Indiana stole the storyline a few years later. In Orrie’s version, the tiny underdog team defeated large schools from Des Moines and Sioux City, before losing to Ankeny in the semifinals. Orrie had coached many small towns throughout southern Iowa at that point and was a coach on the rise. But this is not where the grandpa life lesson lives, it rarely does in success.
He coached in Winfield for several more years before moving to Iowa City with promises of being the basketball coach of the much larger City High School. In the end, though, this coach that achieved so much previously never coached a varsity basketball team at City High–and that’s where the lesson from a grandpa lives. This one life event would haunt me for a long time. Too often, I tend to buy into the idea that you have to fixate on those opportunities, obsess about the possibility of them beforehand, and then obsess more if they don’t happen. Not Orrie, he lived grudgelessly, coaching different levels of boys and girls and pioneering Title IX at City High. To Grandpa Orrie, life came to you and you needn’t be bothered with needless worry. Decades ago he didn’t know those events would affect a grandson who had yet to twinkle in anyone’s eyes. Grandpa life lessons come in the living of life long before the children you have, have children of their own.
I never knew Orrie before Grandpa, but I saw glimpses. I saw a man who didn’t let age betray youthfulness, competing in track events at the Iowa Games, the Senior Games, and others in different locations across the country. I remember walking up to Mark Twain Elementary School to shag shotputs as he trained. I remember being so inspired that we went to the Iowa Games to watch him compete, and being so drawn in that I remember cheering hard against the older man that was his main competition, and thinking it wouldn’t be so bad if that old rival pulled an old hammy. Grandpa Orrie taught me that there’s a difference between old and vintage. Why would something silly like age get in the way of doing what you want to do?
I never knew Orrie before Grandpa, but I saw the generosity he must have had as a child growing up in rural southern Iowa, because I experienced the generosity of his hands and time, whether in doing handy things for the family that my dad never quite learned, or rubdowns for anyone willing to lay or sit in front of him. Not only that, he was generous in the pain delivered in those rubdowns with such obvious glee. I’ve never experienced childbirth, but I can empathize with mothers who have. “Oh, you had to push a child out of your body? I understand your pain, Grandpa Orrie worked on a spot in my shoulder once.”
I never knew Orrie before Grandpa, but I know that before and after my arrival he had an impact on countless people. As I had breakfast with a childhood friend the other day, I told him that Grandpa Orrie was in Hospice care, he said, “I remember getting golf lessons from him.” Of course he did. Of course he did, so many were impacted by Grandpa Orrie. From Fairview, to Cornell, to City High, to Winfield, to Olds, to the expansive family in Iowa City and beyond, Grandpa Orrie impacted many in ways large and small. My mom shared an email recently of a man who wanted to be sure it was known how Grandpa Orrie impacted his life. The man is an old man now himself, but the lessons seemed to him as fresh as a MASH rerun was to Grandpa Orrie.
I never knew Orrie before Grandpa and I never knew him before Norma either. When I was introduced to him GrandmaNormaandGrandpaOrrie was already one name. He the steady to her worry and she the party animal to his, well, steady. Together, they created a home that is the place I go to in my head if I need a reminder that there is a place that exists made of unlimited love, enthusiasm, and acceptance. I had an invitation to experience that, and so did everyone else–all the other family members, all their friends and ours, and all strangers they came into contact with. In their world an open invitation was more valuable than an exclusive one. Of all the accomplishments, this may be the greatest, creating a place that this world, too often, convinces us is impossible.
I want to do that. I want to be that.
We used to call him to our house when we couldn’t find something, keys, toys, whatever. That seems odd to me now. How does one get good at finding things? How do you get a reputation for finding things?! I guess someone gets good at it by looking where others aren’t looking.
Beyond the spring breaks at their house, him pulling our leg hairs and convincing us that maybe a mosquito did it, attending our school events, the massages, the maybe/maybe not living out of his car in college, the golf lessons, the playful utterances of Grandma Norma’s “Oh, Orrie,” the stern grandpa glances, the unending devotion to Grandma Norma, and the New Years Eve parties, maybe that’s what Grandpa Orrie did most effectively. He looked where others weren’t looking. He looked for happiness where others looked for disappointment. He looked for opportunity where others looked for frustration. He looked for life where others looked for complacency.
I never knew Orrie before Grandpa, but whatever he had, I want to reproduce more of it in my own life.
And I can.
I can, because he invited me to share in it for more years than a grandson should be allowed.