In remembrance of a grandfather

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Grandpa Ben in his last in-person visit with Little Ben and Albina in Gig Harbor, Washington, on July 23, 2016. Photo by Ben M. Angel

In many countries outside the United States, July 4 appears indistinguishable from any other day. There are a few countries that mark national celebrations on or near this day: Canada has its celebration of what amounts to its effective separation from Britain on July 1, and Belarus celebrates its “independence” from Nazi Germany on July 3 (the day in 1945 when the Soviet Army evicted the Wehrmacht from Minsk). In Poland, July 4 is merely the day that follows July 3, and comes before July 5. Still, I try to remember the day, anyway.

This year, though, the day would prove to be eventful, and not in a way I would have wanted it to be. As I recall it, my wife had suggested that we take the kids for a walk to explore areas of our neighborhood she wasn’t that familiar with, specifically the little park near the Orla tram stop. It’s not a particularly scenic spot in southern Wroclaw, but it isn’t that bad of a place to set a destination. But before we went, I had wanted to get the kids together to send off Independence Day greetings to their grandparents in the States.

When I got to the computer, I saw that my mother had beaten me to the punch. She had sent a greeting already, but then a few minutes later, she had sent a second message that I should call her. I thought nothing of this, figuring that she wanted to see her grandkids. So, we all got together and made a Skype call to her.

When we got through, my mother answered. We blurted out our Happy Independence Day greeting before I noticed that she was barely holding herself together. She smiled and wished my wife and kids and I the same, but then asked if she could speak with me alone. Marina immediately herded the kids to the bedroom to give us some privacy.


 

Late in 2013, everyone in my family learned that my father was suffering from pulmonary fibrosis, a disease that involves the progressive deadening of the lungs. He had been on oxygen concentrators starting around December, and by then had known that his condition would never get any better. It was with this prospect that he and his wife Karen agreed to go to Warsaw in April 2014 to meet his grandchildren, and assist in the family coming to visit Washington State in the summer of 2016 after his health prevented any further travel overseas.

By last June, my father’s ability to breathe had deteriorated to the point that he could only go places with assistance. His wife, who had excellent guidance in her mother, a former nurse, had become expert in meeting his every need. However, she was struck with breast cancer not long after pulmonary fibrosis had begun to reduce my dad’s ability to get around. She was a fighter, but none of this was easy for her.

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Father and son in Colbert, Washington, in early July 2016. Photo by Debbie Bonifield

After arriving in the States, I had spent nearly a half year in 2016 getting my father’s life story, interviewing him on the early events of his life, when I wasn’t around to witness them. I knew that his time was limited, and I didn’t want to lose the opportunity to record his recollections about the events that led to me existing in the first place, as well as later events that were important to him. After I returned to Europe, we tried to stay in touch, but his irregular sleep schedule prevented him from maintaining any set time for regular Skype calls. The kids and I started leaving messages for him on holidays, hoping that he’d be encouraged to stay in touch somehow. He occasionally did so, but we failed completely in trying to connect on Father’s Day. I only managed to successfully reach him by his cell phone through Skype a week later.

As it turned out, that June 25 call was the last I heard my father’s voice. On July 4, my mother was calling with tears in her eyes to tell me that Karen had contacted her. She asked her to tell me that my father was dead. He passed away the night before. Karen wanted to tell me further details, but she was in the hospital undergoing treatment for her cancer, and would only be able to do so when she had been discharged.

My initial response was confusion. This wasn’t unexpected, but it also didn’t register emotionally for me. My mother had a more immediate urge to weep, in part because of the role he played in a large part of her early adulthood, but apparently more importantly because she had remembered losing her own father, and how that affected her, her older sister Judy, and their mother. For me, I recalled how my wife’s father had passed, and how my father’s mother had left this life, and how both of them were there when their parent took their last breath, as life slipped away. For my father, at least, it meant immediate closure and the feeling that he had been a devoted son. For me, not having been there in the end, I felt like I missed the “finishing” gun.


 

Pop psychology assigns five steps to grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Nowhere in there is confusion. Or maybe confusion is a form of denial. Hard to say. Hard to know. All I really understood was that my mother was intensively trying to find a way to help me start grieving, and I knew it wasn’t coming. As of this writing, it still hasn’t come.

I knew that my duty was to break the news to my daughter. My son is only three, and such concepts as death are not really things he understands yet. But my daughter knows what they are. She knows loss enough to fear it. I had to sort out how best to tell her, to go back through my experiences and figure out the right way to do so.

I could only recall the death of my grandfather Tony Sandoval (unofficial grandfather, of course, but that isn’t something that means much when you are a little kid), and how it was told to me that he had died following a road collision with a stray horse. He was important to me as a grandchild. My mother said that when they told me that he had died in the straightforward way that they had, it was because they had no time. They had other concerns to deal with in getting on the road to Toppenish, where my grandmother was struggling to stay alive in the hospital there. Maybe it wasn’t intentionally done, but it seemed to me that they had stumbled back then on the best way to do it, to break the news to a child.

So, after the Skype call ended, I took my daughter to the balcony, and I stood with her. I began to explain that there was a reason for Grammie Ro’s call. She knew that already. None of this was a surprise to her. She knew her grandfather was dead. I was only confirming it.

