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.

Love Stories Through the Generations

I grew up hearing the love stories of my parents and grandparents.  My parents knew of each other throughout their youth, since they were both from two large families in the same town, with many of their siblings being in the same grades.  When my mom was trying to avoid a young man who was interested in her, she chose to sit with my dad at a graduation reception.  That event turned into dates (my dad saying my mom begged him and my mom saying that my dad asked for a date) and eventually a relationship, with a breakup to ensure my mom had found the right man.  She had.

My paternal grandparents met in a “romantic” meat-packing plant.  After a couple dates, my grandpa proposed and six months later they were married.  They were together for over sixty years, until my grandmother passed away from lung cancer.  My maternal grandparents met at a dance and my grandma’s brother asked my grandpa to drive her home.  The rest seemed to be history–marriage shortly followed and a brood of children. Over sixty years later and they are still married, my grandpa cracking jokes and my grandma still thinking he isn’t funny.

My mom and grandmas all got married fairly young.  At times, it is easy for me to begin to do the calculations.  “If I was my mother…..I would be married, with a toddler and another baby due in a couple months.”  These thoughts aren’t really comforting, nor are they intended to be.  Instead, they instill a sense of urgency, a feeling that I am missing out.  It’s the all-too-dreaded ticking of the biological clock.  It is enough to make me panic, even as others around me are saying, “You’re young, you have plenty of time.”

The other day I came to a greater realization of life.  At times a relationship and marriage dominate much of my thoughts and desires.  But marriage is only a means to an end.  If the goal is Heaven, marriage is meant to get me there.  Life is meant to be spent striving for spiritual perfection and Heaven.  That mission is one that relates to me now.  No, I don’t have a beau or a marriage to invest in.  Yet if God knows everything, He must have intended this time to be used for something other than just waiting for my life to start, because it has clearly already begun.

Someday I hope to have a story of how I met my husband.  Inevitably, it will be different than my mother’s story.  Yet I’ve been blessed to have experiences and adventures that my mother did not have.  Even as I desire a life of wedded bliss, I strive to embrace my present state in life so that I will be prepared for the next state and for the next life.

My Grandparent’s Simplicity

I gently tapped the bowl with my finger.  It was plastic, as I had expected, instead of glass.  The time had come for the grandkids to go through what had belonged to our grandparents and request our favorite things.  There were some things that I wanted, but not very many.  In my love for my grandparents, I looked at the material items and realized part of the sacrifices they willing endured for their family.

My grandparents grew up during the Depression.  They understood not having much and carried that mentality into the rest of their lives.  My grandpa said that his family never went hungry, but then he also told my dad, without complaint, that there were times when they ate potatoes for every meal of the day.

Some people lived through the Depression and then spent much of their lives trying to live in luxury so as to make up for their time of poverty.  My grandparents embraced the lifestyle of simplicity that was taught to them through the difficulties of the 1930s followed by the war of the 1940s.  By the time they both died (my grandma in 2004 and my grandpa in 2013), they had stored up for themselves what probably seemed like amazing wealth to the 1930s versions of themselves.

Yet they did not live as though they were wealthy.  My grandparents were generous with us but did not seek to spoil us.  The overall impression was that family, not money, would be the source of happiness.  As I got older, the number of family functions seemed only to increase.  We would gather for a long weekend at a lake, spend a weekend in a hotel in town as a family, and once a group of us took a trip to Ireland and Scotland for a couple weeks.

The simplicity of their lifestyle is something that is good for me to remember.  They turned off lights, used no air conditioning, ate simply, and did without many luxuries.  Without great wealth to begin with, they gave birth to ten children and ushered nine of them into adulthood.  My grandma would replace the elastic in her pants when it gave out and my grandpa would wear the same overalls for decades.  Their happiness did not rest in their bank accounts but in the family they were raising.  And if family is an indicator of wealth, they were abundantly wealthy.  Nine children lived to adulthood and between 30-40 grandchildren were born as a result of that.

This week my dad and his siblings are selling my grandparent’s land.  I’m sure that it is a difficult experience, something that seems to finalize things that one wants to pretend didn’t happen.  While my grandparents are no longer here on earth, their memory remains rooted in our hearts.  Yet far from wish they could remain here with us forever, I pray they are in Heaven.  In Heaven, there is no need to conserve money or live simply.  Heaven is an overflow of abundance, a rich banquet for all to join in, lavish goodness poured into the lap of each person there.  That is what I desire for them.  Not money or great material wealth, but the richness of belonging entirely to the family of God, to the Body of Christ.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  (Mt. 5:3)