American dream ends in nightmare

Christian Storms with his grandfather, Matthew Radkowski, after graduating from college.

My grandfather, Matthew Radkowski, was born on Jan. 1, 1939, in Bogoria, Poland. From an early life that put him to the test very few living beings can possibly fathom, he eventually made his way to the United States of America where he lived the American Dream, but the past nine months he had been living the American nightmare inside a nursing home … and on Nov. 9 that nightmare took his life.

Just nine months into my grandpa’s life, the world plunged into darkness, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia invaded his home of Poland. At that point in time there was little hope in the world and for Poland it was just a matter of when they would suffer defeat to the Nazis and Soviets.

So just nine months into his life, my grandpa went from living in Poland to living under Nazi rule. His father, a good man, joined the Polish resistance. This act of heroism led to the next tragedy in my grandpa’s young life. His father was eventually captured and forced to dig his own grave, then was murdered right where he stood, in a shallow ditch. There was no trial, there was no due process, the man was just murdered in cold blood by some of the worst scum to walk this earth.

My family knew that the Nazis were scum and stood for nothing, but absolute evil. My grandpa was raised a religious man and a good man who stood for good things. His family, despite poverty and war ravaging them decided to stand against evil and tyranny. Along with fighting in the Polish resistance, my family also hid Jewish families in their home in Poland.

Even while being raised by good parents with clear good hearts, I cannot fathom how during any human’s formative years they would possibly be able to grow up witnessing such atrocities and living in such poverty then grow into the man my grandpa was.

Radlowski with his wife, Theresa.

By May 1945, Poland was liberated, the Nazis were defeated, Europe looked to rebuild and my grandpa was now 6 years old.

After experiencing what my family had experienced, the only explanation of how they made it was their faith in God. Instead of a happy ever after for my family, their faith was again put to the test.

After World War II, Poland continued its oppression. But instead of living under Nazis who made life hell for most, my grandpa and the rest of Poland lived behind the iron curtain where Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union made life hell for everyone.

Communist Poland provided no comfort for anyone, especially those who had faith or worshipped anything other than Joseph Stalin. A story that my grandpa has shared with me several times is how Stalin got young children to worship him instead of God.

When my grandpa was a youth in school they would have over the loudspeaker announcing to young hungry children living in poverty “Ask God for candy” my grandpa and all of his classmates would shout out and ask God for candy with no reply. Moments later, the loudspeaker would go again “Ask Stalin for candy” then my grandpa and his classmates would shout out “Stalin please give us candy!” Almost immediately after that, Russian officials would come into the room and give all of the children candy.

Radkowski with his daughter, Kathy Storms.

That was just one of many ways Stalin would brainwash his citizens into thinking he was a God and a good person who cared for his people. Lucky for my grandpa he was strong willed and his faith was not deterred by blatant propaganda. Even though my grandpa was able to keep his faith, the life in poverty and oppression took its toll on him.

My grandpa became unruly and rebellious. The struggles and shortcomings of his life led to bad behavior that was unchecked without his father who was murdered by the Nazis. One story he would often tell me and my brother in a jovial mood was that of him stealing a bike from a wealthy boy.

He told us that the boy had a bike and he did not have one and could never get one because of how poor he was. He hit the boy and took his bike, the boy ran crying and yelling for his mother. After the boy ran into his house, moments later a man ran out after him with a machine gun and he pedaled away from him.

How anyone can tell that story with a laugh I will never know, but my grandpa would tell it to me and my brother and we would smile and laugh. What was funny to my grandpa, worried his mother. As my grandpa got older and more unruly his mother could not take care of him or provide of him and he had to go live in an orphanage.

His behavior and theft did not stop and that brings up one of the stories that makes him cry when he tells it.

Radkowski in the 1950s.

My grandpa was a young teenager, living in the orphanage, hungry. One day while hungry he stumbled upon an apple tree out front of a house, he climbed into the tree and started eating the families apples. The lady who lived in the house soon rushed out to yell at him, she told him to stop stealing and she was going to call the authorities, but her daughter came out to stop her saying he was a classmate of hers who was poor and hungry. The girl’s mother then took him into the house and cleaned him up and filled his belly with food.

The troubles didn’t stop for my grandpa in Poland. As he got older, his mother feared he would die young if he didn’t leave for a better life to the United States.

It was soon arranged by his sister Helene, who had made her way to America to help him immigrate. On Sept. 19, 1961, my grandpa finally made his way to the land of the free — the United States of America.

My auntie Helene and her husband Henry helped my grandpa transition. He got a job working in a factory in Buffalo. He learned his fourth language, English. Then he even fell in love with a Polish girl, my grandma.