For her, grief was easier. She wept at the loss almost immediately. I envied her that. She wasn’t old enough to be in a state of confusion. She didn’t have to go through the five stages in her head and try to figure out which one she was in. She just went straight to weeping and then acceptance.


 

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Grandpa Ben and Grandma Karen watching Little Ben and his mother, and of course his new Blaze truck, July 23, 2016. Photo by Ben M. Angel

Of course we took that walk. I had to get out of the house. I had to get away from the computer, that instrument by which the news of my father’s death was conveyed. I had to sort out in my head what I was feeling. I had a lot to sort out.

I can’t say that I succeeded. Just as we didn’t succeed in reaching the park near the Orla tram stop, I came up short on making sense of what I was feeling. I did sense I was losing patience with minor things, but where did that come in the five stages? Anger? And where was the desire to bargain? I knew there wasn’t anything to bargain for. His going in his sleep was the best I could hope for. It was senseless to think I could bargain for another year, or another chance to hear him say that he loves me, or even the chance to say that I love him. So how was I supposed to get to the depression part and the acceptance part? How was I supposed to find my feelings? I felt only numb.

Part of it I think is not really knowing exactly what happened. There isn’t closure, and likely because of that, I don’t yet have a full sense of the need to grieve. And I know that isn’t healthy.

Following the death of my grandfather, my mother and her family went to the Oregon Coast to get away from it all. They needed that time away, I imagine from the funeral, from the trial of his murderer, from the press coverage of things. We don’t have all that to deal with here on the other side of the world from Spokane. But we’re getting away anyway. We’re doing things as we had planned for some time, to visit the grave of my wife’s great uncle on the Polish coast, and to see my wife’s family in Belarus. I doubt that I’ll find clarity in this trip, but you never know. It’s worth a shot.


 

I know that there wasn’t a funeral for him, so there wasn’t the practical need for this sort of remembrance. But the following is the obituary I would have wrote for him if our family had decided that I should do so.

It’s funny, when I first learned news-writing way back when I thought that my ultimate ambition was to become a foreign correspondent in Eastern Europe, the first lesson my journalism teacher taught us was to write an obituary. I think I mostly wrote this one about my dad just to try to find the emotions that have yet to visit me. It didn’t really help, but I still think I need to convey this. He was, after all, my father.


 

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Benny Angel (1943-2017) in the early 1960s.

Benerito “Benny” Elias Angel was born in Las Vegas, New Mexico, on Feb. 20, 1943, as the son of Venerito Angel and Alvina Valdez. As a child, Benny moved with his mother and older sister first to Colorado, then to Ohio, and finally to Washington State before his family settled in the Tri-Cities in the late 1940s. He had been the stepson of Thomas Alexander, who himself was the son of Yakama leader James Alexander, and who was serving in the Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, when he passed away in 1946.

After attending schools in Richland, Washington, Benny joined the US Army in 1960, serving in Korea as a driver for Recreation Center No. 1 in Seoul. His most famous passenger, he recalled, was renowned actor Danny Kaye, who had been on a USO tour to the soldiers there. Benny returned to the United States, eventually meeting his first wife, Rosalie Jackson, and marrying her in 1964. They had a son together before moving to South King County.

Benny was one of the first employees of the Boeing Plant that opened in Auburn around that time, and remained on the job with them for a decade before pursuing construction work in the WPPSS nuclear power plants both in the Tri-Cities, and in Elma. He continued to work in construction after that project was terminated, often at energy projects in places ranging from Boardman, Oregon, to Mystic, Connecticut.

Benny and Rosalie eventually divorced in 1990, and after a brief residency in Bonney Lake, he married Melissa Coyne (Souza) in 1993, returning to the Tri-Cities. This marriage ended in divorce a few years later in 1999. He married for a third time to Lois Hoffer (Miller) in 2003, a relationship that ended with her death in 2009.

His fourth and final marriage with Karen Elizabeth Barker (Goe) was the one he described as his happiest. They had met at a construction site in Moses Lake around the time of his third wife’s death, and they both quickly understood that they were meant to be together. “It was like the Creator put her in my way,” he would say.

The two married in the autumn of 2009, and remained together in the last years of his life. Living in the home of his widowed mother-in-law in Colbert, Benny and his wife helped with property maintenance while he continued to work on Native American crafts, a hobby he had picked up many years earlier.

Benny eventually contracted pulmonary fibrosis, which began to limit his mobility in 2013. While he still had the chance to do so, he traveled to Europe in 2014 to visit the family of his son, meeting in Warsaw, Poland, for the first time his two grandchildren, Albina and Ben. They in turn came to visit him in the summer of 2016, almost exactly a year before he died.

Benny passed away in the night of July 3/4 in his bed at his family’s home in Colbert, Washington. He is preceded in death by his parents, sister, and a brother who died young, as well as his third wife, Lois. He is survived by his wife, Karen; son Ben M. Angel (Maryna) of Wroclaw, Poland; an earlier son by classmate Margie Hall named Richard; ex-wives Rosalie Angel of Gig Harbor and Melissa Souza of Richland; step-children Weldon Barker (Whitney) of Spokane, and Anneke Pitini (Guytano) of Nine Mile Falls; two grandchildren; six step-grandchildren; two nephews, Nat Saenz (Mary) of West Richland, and Pito Saenz (Irene) of Sacramento; one niece, Alvina Meza of Arizona; and numerous other relatives.

 

 

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