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My grandfather was born in Coweta, OK. His name was Benjamin Lee Ireland, everyone called him Lee. His father was a farmer and a laborer and, from what I understand, a pretty mean drunk. My grandfather didn’t tell me much about his childhood. He had a way of steering the conversation back to me. He always thought his grandkids were the best people he had ever known.
From what I could learn, Grandpa’s childhood was pretty rough and entirely too short. At 13, he and his family lost their farm and joined thousands of Okies who fled the Indian Nations for what they hoped would be a better life in California. Because his father loved the bottle, young Lee bore much of the responsibility for getting his family to the promised-land.
Along the way, he met my grandmother, and his lifelong employer. When he arrived in California he went to work irrigating fields. He was so worried about losing that job that he slept in the fields so as not to miss the time to change the water. This impressed his employer who promoted him to truck driver, then dairy farm manager and finally manager of a ranch in Madera, Calif.
Over time, he grew into a short, stocky, muscular man who valued his reputation and character above all else. I never saw him take a drink and I never heard of him breaking a promise. He married my grandmother and they produced three kids, including my Mom.
The ranch he managed was the source of most of my happiest memories. My grandfather and my uncle taught me how to ride and rope. They taught me how to drive a truck and they taught me the importance of doing what you commit to do.
As part of what is known as the greatest generation, Lee was drafted and sent to Okinawa where he was wounded. That Japanese shrapnel rests with him in his grave in Athens, Ala. After I enlisted in the Army, I thought the military was something we could share, after all he was in the infantry. But, just like his childhood, his military service wasn’t something he wanted to talk about. And, as it turns out, neither was his health.
That’s probably the only facet of his personality that angers me.
My face is kind of itchy today. I haven’t shaved since Halloween because I’m taking part in “No-Shave November.” The idea is for me to donate the money I’d normally spend on shaving supplies to prostate cancer research. They say that you can have prostate cancer and not show any symptoms. That’s why screening is important. I’m sure that there was some point at which Grandpa didn’t know what was growing inside him. But that didn’t last. There eventually came a point when he couldn’t ignore it anymore.
Maybe he was afraid of what the doctors would say. Maybe he just didn’t like doctors. Maybe he knew something was wrong but chose to ignore it. Maybe he really didn’t know. Whatever the case, by the time he talked about it, it was too late. The disease had spread, and his treatment options were limited to pain management. He died in 1998 while my grandmother held his hand. She didn’t want to let go and, later, she told me she was surprised at how long his hand stayed warm.
Prostate cancer killed my grandfather and left a gaping hole in our family. The world is a less wonderful place without Lee Ireland. But he is not the only one. Literally thousands of good men have been taken by a disease we should have defeated by now.
Men, take care of yourselves, get screened, talk to your doctors, talk to the ones you love. Don’t be afraid. If something doesn’t seem right, get it checked. If you have questions, ask them. There are people who look up to you and they love you and they want you around. Don’t leave before you absolutely have to because no one else can fill the space you leave behind.