Just before the kids and I left Illinois three weeks ago, I asked my mom to take a picture of my kids with my grandparents. We only get home a few times a year, and my grandpa was 90, and something inside of me wondered if I would have another chance to take this kind of picture.
That something was right. Four days ago, my grandfather died, and though it was not unexpected, because of his age, it was sudden and tragic, not the way we thought it would happen.
I know it is a rare gift to be 38 years old and still have my grandparents around. Until this week, three of my grandparents were still living. I knew the time would come when I would experience deep grief over such a loss, and I sometimes wonder if it is made worse by coming so late in life. My last funeral of a family member was 16 years ago. I was just about to graduate college, and my paternal grandfather succumbed to lung cancer. I remember the tears and the need to be with safe people and the emotions I felt for my other family members who were grieving.
This time time, though, it’s more personal. And a kind of sadness I’ve not experienced before.
We’ll start our good-byes today. (Or our “see you laters” as a friend has said.) More than once in the last four days, I’ve woken with a fog. A cloudiness in my brain. Emotions at surface level. I can almost touch the sadness.
Part of me wants to stuff it down. To deal with it later. But another part of me wants to let it all out, however raw and intense and frightening it might be. There is a time to mourn, an ancient writer tells us, and I know that time is now.
Yesterday, we gathered as a family to be together, to choose the photos of Grandpa that would sum up his life to those who come to pay their respects. It was a time of loud talking and catching up and laughing. It was a time of chasing children and playing baseball and eating so.much.food. It was a time to remember and celebrate, in a way, the bond that makes us family. There was a hint of sadness, an empty spot in the house, an awareness that big feelings hovered just out of reach. We distracted ourselves with the work we needed to do. The work of remembering. And being together.
Two days before my grandfather died, I ate soup with crackers at a local buffet. I didn’t use all the cracker packets I had taken, and I told the kids, “Grandpa Johnson would be so upset with me.” My grandpa’s trademark move was to ask for more crackers with his soup. Every time. Guaranteed.
The next day, I worked a funeral meal for a family at our church, and I talked about my grandpa with one of my church friends whose dad is the same age. Only hours before my grandpa would leave the earth, I was talking about him.
Is it possible my spirit knew that the time was coming?
Life and death are mysteries to me. I cannot understand them completely. We have no say in the day we are born, and almost no say in the day we die. The time comes for us all, and this is not a statement of fear, only truth. My 6-year-old son is leading us all in the way of truth, saying the most true things his young mind can manage.
“Grandma, the rain gauges are yours now because Grandpa is dead.”
“So, this is where Grandpa died.”
It is shocking at first to hear the words so plainly spoken out of a little mouth, but it is also refreshing. There is no beating around the bush. No euphemism for what happened. He tells it like it is, and we all must face the facts.
And this is a fact we cannot change: Death comes for us all.
When the time comes, there is sadness and joy; mourning and celebrating; remembering and forgetting. The forgetting is the thing that I fear the most. His voice. His words. His laugh. That mischievous smile that belied his age.
We knew he would not live forever, but now that he is actually gone, I am more determined than ever to make his legacy last.
I will teach my kids to play dominoes and to ruthlessly buy up all the property in Monopoly.
I will tell stories and crack jokes, no matter how corny.
I will treat people with kindness and remember those who are in need of prayer.
I will give what I have because I will always have so much more than I need.
We are a family of givers. Being on the receiving end is not our preferred place. But there is a time for that also. The time will come when we must receive what others have to give. And the time will come again for us to give what we have received.
A lot of words will be said about my grandpa in the next few days. Already, I’ve heard many stories from people who knew him, even if briefly. The writer in me wants to record everything that is said. But I know that even if I could, they would not come close to describing his life.
My life and the lives of my children will be the best stories we can tell about my grandpa.
Because of his life, we have been given life. It was always ours to live, but now it feels like the baton is passing to us, that now it is time for us to live what we have learned from him.
When my son shoots baskets, I will tell him the stories of learning to shoot baskets in my grandparents’ driveway. How my grandpa, a former basketball coach, tried to teach me and how I didn’t want to listen.
When we eat ice cream, I will talk about all the days spent in the back room of the Dairy Queen my grandparents managed.
When we do yard work, I will tell my kids about all the hours my brother and I spent raking leaves from the massive walnut tree that shaded my grandparents’ house.
We will talk about all the things Grandpa survived: poverty, childhood accidents, war, heart disease, a house fire. We will laugh and cry and remember.
His is a generation that is dying every day and so few people remember.
These are our most important responsibilities now: to remember and to live accordingly.
Grandpa is dead. This I cannot change.
But I can choose to remember. And to live.