On my nightstand rest a few things. Usually there’s a recently published magazine — GQ, Esquire or Sports Illustrated. A book for class might keep it company, depending on the semester.
Those things come and go but two things never change. One is a picture of my dad and me circa 1997 with matching black tee shirts in a basketball-themed picture frame, commemorating the beginning of my YMCA youth hoops career. That one means a lot but the other photo means much more right now. It’s another picture of me, but it subs out Troy Zak with Tom Zak, my grandpa.
The photo was taken in 2007, after one of many summer baseball games. Dirt and eye black covered the few freckles I have but not well enough to mask the similarity of Grandpa’s smile and mine. It wasn’t a rare moment, but not exactly a common one that Grandpa and I were posing after an athletic event.
You see, Grandpa lived in Oshkosh, two hours or so from most of those events, so catching Sean’s games wasn’t easy. He also had nine other grandkids to keep track of. It was never upsetting if Grandpa couldn’t get to a game of mine; it was more uplifting whenever he was there. It always felt good to perform well in front of him, an absolute stud athlete during his time.
If he had to pick a sport, it was baseball. That passion for America’s Pastime moved on to my father and eventually on to me. He played plenty of games in the Door County Baseball League for the Baileys Harbor A’s. His catcher’s mitt from the 1950s now sits in our basement and looks every bit like it is 60 years old, bronze and bulky, polished and stretched by years of fastballs.
Those years as an athlete never really ended, becoming the root of our connection. Grandpa played Brett Favre for our neighborhood when he would visit, each of the kids playing a corresponding Packers receiver. He embarrassed me for years in his driveway, constantly beating me in horse via the potty shot. Grandpa took up golf at some point, I’m not really sure when, but that’s beside the point.
As a retiree, Grandpa has never been able to sit still. He was always a self-made man who would rather fix something with his own hands and tools than rely on a professional to do the same.
The restless mentality keeps his yard looking better than any other on Oak Street in Oshkosh. It has led to many handcrafted wooden gifts (signs, birdhouses, decorations, etc.) passed on to Zaks all over the state. Most importantly, it led him to Lake Breeze Golf Club, where he worked as a course ranger for years. He was a very good one, too.
If you knew Grandpa, you’d know him as a man that could never be hassled or bullshitted. He has a knack of finding great used cars and haggling the price down to where he thinks it should rightfully stand. Tiger Woods could have been golfing at Lake Breeze, but if Grandpa thought he wasn’t playing quickly enough or wasn’t treating the course correctly, Tiger would quickly hear about it.
He was a stickler, but always with good reason. If anything happened under his watch or had his name tied to it, Grandpa made sure it ran smoothly, from his golf course to his grandchildren.
Nonetheless, grandpa’s employment at Lake Breeze made for a great summer destination for me.
I would take off from those unrelenting summer baseball schedules and spend a week in Oshkosh, living out of Grandpa and Grandma’s basement. Everyday I’d wake up to wafts of Grandma’s scrambled eggs and bacon trickling down the steps. After breakfast, Grandpa and I would head to the course for the day.
He would start his day of work and I’d start my day of golf. If he were picking the driving range, my shots were playfully aimed in his direction. If I were playing nine holes … or six … or three (wherever there was room in the tee sheet), Grandpa would pull up and see how I was playing, offering me the errant tee shots he found that morning.
Sometimes he would bring a cart out and play with me, but regardless, he would join me for lemonade in the clubhouse before returning home to Grandma’s dinner and late evening chipping contests in the backyard. Golf was our thing for one week every summer.
We built quite the bond through the sport, and while the bond has continued, those memories are from middle school. That was years ago. I’ve played just one round of golf with grandpa since then.
Last April, I hadn’t seen grandpa for more than four months, a long time considering our relationship and that he was always just a few hours away. My family had been able to see him during holidays but UW-Madison’s academic schedule kept me from the Zak Christmas reunions.
I was headed home to Door County for a relaxing weekend, with my grandparents’ house a perfect midway pit stop. In just two months I would be living in New York City, so if I didn’t see my grandparents now, I wouldn’t see them again until the end of summer. By then we would have plenty to talk about (I was headed to work for GOLF Magazine), but a full golf season would have passed by, so I made a point to see Grandpa.
I called up Thursday before the weekend, finding out I was too late and that Grandma and Grandpa were busy the Friday I’d be passing through. That was fine because Grandma promised she would make a pizza if I stopped by on my way back to school Sunday.
The weekend at home flew by, just as all weekends at home do. Louisville and Michigan won Final Four games Saturday, so I would have plenty of hoops to discuss with Grandpa, the closet Syracuse fan.
