The Death of My Grandpa

Before leaving for my silent retreat, I gave my mom the phone number of my spiritual director.  I didn’t want updates or messages, but I wanted her to have it in case something happened.  Specifically, I was thinking about my grandparents’ declining health.  While I knew it was possible something would happen, I really thought things would be fine, that my precaution was simply preparing for the worst that wouldn’t actually happen.

A few days into the retreat, I returned from Mass to find a note outside my door.  My mom had called and my grandpa was not doing well.  I picked up the note, read it a couple times, and then sat on the couch and cried.  My heart was aching, in part for myself but also for my mother.  After lunch, I sat on the same couch and entered into one of my hours of prayer.  Yet at each little noise, I envisioned the downstairs door opening and my spiritual director coming to tell me that my grandpa had died.  Then I realized he would probably just wait until our scheduled time.  But that didn’t make me stop listening for each sound, anticipating the door opening and steps on the stairs.

When he arrived, I asked if my mom had called.  He said she had.  For a moment, I was hopeful that she called to say things improved.  He sat down, told me that my grandpa had died, and then looked at me.  I, meanwhile, looked down.  And he waited, patiently.  Having already cried, I wanted to just move on and not revisit the tears.  Yet at just a couple questions from him, I was starting to cry.

My grandpa’s death wasn’t tragic.  He was in his 90s and had been waiting for death for a while.  The last time I visited him, he joked that the only thing left to pick out were the pallbearers.  The sense of humor is key to knowing my grandpa.  Over the last few years, I had come to see a side of my grandpa that was new.  He would open up about fears, he would talk about death, and he would get frequently misty-eyed.

I remained on retreat as long as I could, leaving early to go to my grandpa’s wake.  Driving there, I assumed that I would begin to cry as soon as I saw my mom.  Had she started to cry, I would have started, too, but she did not.  After greeting a few of my aunts and uncles, I sat in the church with some relatives and my grandpa’s casket.  I made it through that and the wake that evening without crying.  The next day at the funeral, I was near tears only a couple times, but never succumbed.

The burial is where I wept.  Prior to this, I wasn’t refusing to cry.  I was grieving, I had cried, and I felt very much at peace with my grandpa’s death.  While I didn’t see him all the time, I saw him fairly often and he had lived a good, long life.  The sight of uniformed military personnel is enough to get me near tears.  There is something so beautiful about the uniformed men, following commands, paying their respects to the deceased.  The twenty-one gunshot salute for the World War II veteran was jarring and the crying infant seemed appropriate.

But then one of my uncles brought out a couple five-gallon buckets of dirt from the family farm.  Each person was able to go over and scoop up some dirt, placing it on the casket.  First the line wove past my grandma, as well as my grandpa’s siblings.  Sobs were coming up before I even got to them.  I couldn’t help but consider their sorrow–losing a husband of 65 years or a sibling.  My grandma sat there, looking tough and frail all at once.  My heart ached for her as I bent down, giving her a hug and a kiss on the cheek.  I was then shoveling a bit of earth, so dear to farmers, and pouring it on the casket.    

I watched as the others filed through.  My immediate family happened to be standing on the other side of the grave, but I was busy pulling myself back together.  One of my uncles saw me and came over to me and gave me a side hug.  Though we are not particularly close, we were united deeply in our grief.  His hug was strong as his head leaned on mine, messing up my hair.  We spoke briefly, but remained in that hug for a while.  It was the familial bond that I was blessed to experience so ardently that day.

Oh, the humanity!

I have a secret that I would love to share with you.  It may shock you and take you totally by surprise, but it is something you should probably come to terms with now.

We are human.

It is true.  With all of the beautiful messiness that is involved with being a part of this human race, we sometimes forget this truth.  While it doesn’t mean that everyone is excused for anything wrong that they do simply on the grounds that they are a member of fallen humanity, it does change one’s perspective of the matter.  Through reading another blog I’ve been introduced to the author Heather King and I must say she is altering the way I think. 

She gets to the heart of things and tends to present things in a way that is both naked (i.e. uncomfortable and unvarnished) and refreshing.  One of the things that was emphasized in a book of hers that I was reading was that we are a beautiful mess, we are broken, we are fallen but that it is because of all of these things that we should embrace life.  In all of the sufferings and troubles, we are alive and that is something that she wouldn’t trade for anything.

The chance to suffer.  We don’t typically approach suffering with a sense that we are glad to have this experience.  Very recently I experienced the death of my grandpa.  It was a time in which I was invited to enter into suffering.  Yet while I am grieving, I have also been witnessing the ways that my family is dealing with their grief.  My observations have lead to many more prayers for my family.  The raw grief I see in some of my family causes me to wonder if I am experiencing this so much differently because I have a strong relationship with the Lord or if it is because I loved him less or if it is because I am allowing myself to remain detached.  I’m not quite certain which it is, to be honest.  The brokenness of the human person has again been revealed to me.  I view this not with a sense of condemnation but rather with a sorrow at the human condition.  We are all reckless wanderers without the cross of Christ grounding us. 

Welcome to this broken, sinful, beautiful, wonderful world filled with humans who are the same.  There is this hole within each of us.  Hollywood tells us that our weight or clothes can fill this hole.  Romantic movies tell us that our hole will be filled by that perfect man/woman we are waiting to find.  Other facets of the modern world encourage money, material gain, people, or feelings to fill this void we have. 

You cannot complete me.  I cannot complete you.  Whenever I get married, I will never want to hear from that man (as wonderful, charming, and romantic though he may be) that he completes me.  He does not.  I am a mere human.  I need something greater than me to give sense and purpose to my life, to ground me when the world is hopelessly and desperately spinning out of control, to love me when I am acting in ways that are completely unlovable, to understand me when I do not even know what I understand, to fight for me when I am giving up, and to reveal Truth to me when I am believing lies.  It is unfair to expect any human to do all of these things.  We are flawed human beings, but we are beautiful.  We are beautiful not in our brokenness but in the ways God desires to use our brokenness to bring about wholeness, to cause greater healing.  These deep needs that I have can only be truly fulfilled by Our Lord.

As a human, I will fail and make mistakes.  I will judge others, I will sin, I will hurt others, and I will fail to be forgiving.  As a human, I will let you down and I will fail to live up to the standards of a Christian.  But humans also make big comebacks.  I’ve seen them within my family and I’ve seen them within myself. 

God has a soft spot for humanity.  He knows what we are through and through.  He became man to reveal to us this great love He has.  But He is the one person (or three persons?) that we can rely on entirely, who can fill the hole in our hearts, who has lived in this beautiful and messy world and managed to make sense of it all by an act of extreme foolish love.  The cross–an act of folly that is the only true sense in the world.

Embark on the adventure of life today striving to give others the benefit of the doubt.  Try to see the beautiful ridiculousness of this world and to rejoice in the glories of humanity.  And then draw near to the cross of Christ, pray to each person in the Blessed Trinity, and lay the strongest foundation that you possibly can.  We are human.  God understands that.  Nevertheless, strive to be the saint God calls you to be.  And let’s learn to love like Him. 

Romans 5:8