Ciao, Papa Louie

Luciano Bacchini, my chess-loving grandfather, died at the age of 84 following battles with cancer and dementia.


Dan Loving

Senior Casey Loving visited his grandparents in New Jersey earlier this month. He was happy that he got to take a photo in his graduation gown with his grandfather who died Monday.

Casey Loving, Co-Editor-in-Chief

I learned to play chess when I was somewhere around 8 years old. My grandfather taught me. Beyond showing me the ropes, however, he offered little help.

“If you want to beat me,” he’d always say, “you have to earn it.” Grandpa sweetened the pot beyond bragging rights, offering me $20 for every game I beat him, a small fortune for my younger self.

Whenever my mom’s parents visited from New Jersey, I would play my grandfather night after night during their usual two-week visits, hoping to just once run upstairs to my grandmother and shout “I beat Papa Louie!” For several years, that day never came.

I must’ve been about 10 or 11 when I finally won. At the time, it was the most rewarding $20 of my life. To this day, I still don’t know if he let me beat him or not. Despite my grandmother’s years of begging, he seemed pretty insistent that I win on my own merits.

Visits like this would continue for a while. Sometimes they’d leave for New Jersey with me staying home empty-handed. Sometimes I got as much as $45 before they left (the extra $5 is from the games of checkers I know for a fact Grandma let me win). Either way, I was more than happy to try again and again to beat him. I was playing a game of wits against the smartest man I’d ever met. That was more than enough for me.

I’ll never forget the trip I felt like a crook. Grandma and Grandpa came, and I already had the chess board set up in the basement, a wooden beauty my grandfather had hand-crafted years ago and left for me to have. We played a few games, and I won a few. More than a few. By the time they had left, I had secured $100 from Grandpa’s $20 bets. He would’ve given me more if I didn’t ask him to just play for fun. I could see from his face each time I captured a queen that these weren’t games he was throwing.

Today, a painter, a black belt, a card dealer, a cook, a chess master, an Italian immigrant, my grandfather, Luciano Bacchini, passed away following a long battle with dementia and a sudden diagnosis of cancer earlier this month.

If you can’t tell by my description of him, my grandfather was, to put it lightly, an interesting man. At times, he seemed like a superhero to me, being nearly a master in more hobbies than I could even say I had.

At other times, he seemed like almost a caricature, a loud, jovial, Italian man who younger me could only see represented in the likes of a “Mario” game. Even now, I crack up at hearing one of his heavily accented catchphrases in my head. “Casey my boy!” “Capeesh?” “What a kid.” He was the best.

In a lot of ways, I think we’re lucky. At least, as lucky as you can be when you lose someone you love. My grandfather never wanted a big funeral, and obvious circumstances will prevent my family from having one anyway. With school being done electronically, my family got the chance to drive to New Jersey and say our goodbyes the moment we discovered he was sick. He never wanted to die of dementia, and his battle with cancer, though difficult, was quick. It was certainly easier for him to lose his body than his mind.

As you can probably tell with my story earlier, watching my grandfather succumb to the effects of dementia was really hard for me. As a child, he really showed me in a lot of respects what it meant to be intelligent, not just smart. I mean, I truly thought he was a genius when I was little, but he didn’t have much of a flair for showing off. He helped me take pride in each educational achievement while still urging that I be humble with the gifts I’ve been given.

To see this man lose his grip on words was devastating. He was still able to speak in complete thoughts to the very end, remembering things from long before I was around, but his short-term memory was gone. He often talked in circles and sometimes had difficulty differentiating me from my brother. Hearing him say phrases like “I’m not as sharp as I used to be” never got any easier. 

Papa Louie also cultivated my love for film from a young age. He used to give me access to many movies and franchises I hadn’t even heard of when I was a kid, whether he mailed them or sat down and watched them with me on a visit. It would’ve been a long time before I saw “Lord of the Rings” if not for my grandpa, and I really don’t even know if he likes those movies. He just knew that I would.

About a year ago, when his mind was really bad, Grandpa called me up and asked me if I wanted the original “Star Wars” trilogy on disc. Despite my insistence that I already had several copies and that he should keep it, he mailed them anyway, telling me I could watch them in my Blu-Ray player. I was quite surprised when I opened a special edition package of the original trilogy on VHS, mostly because I didn’t have a VCR. This was repeated a few months later with a VHS set of the “Indiana Jones” trilogy, as well as a copy of “The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones” (score!).

I kid you not, my grandpa would ask me if I watched the tapes in my Blu-Ray player yet on every phone call for a year. Every. Single. One. I could never have a conversation with him without it circling back to those tapes. It’s the first time I’ve ever not wanted to talk about “Star Wars.”

A few months ago, I remember talking to my dad about it after one particularly lengthy phone call when he said “You know, Grandpa can’t remember a lot. But somewhere in his mind, he’s clinging to the fact that he knows how much you love ‘Star Wars.’ It’s kind of funny, but this is really the only way he can connect.”

And that’s who my grandpa was. To the very end. All he ever did was take an interest in me, talk about how much he loves me. Even in his last weeks, every conversation ended with a two-minute speech about how proud he is of me and all of my accomplishments. He never forgot.

If you follow me on Twitter, you know I’m currently watching the “Star Wars” saga all the way through. I actually began the first movie on the car ride to New Jersey, taking a VCR from my grandparents’ house so I would be ready for the original trilogy tapes when I got home. The last thing I ever said to my grandfather was “I finally watched your tapes. I loved them. Thank you.”

I’m glad my grandfather is done suffering. I miss him a lot, but I’m glad. I don’t want to remember seeing him sick, watching him struggle to find his words. I want to remember the good times, the games of chess and, yes, even the “Star Wars” tapes. Most of all, I want to remember that he always loved me, and he was always proud of me. Those were two things he never forgot.