In the late afternoon of July 11th, 2014, my grandfather, Papa Vannier, passed away in the Oakville-Trafalgar Memorial Hospital at the age of eighty-six. I saw him the day before he died . . . the next time I'll see him will be at his wake and lastly when his body returns to the earth.
Like many of the older family members that I have met and had them be part of my life, I was very lucky to be a part of his for what feels like a brief twenty-five years. Papa Vannier was a lanky, smiling, cheerful grandfather who loved his family, his wife Geraldine, his three daughters, his five grandchildren and his extended relatives. We called him 'Papa' since 'Grandpapa' was the title given to my great-grandfather by the family; not to mention that he was the youngest of seven siblings. A little bit of a generation confusion there, but we rolled with it nonetheless. He loved my Granny with all of his heart, even leaving the Catholic Church so that he could marry her under her own Protestant faith. This wasn't received well by his family at first, since he came from a staunch French-Canadian background. However, this changed since more of his siblings left the Catholic Church. He was a young man when WWII came around and convincingly got himself into the reserves for the Canadian Navy. My parents still keep his old photograph of him in his navy duds kneeling down to smile next to his old English Springer Spaniel, Barney. Despite his efforts he put into his naval training, he never saw any action . . . yet it was that inaction that saved him. Even after WWII had taken it's toll on everyone's minds, he had a strong knowledge of what happened and watched movies about it. I don't think he would've been the same man that I knew him to be had he seen war.
In retrospect, such tales of WWII made me think of my other grandfather who has also passed away. I remember my Grandpa Hall say to me, the one who asked him talk about his experiences in the war in which he never spoke of to his sons or daughters before me-- that the war made him grow quiet . . . quieter than he had ever been. Seeing things like when his ship was almost torpedoed by a German submarine if not for his captain cranking the ship hard enough to avoid it, only for the torpedo to hit another allied ship. He survived over twenty-five trips over the Atlantic to bring food for a starving Great Britain, while constantly being on his toes to find German submarines that might blow the ship out of the water. Although he volunteered to be a soldier for D-Day, he was denied by his superiors and was sent to the Pacific Ocean for more naval work. It was at this time when he was there in Singapore, as it was bombed by the Japanese. Grandpa Hall, who was a radio officer for an English merchant ship and had never used his gun that he was given to, had to aim it against terrorized people with his fellow crewmen since their ship can't take anymore passengers. That very same ship was the last one to leave the harbour as the Japanese bombed it to kingdom come. He was a man who had returned to Liverpool to get relief from all the horrible soldier food at a small pub with his friends-- in which he and his crew slept through a night when the Germans carpet-bombed Liverpool. A man who had seen such tribulations, was shocked to hear that his childhood friend, whom he convinced to join the navy-- was killed by the Japanese. Both of my grandfathers during their brief times together got along, yet they were complete opposites. One was an Englishman from Northern England who had a noble voice but didn't bother to say much, who had a quiet courage and strength-- the other was a Francophone from Northern Ontario who was as chipper as they come and enjoyed family and life. I'm very, very lucky to have known both in my life. Two grandfathers in which I'm proud of and who I love without end.
Granny and Papa loved it when we all came over to their house in Sudbury, Ontario where we would stay over for several nights and swim in Lake Ramsey. I remember swimming for hours without end in that clear, Northern Ontario lake; enjoying the feel of fresh water without any chlorine or sea salt to stiffen my hair. I remember when I was two and got myself into full bottles of baby powder and petroleum jelly, and had to be washed in their tub for three to four days to get it out of my hair and skin. I can still remember when he had his boat and took me out on the lake to see all of the shores of the lake or when we had the inner tube out and I rode on it was the boat speeded by. There were a few times when we went up there in the winter, once for Christmas and another for winter break. The summer and winter in the Canadian Shield always stuck with me as being some of the most beautiful times of the year.
Several years ago, Papa and Granny moved from Sudbury down to Oakville, where most of my family lived. Both of them wanted to be closer to their kids and grandkids as they were reaching their seventies and eighties. Having them close by made it easier for them emotionally, whom wanted to see their grandchildren grow up without the strain of seeing them a few times per year. Papa and I got along well, his smile was so genuine that I can't help but cry over it now. I always showered him with hugs and kisses when he came and left, when he showed his care and support. I smiled whenever he smiled to me. I grinned cheekily over the fact that he enjoyed my Dad's cooking over my Uncle's . . . after all, he was "Le Chef".
