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A Picture Of Me Without You

November 10, 2019

For George

Imagine a world where no music was playing
Then think of a church with nobody praying
If you ever looked up at a sky with no blue
Then you’ve seen a picture of me without you

And I never thought that I would see a picture of me without you, Grandpa – but here we are. The music stopped playing on Wednesday night when my family lost its seminal leader, George Sokal, at 95. He left peacefully, shortly after a visit with us at Selkirk Hospital, as a Johnny Cash song played.

I write this, completely unprepared to write this – entirely doubtful of how I can put this almost mythical figure into a few hundred words. Those that knew him will understand this sentiment and those who didn’t deserve to know about him. So I will try.

My Grandpa. Born in May of 1924, born to be a farmer, born to fall in love with Anne, born to have three beautiful children, Gina, Sharon and Wayne, and six grandchildren, Melanie, Concetta, Morris, Joey, Maxx and myself. Born to be the greatest man I’ve ever known.

The farmer in him made him the ultimate embodiment of kindness, benevolence, simplicity and hard work. He spent his younger years farming with his brothers and his older years farming and nurturing our land. This ingrained in him the ability and desire to offer himself to anyone in need of a helping hand (because he could do the work of ten men!).

His homestead, the Sokal farm on Garven Road, was always there. It IS always there for me. I lived there briefly as a baby, (moved elsewhere), then my sister, my Dad and I moved back in in 2000 to live with my Grandpa after my Baba passed away. This was my family unit, my Dad and Grandpa acting as two superhuman father figures to my sister and I to fill any voids – and I’m telling you, no voids were even noticed. I was raised with a heart so full on a magical rural property full of love, warmth, and security.

The way I saw my Grandpa as a child is the way he always remained, and I can still see him now imprinted in my mind in all of his glory: With sun spotted hands doused in motor oil, his stained coveralls, his glowing smile and learned eyes. I can see his plaid shirts, his slacks, his sneakers, his handkerchiefs, his cowboy hats. I can see his pencil strokes as he taught us to draw – palm trees and birds and cacti. I can see him playing with our dogs and asking for their doggy stories. I can see him fixing cars and driving tractors. I can see wooden airplanes spray painted gold and snow forts and thriving gardens.

I can hear his voice, comforting and uplifting, with a touch of Ukrainian tongue. I can hear his catch phrases: “Study hard and someday you’ll be smart like Grandpa”, “Someday they’re gonna put you in the movies”, “It’s your day”. I can hear the pride in his voice when he told each person he knew that I was the best speller, the best storyteller. I can hear the sound of his mandolin, his banjo, his fiddle, replacing the typical alarm clock of a teenager with the warm melodies of bluegrass each morning. I can hear him singing old country tunes and writing out the lyrics on loose leaf paper. I can hear the clanging of cups and jars in the kitchen as he made his daily porridge. I can hear him regaling us in stories about electric cars and the fuel cell. I can hear him.

In 2000, I came home from school to find my Baba had passed away unexpectedly. I found my Grandpa in the living room crying (the only time I ever saw him cry) with intense redness around his mouth from trying to breathe life into her. At that moment I knew it was our time to be there for him – to support and care for this unique, giving soul who never asked for a thing in return.

He cheated death a few times throughout his life. When laying the foundation to our home on the farm in the eighties, he was pinned by a tractor that became wedged and it was only by a few inches that he wasn’t completely crushed. My Baba ran to the end of our driveway, waved down the first vehicle that happened to be a tow truck, and that tow truck saved his life. The exhaust pipe from the tractor seared his back and skin was removed from his leg for the burn. After healing, he continued to lay that foundation and the house was finished. Nothing ever got in the way of my Grandpa and seeing a task to completion. In the early 2000s, he went to the hospital for heart surgery and there was a moment when the doctors asked my Dad if they should resuscitate him. Yes, yes – of course yes – and my Grandpa’s heart of gold got him all the way to 2019.

I know compassion because of my Grandpa. In 2007, I was in a single vehicle accident when I rolled my car off the highway driving home and destroyed my Grandpa’s car. The police took me home at 3 in the morning and he sat with me on the end of the bed. “It’s going to be okay, it’s just a car. As long as you’re okay, that’s all that matters. We love you, Griff.” He is the reason I see the world through a hopeful and unmaterialistic lens. His gentle and tender nature was simple, straightforward – boundless.

He wasn’t just my Grandpa – he was everyone’s Grandpa. Friends and family spent hours on the farm visiting with him, jamming with him and listening to his stories. And he passed to them his view of the world. It was humble and genuine: Be kind to everyone, smile with everyone, don’t argue, don’t get angry, love and be loved. Things are just things. People and moments and experiences are what matter.

It doesn’t feel real because he was such a constant for my whole life – and of course, when someone is 95 years old, there’s that moment when you convince yourself that they are immortal. Well Grandpa, you are immortal. You are immortal in me, in my family name, in my character, in what I pass on. All I want is to become even half the person you were. I love you forever.

To my lionhearted Dad – there isn’t enough gratitude in all of humanity to show you how I feel. Thank you for devoting your life to taking care of this legendary man and leader of our family. Thank you for being there so Grandpa could live up to age 95 on the property and in the home he treasured so much. I love you more than you could ever know.

I still feel like this doesn’t truly depict the light George Sokal was – but sometimes words just fail you when an impact is this profound and the space left in your heart is so immense, so discomforting. All I ask is when you’re taking that highway and driving past that iconic Sokal sign – give a little wave. He would have liked that. I hear your voice, Grandpa – “It’s gonna be okay.”

I wouldn’t change a single thing about you if I could
The way you are just suits me to a T
A princess in a storybook
A king upon his throne
That’s what we are and you belong to me

I wouldn’t change you if I could
I love you as you are
You’re all that I would wish for
If I wished upon a star
An angel sent from heaven
You’re everything that’s good
You’re perfect just the way you are
I wouldn’t change you if I could

Your eyes your lips, your tender smile
I’d leave them as they are
And come what may I’d never change a thing
And if I were a potter
And you a piece of clay
The only thing I’d change would be your name

I wouldn’t change you if I could
I love you as you are
You’re all that I would wish for
If I wished upon a star
An angel sent from heaven
You’re everything that’s good
You’re perfect just the way you are
I wouldn’t change you if I could

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