I met him when I was in high school. His presence and personality were large and intimidating. He was the wood shop teacher. The “bad kids” and “losers” loved him. In my mind, he was the leader of the misfits.
I was a little afraid of him.
Then I started dating one of his favorite misfit students. My boyfriend had an “alternative” family structure and home life that felt more like neglect than a way to instill independence.
The wood shop teacher had taken my then-boyfriend under his wing. I realized that the wood shop teacher cared, mentored, coached, protected and, in some cases, parented his students. I realized that he saw — truly saw — the teen students who weren’t seen by many others. The students who felt ignored, neglected, insignificant, unimportant and unhappy.
My senior year, I fell in love with his son. Then, I fell in love with the wood shop teacher.
He might have been my soul mate had I been born thirty years earlier. He was a dichotomy. A man’s man with a master’s degree in English and a hankering for whiskey. He’d traveled the world before making a loving home with his own hands. He knew every pre-Y2K song and could dance to the song with a grace not known to many men over six feet. He collected quotes and knives. He had an artist’s spirit with a blue-collar sensibility. He understood women, fish, and woodworking better than any person I’ve ever met.
He went from being the wood shop teacher to my father-in-law to Grandpa Colorado.
In early September, he visited us in California to watch one of Chase’s football games.
“C.J., will you do me a favor?” he asked. “Will you paint my toenails? They are looking pretty bad and I think some polish is just what they need. What do you think?”
“YES! I’ll totally paint them! Stay right there!” C.J. said, running out of the room to get his mani/pedi supplies.
Grandpa Colorado picked his own nail polish colors. Glittery black for his left foot and metallic gold for his right foot. He sat very still while C.J. gave his toenails a supreme paint job. Grandpa Colorado thanked him and tipped him.
Weeks later, it was 4:19 a.m. when I answered the phone. Grandma Colorado was crying. Grandpa Colorado had a heart attack and died. I could hear first responders in the background. I put Matt on a plane and didn’t see him again for a week.
When Matt returned, we put the kids to bed and sat on the couch while he told me about his time in Colorado with his mom and brother.
One day while he was there, the funeral home called to see if any family or friends wanted to see Grandpa Colorado’s body a final time. Matt told his mom it wasn’t a good idea. A retired cop, he’s seen a lot of dead bodies. His mom hasn’t. Grief makes people feel a weird sense of duty. Off they went to the funeral home
Grandma Colorado’s time with her husband’s body was brief and she left the room. Matt and his brother remained. Something prompted Matt to pull back the white sheet to see his dad’s feet. He saw glittery black and metallic gold toenails gleaming back at him. Matt and his brother looked at each other and smiled.
Grandpa Colorado hadn’t removed the nail polish applied by C.J. He’d worn it proudly without shame or embarrassment.
When we told C.J. the next day, he smiled. Although C.J. couldn’t say a final goodbye, he knew that, until his death, every time he looked at his feet, Grandpa Colorado thought of him.
The leader of the misfits died with pedicured toenails, because he saw the unseen, protected the vulnerable and empowered the marginalized – whether they were family or not.
It doesn’t feel right to say we lost Grandpa Colorado. It feels more accurate to say that we lost the pleasure and privilege of being in his company. He was too good for us. Too wise, charming, funny, kind, patient, accepting and loving for us. Somehow we fooled him into hanging out with us. We let him turn up the music and dance and pour a drink and tell us the same stories over and over again because we were so damn lucky to have him see us, teach us, love us. And now, he is the stuff of legend. Deservedly so.