My grandpa, John Thomas Miller, was born in Dearborn, Michigan on Dec. 3, 1939. His mother, Margaret, was from pure Irish ancestry and was bequeathed with a harmonious Celtic spirit. When my grandpa spoke of her he did so with a rare tenderness born in the heart of a boy who grew up the youngest of eight children, and had early-on created a unique language to keep his mother’s attention amidst the raucous of seven older siblings. His father, Fred, was of German descent, and it would always appear to me when my grandpa told stories, that his disposition was reminiscent of a winter in Berlin. Despite the family genes, my grandpa was one of a kind.
Grandpa grew up beneath a roof that housed the hallmarks of a humble income, eagerly anticipating a pair of jeans, socks, and an orange for Christmas, year after year. But where belongings were modest and luxury was foreign, activity and excitement were plenty with seven siblings: Peggy, Betty, Mary, Lorraine, Patty, Kate, and Fred. As he grew up he became an expert in hunting and fishing, played plenty of sports, easily intimidated high-school rivals with his size and strength, and excelled in school until he met my grandma and his grades took a bit of a hit.
He would never tire of telling people, including his friends in Quail Creek, my sister and my friends, and even people in the check-out lane at the grocery store, “You know, I stuck bubble gum in that girl’s hair,” pointing to my grandma. I think this was his way of confessing that he was still as in love with her as the day he ruined her ponytails in second grade.
Grandpa was a bit like the saguaro cacti that grow in Tucson, where he spent the last 14 years of his life. He could be a bit prickly on the outside, sarcastic, and occasionally cantankerous. Especially when my mom would drive the golf cart too fast. “Slow the hell down you silly-sucker,” he’d yell as he grabbed the roof of the cart to stabilize himself.
But, unlike some people who are likable on the outside and more vitriol on the inside, my grandpa was the exact opposite. He was full of all those healing properties that sturdy desert plants are known for: curing wounds, alleviating bad burns, and resplendent with all kinds of immune-boosting antioxidants and vitamins. He could take away the sting other people left and kept our hearts healthy with his often inappropriate humor. As his only grandchildren, my sisters and I could get away with anything, could never ask for too much, and the thought of disappointing him was nonexistent. Punishment from Poppi just meant less chocolate-covered almonds.
My grandpa was cut from a different cloth than most men. That’s probably why I was so incredibly fond of him. He didn’t talk much about work, how much he made or accomplished, who he knew or who he was held in esteem by. That’s why I don’t know much about his career as Director of Sales at General Cable.
He used to say, “I didn’t know anything about sales, but I had charisma and I knew how to work.” If you asked him today about his 35-plus years at General Cable, he’d probably just tell you how much he enjoyed Tim Ailes and Joe Lowry, who back in the '50s were just two nascent young men starting their careers at a big, intimidating corporation. Grandpa mentored them throughout his whole life, championed their work, and like his grandkids, believed in who they were with everything he had.
Grandpa and I would talk on the phone regularly and he’d gloat like a little kid about his golf game. “The boys are mad as hell at me again,” then he’d laugh only to amuse himself, “Monday I took all their money after I beat ‘em.” Up until the last month-and-a-half of his life, he spent almost three days a week golfing with his buddies, otherwise known as “The Scorpions.” Only a matter of weeks ago, back in early May, he managed to golf below his age. If you know golf, you might know how impressive that is (and no, he didn’t pay me to say that).
In reality, his career at General Cable and on the golf course were trivial trophies compared to what really mattered to grandpa: family and friends. His voice took a different timbre when he talked about his first-born child, my Uncle Johnny, who passed away at the age of 34, but whose legacy is characterized by exceptional kindness and courage. When it came down to it, I think heaven was just the cherry-on-top of getting to see Uncle Johnny again.
It was only toward the beginning of June that the doctors realized the cancer had come back, and not much time passed before they realized how severely. I know how much he abhorred doctors offices, hospitals, needles, shots, and medicine. So much so in fact that when he discovered he had diabetes he gave up Sees Candy and chocolate-covered almonds so that he wouldn’t ever have to check his blood-sugar with a meter. He avoided stethoscopes and tongue depressors like the plague. That’s why I’m confident that the fight he put up with cancer was less about claiming the victory for himself, and more about not letting his team down.
Teddy Roosevelt said it well: “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
My grandma committed herself to caring for my grandpa and for several weeks tended to his every need, until he was too sick to stay at home and needed 24/7 care. He moved to Saint Mary’s Hospital in Tucson, Arizona on Wednesday, June 19, and was moved to ICU on Friday. He kept up the good fight until my sisters and I were able to arrive with our hugs and goodbyes the following Monday.
I’ll forever cherish the squeeze he gave my hand as I laid my head on his chest and closed my eyes to transform his bed full of equipment and chords into his big leather armchair, and his hospital gown into one of his black and white striped golf polos that smelled of Chanel Bleu. I know he didn’t feel strong with the oxygen mask strapped to him feeding him breath and the IV administering morphine so he wouldn’t have to take such large heaves for air, but I can’t imagine anything that demonstrates more strength than fighting for breath only to let someone know you love them.
Grandpa took a last, peaceful breath on June 24, at around 8:55 p.m. alongside my mother, who learned the noble art of fighting “for a worthy cause” by his example, and thus gave him permission to “exit the arena,” with his head held high.
First place is yours, Poppi.
John T. Miller is survived by his wife of 59 years, Marilyn Miller, current resident of Quail Creek, and his daughter Amy Rogers, son-in-law Jeff Rogers (Seattle), and his 3 granddaughters, Lauren Rogers (Chicago), Addy Rogers (Seattle), and Camryn Rogers (Seattle). His deceased son, John T. Miller II, greeted his father in Heaven on Monday, June 24, 2019.
The family will be hosting a celebration of life service at a later date. For those interested, donations in honor of John T. Miller can be made to Friends in Deed, 520-625-1150, 310 W. Camino Casa Verde, Green Valley, AZ 85614. www.fid-gv.org