Hearing how he talked about stories of his life in America, the love and appreciation for his opportunity is obvious. Less than two years after arriving in America, my grandpa was a father to my mother, starting his family. My grandpa had four more children, and it would not be without tragedy, one of his daughters was stillborn.

My grandpa loved his family more than anything, but he was nowhere near the perfect father. What I believe was largely a product of his upbringing, he spent much of his adult life battling with alcoholism. While he was not a great father, every single one of his kids, similar to him, have been able to make a life better for themselves.

Through the ups and downs of his battle with alcohol he overcame the worst of it and has become a better father and person. To me, my brother, my cousin Alexis, in brief my late cousin Spencer, my cousin Isabella, my cousin Antonio, and my cousin Gianna, he’s been a generous and loving grandfather.

Throughout his entire life in the United States he has been proud to live here in the greatest country on earth. When my cousin Alexis served in the USMC he proudly touted that. While I represent the United States Developmental Sled Hockey team he proudly as a first generation American gets to watch a grandson earn the right to represent the country that gave him happiness and his life.

Without a doubt my athletic abilities, physical and mental willpower comes from him.

My grandpa has always been strong, one has to be to go through what he has. Up into his 70s my grandpa would run on his treadmill, do push ups, swim from March until November in Buffalo, and climb just about anything in sight.

That, paired with working manual labor in a factory, built up strength that would be helpful. A couple of years ago, my grandpa suffered a stroke when he was home alone with his dog, with half his body paralyzed he somehow crawled into the kitchen and was able to feed himself until a couple of days later when my uncle came and found him.

He persevered and survived the stroke and soon made his way down the road of recovery. The stroke unfortunately left permanent damage and now the man who has fended for himself his entire life had to move into assisted living.

My grandpa’s most recent assisted living facility was the closest he has ever lived to me. I regret not visiting him there more now, but I am thankful my mother made the most of the opportunity.

Now I can’t remember the last time I was able to hug him, because very quickly his free life has been taken away from him. When COVID-19 first began to spike in March his assisted living facility made quick work to close their facility to the public. With little testing available and the virus being the kiss of death for older generations it was certainly the right choice.

Unfortunately, the COVID lockdown became more of a prison sentence for my grandpa. The residents had to stay in their rooms, the lack of interaction and my mom visiting to make sure he was cleaning himself and taking care of his body took a toll on his mental health. In that month of March it appeared his mental health was deteriorating, he was acting out and not taking care of himself at all, living in complete filth and squalor.

Finally it hit the boiling point and he had to go to the emergency room, because he appeared to be in a state slipping in and out of consciousness. He had developed swelling near the brain and for the first time in a month, my mother at the emergency room got to see her father. Soon they learned what was driving him mad was not COVID lockdown, but rather an inoperable tumor pushing against his brain.

The emergency room was the last time my mother was able to see my grandfather in person. With a brain tumor, he had to now move further away again to a nursing home in Hamburg. As COVID’s scare laid lower during the summer, with increased awareness and precautions taken it looked as if we were on the path for better days.

But even with more readily available testing, people being conscientious of the spread and taking precautions my grandpa stayed in lockdown in his room. The only way to visit my grandpa had become window visits, as if he truly were a prisoner leaving the only actual interactions with him and his guards or nurses.

Writing this saying my grandpa was a prisoner sounds ridiculous to me when I think that of course, it’s for the greater good, if someone gets COVID, especially an 81-year-old man with a brain tumor it’s certainly a death sentence.

However, despite all the precautions taken, on Nov. 6, my grandpa’s prison sentence just turned into a death sentence… he tested positive for COVID-19.

Now the man who did not get killed by the very same Nazis who murdered his father; the man who lived in hunger and absolute unfathomable poverty during Soviet occupation of Poland; the man who traveled to America alone with a dream of happiness; the man who learned English, got a good factory job, started a family; the man who battled alcoholism and won; the man who battled mental health problems; the man who stood by his wife as she battled lung cancer and died; the man who raised four hard working fine adults; the man who survived a stroke; the man who could not be more proud that he is an American was now going to die alone, with no family by his side, alone in his lonely nursing home because he is an American.

My grandpa’s state of health made it easy to accept what was going to happen. But COVID robbed my family of making his last time on earth the best it could be. Instead it was death sentence with window visits.

My main reason of writing this is for the hope that COVID restrictions for nursing home residents in end-of-life will change so that another family is robbed of the last moments with their loved ones. With the more COVID testing that is readily available, family members should be able to get tested have just as much proof as the nursing home employees that they are safe. It breaks my heart that the irresponsibility of a few ruins it for us following the rules.

On Monday, Nov. 9, my grandpa, Matthew Radkowski became another name added to COVID-19 casualty list.


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