My grandfather, Walter Michael Michaelski, passed away Oct. 4. Yesterday, I had the honour of delivering his eulogy. Below is what I said, with less pauses for me to stop crying.
Good afternoon. Thank you all so much for coming today.
I am honoured to be here, to stand in front of you and do my part to tell my Grandpa Wally’s story and to try and do justice to a man who, through force of will, occasional stubbornness and remarkable character, lived a life whose influence has shaped the lives of so many of the people in this room and beyond.
Walter Michael Michaelski was born on his family’s farm in the district of Keld, Manitoba, on the border of Riding Mountain National Park. His parents had immigrated from Ukraine during one of the many mass emigrations, scraping and fighting to build a life and support their family.
Life on the farm was hard – and following the death of his father, Wally moved to Dauphin, where he drove a cab before he started working for CN Rail.
In 1951, a year after he met her over a cup of coffee at the E-Lite diner, he married Jean Trohubiak, the love of his life.
From the birth of their five children, Angela, Bob, Pat, Marcie and Karen, and through to the end of his life, Grandpa would have an unflinching and dutiful partner, occasional foil and better angler by his side.
Following his retirement, Grandpa kept busy by opening a tool sharpening business, and working on and enjoying his cabin in Waterhen.
Many of my earliest memories of my Grandpa are from the garden, the boat and the dock at that cabin, including the time, shortly after I heard the crack of his .22, he emerged from the bushes holding the rabbit that had been eating his lettuces.
I remember the giant grin on his face as he held this poor bunny by the ears, and his laughter as I fled behind the shed to cry until dinnertime, when we ate the most delicious “boiled chicken” I had ever had in my whole life.
Most of my memories of Grandpa are of times like these – working in the garden, eating at the dinner table, getting offered alcohol at a shockingly young age because my Grandpa couldn’t stand the sight of a guest without a drink in their hand.
Of his wonderful, vibratto-filled voice belting out an old country song or Christmas carol, accompanied by himself, Uncle Bob or my Dad on the guitar. Of his huge smile and laugh as he regaled us with another joke or perfectly crafted phrase.
From Dauphin, to Waterhen, to High River, to Calgary, Grandpa was so often the life of the party, rivalled only by his own children in the capacity to host and to show folks a good time.
Every friend I ever brought to Grandma and Grandpa’s house would leave with a full belly, a host of new stories to remember and a blood alcohol content well beyond the legal limit if they weren’t watching when Wally filled their glass.
My Grandpa Wally was so many things – a husband, a father, a railroader, a hunter and angler and craftsman and Holder of So Many Opinions on absolutely everything – but to me, above all other things, the thing that defined my Grandpa was his love of storytelling.
I might be biased in this department since I’ve somehow made a career out of telling stories, but I bet there isn’t a person in this room who hasn’t experienced the distinct sensation of having been “Wallied”.
At any given moment, on any given day, Grandpa could launch into a tale that would, at its outset, appear innocuous. It would seem like he was simply adding his two cents to the conversation, providing and dispensing a dollop of perspective or wisdom on a specific subject, born out of a long and rich life full of experiences.
By story’s end, however, you would be a different person, not only because of the richness of detail, the carefully chosen turns of phrase and the sheer volume of words, but because of the story’s battering, relentless length.
By the time Wally was done telling one of these stories – which could be on any subject under discussion, or quite possibly on a subject seemingly totally unrelated to the discussion – you would feel – and be – appreciably older than you were at the outset.
For many of those that loved Wally, we had heard so many of these stories countless times. Grandpa’s incredible memory and attention to detail made his storytelling and recall perfect – a recitation of prose that was like the litany of the Catholic Church, or the works of Homer – and like most church sermons or live readings of The Iliad, they could get pretty repetitive.
I used to count the number of eye rolls from Grandma and the kids as a way to keep myself entertained while Grandpa retold the story of the time he finally caught a bigger pickerel than Grandma.
But Grandpa didn’t just use stories to get a laugh, or make a point, or burnish his credentials; he told stories as a way, when couldn’t necessarily say it directly, to show you that he saw you, that he understood you. He used his stories as a form of empathy.
For example – when I was 14, my parents separated. It was, as you can imagine, a difficult time for everyone – my Mom and Dad were trying to navigate a new world after more than 20 years together, and on top of that they had me at 14 to deal with – at the absolute peak of my self-regard. The only thing bigger than the hemline on my enormous baggy jeans was my ego.
