My Grandpop had been battling multiple health issues for a few years, but by early October 2018, his condition had gotten worse. He had trouble walking and breathing, and his legs were swollen. He went to the hospital for a few days, but the doctors had no answers and sent him home.
On the morning of Saturday, October 20th, Grandpop fell in his living room and could not get up. My parents called an ambulance but Grandpop didn’t want to go back into the hospital. He wanted to stay home. Since his mind was sharp, the paramedics couldn’t force him to go.
My family pleaded with him but he stubbornly refused. Finally, my brother Ed’s plea was the final push that he needed and he agreed to take an ambulance ride to the hospital on Sunday, October 21st.
Over the next week, I spent every morning before work with Grandpop. In fact, the whole family found time each day to go to the hospital and see him. He was surrounded by love every day, all of us trying to mask our anxiety about the expected prognosis while trying to stay upbeat for his sake. It was difficult.
Grandpop slept fitfully, and napped when he could. His spirits were low, but he occasionally laughed at a joke or made one of his own.
We could all tell that he wasn’t ready for another battle.
A serendipitous conversation
On October 10, 2018, before Grandpop went into the hospital the first time, I had a conversation that would change the fate of my Strat.
The topic of my decrepit Strat came up during a lesson with Don Eszes, a long-time student of mine. When I explained its problem to Don, he said casually with a wave of his hand, “Oh, I could fix that.”
“I’d just rout out the bad pocket and glue a new piece of wood in its place. Then, I’d rout a new neck pocket from that piece of wood.”
“That would work?”
Another wave of the hand. “Oh yeah. No problem.”
“Okay! Well, let’s do it!”
At this point, I should mention that Don is a master cabinet maker. He works for a company that makes custom cabinets for million-dollar homes. If it is made of wood, Don can cut, chop, saw, sand, join and polish it to perfection. He has even made his own guitars before. In fact, he made a Strat before. He designed his own routing templates and keeps them in a custom made box that’s nicer than any cabinet that I have in my home. So when Don seemed confident that he could help me, I trusted him. I’m glad that I did.
We agreed to meet at his company’s workshop in Glen Burnie on October 27th, a Saturday afternoon. I had a gig scheduled that night, but I had time beforehand to work on the Strat. I had no idea, however, that that day would turn out to be one of the most difficult days of my life.
The tests are in
On Friday, October 26th, after a week’s worth of testing, the doctor finally knew what was wrong with my Grandpop. The doctor delivered the prognosis to a roomful of nervous family members: Grandpop had liver cancer and he didn’t have much time left.
We were devastated.
Grandpop, however, was relieved. In fact, he seemed pleased that he knew what the rest of us kept denying: that he was dying.
He was tired of fighting.
I spent some time with him, pulling myself away only to console my family and deal with my own pain. Later that evening, Grandpop was transferred to the hospice wing.
Everyone thought we’d have a few weeks with Grandpop. It turns out that we only had about 40 more hours with him.
The work begins
The next morning, October 27th, I gave guitar lessons as I usually do on Saturday mornings. That morning, however, was unusual. I was emotionally numb.
Pam had the morning off, so she went to the hospital to visit Grandpop. They chatted about politics and he even had enough of an appetite to eat a donut hole. She texted around noon to tell me that he was in good spirits. That gave me a lift.
After my lessons concluded, I considered calling Don to cancel our work session for that day, but I decided against it. Instead, I opted to have a semi-normal day before spending all day with Grandpop the next day, Sunday. So, I kept my 3 pm appointment with Don.
I brought along my Strat body, once again stripped of all of its hardware, and my brand new Warmoth neck. I needed a new neck because of the terrible refret job that the old neck had suffered. The Warmoth neck was exactly to my specifications and I couldn’t wait to pop it into the new neck pocket. To do that, however, we needed to get to work.
When I say we, I mean that Don needed to get to work while I admired from a distance. I choose the word “admire” specifically because it truly was a pleasure to be able to hang out with a master craftsman and watch him do his thing. Don knew the right tool for every situation. As we listened to AC/DC on shuffle, Don nimbly rotated routers, squared up the saws, closed the clamps, sanded the surfaces and rasped the rough edges. Everything he did was effortless and confident.
As I watched Don work, I kept thinking about the times I’d spend with Grandpop down in his basement workshop, watching him as he worked. Life has a funny way to drawing lines in a parallel sometimes.
At the end of that work session, my Strat body had a block of poplar fitted perfectly into a newly routed space where the ruined neck pocket used to be. The block was glued and clamped into place and needed a few days to cure. Once it was cured, Don promised that the new wood and my guitar body would essentially become one piece, bonded forever.
We agreed to meet the following Saturday to rout out the new neck pocket and finish the job. I showered Don with gratitude, shook his large, sawdust covered hand and left so that I could start getting ready for my gig later that night.
The hardest gig I’ll ever play
Pam and I were getting a quick bite to eat about an hour before my gig when my sister Jaime called. She wasn’t sure, but she thought that Grandpop may be taking a turn for the worse. I don’t remember the specifics of the conversation, but I hung up the phone with a heavy heart. I had to get through this three-hour gig and leave directly afterwards to go see Grandpop.
We drove to Brewer’s Cask in Federal Hill and began unloading. Dave, my good friend and music partner, gave me a big hug. He looked at me and said, “I’m sorry about your grandfather.” Pam must’ve been texting him while I was driving. “We can cancel if you want.”
“No way. We’re here. We’re doing this. But thanks, man.”
Great friends trump great musicians in a musical partnership. I am fortunate that Dave is both.
During the show, I did my best to play well and keep my mind on the music. But between every few songs, I’d mouth the words, “Any word about Grandpop?” to Pam.
Each time, she shook her head and mouthed “No.” That helped me persevere; no news is good news.
Still, I couldn’t keep my mind off of the fact that my Grandpop could be dying and I wasn’t with him. I was emotionally confused: I was simultaneously filled with a sense of dutifulness for playing a show under terrible circumstances and a sense of guilt for not being there with my Grandpop and my family.
I played a guitar solo – I don’t remember which song – and thought, Play this one so hard that even Grandpop can hear it. I hope he did, somehow. I choked up a little during that solo.
At midnight, Dave and I finished our last tune. He and Pam helped me pack up quickly and load all of my gear into the car. After another hug from Dave, Pam and I sped off to the hospital.
We arrived at just before 1 am. We parked the car and hurried across the street. We entered the hospice wing and ignored the unmanned front desk as we rushed toward the elevators. After a two story lift and zig and a zag, we zipped down the hallway toward my Grandpop’s room.
We pushed the door open and passed inside. The door swung closed behind us.
• • •
In the early morning on Sunday, October 28th, 2018, Olan “Bud” Hitt, Sr.” passed away quietly, surrounded by family. No pain or suffering. Just a gentle transformation from a man who is to a man who was.
(Here’s a link to part 5.)