Last weekend, Jim and I got in our car and drove down to Pekin, Illinois where generations of my father’s family have been born and buried. And when I say generations, what I mean is that both of my father’s parents have a Civil War veteran who enlisted in that area and survived. The roots are quite deep.
My grandma died last summer, quickly and shockingly, and it’s a topic that I’ve only just been able to really start addressing in a retrospective way that is finally losing some of the fresh pain and sadness. That has left me with one remaining grandparent, which is my grandpa Glenn. My other grandpa died long before I was born so he’s really the only one I ever had. And he more than made up for that absence when I was small; I really thought that I had the coolest grandpa around. I had young enough grandparents to keep up with me and my sisters, since I was born before either of them were even 60 years old. I have memories of tree houses and doll cradles he built, fairs and festivals, diving lessons, and even being allowed to “fix” his hair. He dressed as Santa every year for Christmas and, by virtue of his junk and antiques shop, always had something new for us to play with every time we visited. He was one of the first people I knew who made a living from his creativity: he worked as a photographer, which in a small town meant he photographed tractors and farm equipment with the occasional wedding. He is the source of my wanderlust and desire for adventure.
In short, I had the sort of grandparents that kids dream about. The immense blessing and privilege of that has never escaped me. As an adult, things have been a little more difficult. It became clear to me, once I grew up, that the relationship between my grandparents was not exactly harmonious. It culminated in my grandpa’s decision to live separately for the remaining years of Grandma’s life, which caused her constant heartache. Healthcare and pensions are tricky, so they were never able to divorce. Years went by without so much as a peep from him; he often avoided the rest of the family when we were visiting.
So I turned my full focus to Grandma and made sure to call and visit regularly. In her absence, I only wish I had more time and more memories. It’s never enough, is it? When my wedding day dawned, the only grandparent still alive between Jim and myself was Grandpa and he was too frail to come to the ceremony. They were all there in photographic display and energetic blessing, but nothing compares to really kissing your grandparents’ faces on such a day.
My Grandpa, the one who used to throw me onto his shoulders and build tree houses, is living in a full-time care facility, reduced most days to a humility I’m not used to seeing in him. He is starting to lose track of dates, times, names, places. All the data that marks our lives to tell us who we are, where we are, and what we’ve learned is beginning to slip away. He is left with his baggage and his regrets and the slightly-fuzzy memories upon which they were founded. His older brother, whose shadow he at once hated and admired, haunts him still. He couldn’t remember when his brother died but he could remember the details of a war story I’d never heard before that he wished was his own instead.
It’s a conflicting situation. I could choose to resent his past choices that hurt me and especially hurt others. I could choose to be angry, to remind him of the error in his ways and list all of his sins to shame him. I could choose to ignore everything and blithely pretend that my Grandpa is still the heroic figure I believed in when I was little. I could choose to be sad and commiserate with him about life’s cruelty. There are days when I am all of these feelings in part. But they are not my final choice because I believe that feelings are a direct result of how we choose to perceive the world.
I have chosen to forgive. While life can be cruel, he made his own choices. I can be sympathetic, remembering where life began for him and the challenges he faced. I can be thankful, because some of his choices were great and made my life better. I can be grateful for the amazing memories I have; I can cherish and protect them from the tarnish of jaded, hurt retrospect. I can even be glad for poor choices he made since those influenced my father to be a better role model and mentor. I have chosen to let peace wash over me and replace everything else that once stood in its way.
I sat at the edge of his bed. Hands trembling, he carefully paged through a stack of papers, an assorted pile of memories, photos, and documents that remind him of the things he is beginning to forget. He slowly dug out a pencil box filled with newspaper clippings and photos- some of which were about me. Obituaries, mementos, photos…in the end, none of these things will travel with him when he moves into the great beyond. We won’t take anything with us but the contents of our souls and the choices we’ve made to help or hurt others in this lifetime.
In that moment, I felt nothing but love tinged with pity. Closer to 90 than to 80, his life now fits into a few small drawers and a cupboard. It doesn’t really matter what he wears, whether it matches or is new and stylish. He has one pair of shoes in which he shuffles the hallways behind his walker, leashed to an oxygen tank wherever he goes. There are still a few things he can do for himself and he cherishes his remaining small bits of independence. He still has his odd quirks: eating fastidiously despite his shaking hands and turning on the TV so that no one hears bathroom noises. Soon enough, though, those quirks will fade away and so will his independence. He knows this and speaks accordingly.
What is there to give someone who needs everything and nothing? I can’t make him well, I can’t undo the past, and I can’t give him forgiveness for others. He needs no physical object that I can bring him.
What I chose to bring him was my open heart, mind, and arms. I chose to bring him a silly birthday card. I chose to bring him ears to listen and eyes to see. I chose to give him time, which falls too rapidly in the hourglass already. I chose to give him love.