A year ago or so, Papa was vacationing in Newfoundland with my Granny and my Aunt and Uncle. They were on one of the tour boats which sailed out to sea and that particular ride was very rough. A strong wave hit the boat and caused my Papa to fall, hitting the left side of his face and breaking his jaw. We were devastated by such an event. After he had returned from Newfoundland, he had to go through several surgeries to help fix up his jaw. Even with all of the surgeries he had, he couldn't smile his big smile like before. He couldn't eat well enough without someone helping him keep food in his mouth. As such, he lost so much weight that I had to personally stitch up his pairs of pants so that they could fit around his shrinking waist. At times, he could barely get out of bed without my Granny having to help him up and help him descend the stairs to the kitchen. The fall he took also impaired his vision, as his left eye was swollen and damaged to the point where he can barely move his eyelid anymore. His accident not only took his loving smile, but also half of his face with it.
In early June, he fell down the stairs. What followed was the most darkest days of the last few weeks of his life. He was sent to the hospital in Oakville where he was permanently stationed there as he was too frail to move without assistance. The nurses there said had a relapse of his skin cancer. He had always been white as a lily, but several years ago, he had to get some skin removed due to the cancer. He had always kept himself in the shade, wore his wide-brimmed hat and wore sunscreen religiously in the summer, but somethings tend to boomerang back . . . even with a regiment of good intensions. I met him two times there when he was in better spirits, one of them being Father's Day, where we took him outside to the picnic area for some well-deserved fresh air. (Why do all hospitals smell so weird when they're suppose to be heavily sanitized, especially for bad-smelling odours?) I was told by my Mom that I don't have to see him anymore if I don't want to. She knew I've seen several of my family members go that way; lying in a hospital bed as a skeleton with skin, hanging onto every breath hoping that the next one won't be their last. When she told me that, I was conflicted inside. One part of me didn't want to see him on his deathbed, but the other knew that he had only a few days at best and I needed to see him. I didn't want to regret not seeing him in his last few days.
Yesterday was a long day, longer than it should've been. I went with my Mother to the hospital, was I saw etched into my memory like a knife on a chalkboard. The few times I saw him here, he had enough energy to talk and to eat, but such a thing didn't last. Papa was but a skeleton with skin, only a few strands of hair clinging to his bald head. His uneven face sucked in air through his fully agape mouth, as if he was a fish slapped out of a stream. Both of his eyes could barely open, his one good eye could only open the slightest bit in the far corner of his eyelid. He couldn't speak a word, the only sound that emanated from his mouth was the coarse breathing that struggled onto life. I tried my best to hold back my tears for the briefest of moments, but I had to cry. While I was there, I watched my Mom tenderly shave his silvery peach fuzz that continued to grow around his lips and on his chin. I watched her with concerned and meticulous eyes, but stayed quietly at my Papa's side like a good granddaughter. All around him were his Father's Day cards, model cars, pictures of his family, his extended family, pictures of him in his youth and one picture of his Mother, back when she looked like an angel. Seeing him like so, I limited my stay so that I can calm my nerves. I went over to my Granny's house to do some weeding in the front yard and take a walk. Mom stayed there for the longest time, eventually being met by my Grandmother who wanted to see her husband constantly. Nearing the end of the day, we had to go over to my Aunt Rae-Ann's to meet some extended relatives from the States who had come over to give their condolences. I didn't feel like talking at all. Aunt Kathy, who always arrived fashionably late, met up with me and told me something that Granny and Papa said while he could still talk. He said that he was overflowing with joy that he had such a loving family who came to see him and that he was truly blessed to have them. I broke down so hard that I choked on my tears.
Today, my Mom went to see him when Aunt Kathy told him that he was struggling while breathing that morning. His daughters, his son-in-law and wife were there for him on his last day; in the end Mom stayed with him the longest. The same daughter which he shared his love of hockey with. When suppertime was rolling in, they all decided to go to the legion for fish 'n' chips. Both of my Aunts didn't want to leave Papa alone, so my Mom told them to order for her as she stayed with him in the evening. Papa held onto life a little longer for his daughter. Not after two minutes upon arriving there did he go into apnea. She saw his struggle onto his last few breaths as the nurses went to aid him; she was about to call her sister to tell her that Papa was going into apnea. He died without suffering for too long . . . Not a moment later did she receive a call from my Aunt Rae-Ann to tell her that her dish was ready. Overcome by sadness, she handed her cell over to the nurse. In the midst of this, at their table in the legion, where a fresh plate of fish 'n' chips as set, they said: "It was like he was already there with them, having dinner,". The nurse said that he held on for her, he willed up his remaining strength to be with her; which was rare in her case after seeing many patients go the way he did. The nurses at the time said that he only had six weeks to live, he only lasted for a few days . . .
Rest in pease, Papa. Know that your youngest granddaughter loves you very much and is grateful to have you as a grandfather. Your family will forever love you and remember you as time passes on . . .
Eugene Rodolphe Vannier
September 11th, 1927 - July 11th, 2014
Loving Son, Brother, Husband, Father, Father-in-Law and Grandfather