An Ode to Buzz

Last year on February 3, the only grandfather I ever knew as an adult, passed away. I knew him as Buzz. In memorial, here’s what I said at his funeral.

I’ve never called Buzz my grandfather. He’s always been Buzz to me. I’d address envelopes “Grandma and Buzz Dunn,” or sometimes “Grandma Lessard and Buzz Dunn,” because I never could remember if Grandma took his last name (which she did).

The reasons for me not calling him “Grandpa” are not clear to me. After all, Buzz was around for way more of my life than either of my familial grandfathers. My mother’s father passed away before I was born, and my father’s father passed soon after. I never knew either of them. Despite that, I always thought of Buzz as Buzz, not Grandpa. That’s how I introduced him to people: “This is Buzz. This is my grandmother’s husband.”

Perhaps the reason was that I was never sure if Buzz considered me his grandson. He came into this family 17 years ago already having grandchildren of his own—did he want more? I wasn’t sure. I thought it possible that he wanted to relinquish those duties and just be Grandma’s husband, a sentiment I completely understand. Now, in retrospect, I think Buzz considered everyone his family.

One of the remarkable things about Buzz is that he never talked to me like a grandchild. He never patted me on the head or gave me life lessons or sneaked me candy. He never made absurd claims or boasts or exclamations like grandfathers do in the movies.

Because of this, I had the sense that Buzz was 100% himself around anyone, no matter their age or status or relation. He didn’t talk down to children or refrain from telling stories to strangers. He was so comfortable in his own skin.

He seemed most at ease when telling stories about his childhood. He told his stories with such precision that it was as if he had already written his entire life in his mind and was just waiting for the time to put it on paper. I loved watching his face when he told his stories, because his complexion would change as he worked toward the punchline. His cheeks would redden and his eyes would glisten with delight. And then, at the finale, he would laugh. Yes, he would laugh at his own jokes, his own stories. He took such delight in his life—he just seemed so happy that he had the privilege to stand in his own shoes over all those years.

Just as much as I am in awe of the sharpness of Buzz’s mind, I am stunned by the rapid decline of the state of his body. His health was amazing for a man his age until just a few years ago. After all, this was a man who ran a 4-minute mile when he was in college. His heart was strong. I was sure he’d live past 100. And then for his health to deteriorate at the rate it did…it’s a terrifying example of the fragility of life.

Although I never played catch with Buzz or helped him with crossword puzzles (he never needed help), Buzz and I shared a love for the written word. When I brought a collection of my short stories to the beach in 2008, Buzz was the first to read them. I don’t think Buzz ever fully accepted technology—he wrote his memoirs longhand and typed Christmas letters on his typewriter—but he wanted to tell his story.

Whenever I’d see Buzz, I’d ask him about his autobiography. He’d always say that it was coming along pretty well. I sadly remember this past Christmas when I asked him the same question. He paused and replied, “I just don’t have the energy. I’ve put it aside.”

“For now?” I asked hopefully.

“No,” he said in that Louisiana drawl of his. “I’m just going to have to let it rest.”

His statement had a finality to it that moved me. He knew.

Perhaps most important of all was that Buzz took care of Grandma. He was there for her, day in and day out, when she went through years of surgeries and health issues of her own. He was her husband for what was possibly the happiest time of her life. The gratitude I have to this man for taking care of the grandmother I hold so dearly in my heart…words cannot contain it. Thank you, Buzz.

My favorite memory of Buzz happened at the last family reunion at the beach. His hearing and breathing had significantly deteriorated by that point. We celebrated Buzz’s birthday on the same night that we had our family sing along party. Before the singing started, Buzz was presented with a card that played its own tune—I can’t remember the song, but it was one of those timeless wonders like “Unforgettable.”

After sugar-free cake was served, people started singing and playing the guitar, and the room was filled with this wonderful cacophony of noise. In the middle of one of the songs, I looked over at Buzz.

He wasn’t paying attention to the party. Instead, he was holding the card up to his ear, listening to the tiny speakers embedded in the cardboard. When the loop ended, he closed the card and reopen it so the song would start again.

He had this faraway look in his eyes. Surrounded by family, oblivious to the noise, Buzz was in his own world, listening to the one song he wanted to hear at that moment. I watched him with a little bit of envy, envy that he had found such blissful serenity. Then I turned back to the music and realized that my blissful serenity was all around me. It was just a lot louder than his.

And that’s just Buzz. No matter who he was talking to or who he was with, he found his serenity. He listened to his song. He was completely, 100% himself. And he was just fine with the people around him being themselves as well.

It’s a few days too late, but I’m proud to call him my grandfather.