The next time I saw my Grandpa after my parents split was at their home in High River, at a big family dinner, with my aunts and uncles, my cousins and my Grandma. As I went around the house, each person asked me how I was doing, how I was feeling.
I would tell them I was doing fine, that I felt okay, that things were good, when in my heart I knew that things were not good. That I was scared, and I was raw, and I was very, very angry.
As I made the rounds, I finally said hello to Grandpa, and he asked me how I was. I told him the same thing I told everyone else – that I was just fine, thanks – and asked him how his week was.
In response, my Grandpa, completely unprompted, launched into a 45 minute long story about his prostate.
In that 45 minutes of getting “Wallied”, I learned many things about the diagnosis and treatment of an enlarged prostate, and many, many more things about my Grandpa.
I learned about the effects of an enlarged prostate on his bedtime routine, on his drives to Brandon and Winnipeg for treatment and on the various wildlife he saw along the way.
I learned about PVP GreenLight technology, also known as the Photoselective Vaporization of the Prostate, a turn of phrase that my Grandpa seemed to relish in a way that some people over-pronounce their pasta order in Italian restaurant.
I’ll have the Spa-ghet-ti Bol-o-gnes-e, I’ll take the Pho-to Se-lec-tive Va-pori-za-tion of-a the Pro-state.
So I enter this chat 14 years old, peak Colin. Scared and miserable and angry. 45 minutes later, I leave the conversation changed.
Confused, yes – for sure, embarrassed, probably a little hungry and thirsty, slightly nauseated – but changed. Grandpa, in the telling of this story, had somehow broken the hold of the anxiety that had clamped over my heart, if only for a little while.
It would be easy to attribute this story to my Grandpa’s – shall we say energetic – interest in his own life, to a man trying to change the subject to something he was more comfortable with.
I mean, who consoles or relates to their 14 year old grandson with a story about their prostate? What was I to do with this information, and perhaps most baffling, why did it work?
It took me a long time – years, really – to figure it out.
In some ways, the gap between my Grandpa and I couldn’t have been larger. I was born in a time and a world so different than Walter Michaleski.
As a kid, I was in my parents’ basement, building myself my own computer, while as a kid Grandpa was out on the farm, working with animals.
When he was bent over in the sun planting seeds in his garden, I was hunched over a book in the shadiest spot I could find.
When he was impressing German POWs by one-handing axes into trees from 40 feet away, I was impressing girls by deglazing a pan with Viognier.
How does this man, who grew up so tough, with immigrant parents, with tragedy and hardship and challenges, who subsumed his aspirations for education and intellect to support his family, relate to this kid? To this whiny, sullen, 40-inch bottom jeans, spiky-haired little dink?
In that moment, in those 45 minutes, my Grandpa showed me how you do it. You see, my Grandpa started telling me that story not because he thought I would be incredibly interested in his prostate, but because it was about the time when he thought he had cancer.
It was the time in his life when he felt scared, and angry, when he didn’t know what was going to happen next. In every moment of that story, he was telling me that it was scary, that things were hard, but that, in the end, he made it. And that in the end, I would too.
It probably took me twenty years to realize why my Grandpa’s stories have always had this effect on me, why it always seemed so important to listen, to understand and to acknowledge this gift.
In his stories, he spoke not only about himself – he used those words to connect with others, to bridge the 60 years between Grandfather and Grandson, to find, in the sharing of stories, the sharing of oneself with the people you love.
So that’s what we’re going to do today. We are going to share Grandpa’s story, and in some small way remember him as a proud, passionate, complicated but ultimately caring man; a man who understood that his true wealth and his real investment lay in the people who surrounded him.
His job was on the railroad until he retired, but his life’s work was his family and his friends. To see so many of you here today, to know that in no small way he built what we have and what we are, gives me a great deal of comfort.
So, in closing, I have one request to all of you; if you can, don’t just take this day as a time for silent, solemn grief. If your instinct is to retreat inside yourself, or to feel that you’re spreading sadness by speaking of it, that is completely understandable.
But if you can, just today, tell your story about Walter and maybe fill someone else’s glass while you do it.
While Grandpa is gone, his legacy is secure in so many of us that carry on without him, so long as we remember and tell his stories to our own friends and our own families, to share our own stories, to connect and care for each other in whatever way we can.