Leaving Sturgeon Bay with my friend Nick and then-girlfriend Zoe, that pizza was about 90 minutes away. After about 30 minutes of driving, my phone buzzed and I saw it was Dad, my most frequent caller. What could I have forgotten at home? That conversation would have been easy.
Dad couldn’t talk once I answered, which was weird.
“You can’t go to Grandma’s … they won’t be there,” he spurted out, choked up.
“Grandpa Zak is dying.”
An aneurysm in Grandpa’s heart had swelled and eventually, after causing him irritable pain for hours, it burst, seeping blood throughout his body, the majority relocating to his lower back. Surgery would bring one of two results, life or death, and Grandpa was heading to surgery before I could see him.
Grandma called shortly after, wanting to make sure that I wasn’t going to show up at Oak Street. She told me exactly what the doctor told her, that Grandpa had a 50/50 chance at surviving surgery. One thing is for sure: my grandpa deserved damned better odds than that.
It’s hard to recall the first, second or third thoughts that went through my head. I didn’t know what to think. In hindsight, it would have been best for me to keep driving, but I pulled over and Nick took the wheel as our destination changed from Oak Street to Oakwood Avenue and the Mercy Health Foundation. I couldn’t stop thinking about how I was playing passenger in my 2000 Buick Century for the first time since Grandpa had sold it to me.
The hour or so between finding out and getting to the hospital became a blur of self-questioning, tears and prayer. Not only had I not seen Grandpa, I hadn’t even heard his voice. I talked with Grandma when setting up the Sunday rendezvous.
What was the last thing I said to him? What was the last thing we did together? Don’t let this be the way he would go. I need to see him again. We need to play golf again.
How was I supposed to act? This was my first true view of death. I had never once lost a person so meaningful. It was impossible for me to view Grandpa’s cup as half-full though he still had those 50/50 odds.
Before too long, that Buick Century was parked and we were entering the hospital. Family was there and every hug brought more tears. Maybe they had already gotten their tear-filled hugs out of the way, but I couldn’t help but feel like the weakest person in the room.
Being surrounded by family makes you stronger, though. My uncles lightened the mood with subtle jokes in the half-filled, already cramped waiting room. Conversation was directed as far away as possible from the hospital and its most important guest.
Above all, it was Grandma who strengthened the family. She was the rock in the center of the room, greeting each family member that arrived, retelling the prognosis over and over. Her best friend whom she married as a teen was less than 100 yards away through a winding hallway, and they very well may never lock eyes again.
Grandma didn’t shudder, though. She met my girlfriend for the first time with a hug and conversed with my buddy. Only once did her emotions slip, as nurse after nurse would pass by the waiting room without an update on Grandpa.
She never believed that Grandpa could go. In her faith, it seemed as though Grandpa’s odds turned toward 75-25, increasing with each moment, though we could never be sure.
The waiting game was dreadful. You wanted to think about all the other things in life, like that extra 90 minutes between the hospital and Madison, or the screenplay that needed editing at Vilas Hall, or the family of roommates waiting back on campus, etc. It’s impossible to forget where you are, though, and that Grandpa was just a few steps away, motionless in bed.
Time was slow. Nick and Zoe eventually took the Buick Century to Madison. The Brewers lost their first Sunday game of the season as John Axford surrendered an extra-inning home run while I dozed to and from dreamland.
Eyes turned wide as the surgeon approached the room and Grandpa’s wife and four sons met in the hallway. Through the window I could see the huddle but couldn’t stand to watch, pending any visual reaction.
Grandpa was okay. He survived the awful odds dealt his way.
Relief waved over the room and smiles finally returned to the 13 faces solemnly waiting. After a few minutes Grandma brought small groups of family back to see the man of the hour.
That stout man — who still helps my dad lift and set the dock each spring at the cottage, who muscles his drives 200 yards into the fairway with his TaylorMade — was more frail than I could have ever imagined. Surgery may have taken his energy and strength, but it didn’t take his character. Grandpa grabbed my hand with my nickname saying “Hey Gussoboy,” smiling the same way he did in that photo that sits on my nightstand.
You learn a few things on days like April 7, 2013.
You learn how the life of one man — his heart pumping blood and his lungs pumping oxygen — deeply affect the livelihood of so many others. It was never clearer than when Grandpa was in a life or death situation, a fraction of us all was seemingly on life support as well.
You also learn that you can do more with your free time, and that a simple phone call could eventually be priceless.
I left that Sunday with a pair of wide eyes and a new perspective. I also left with my grandpa still kicking and I can’t wait to golf with him again.