I talk to my grandpa all the time. Life is busy and there are lapses, but all over the landscape of my life there are markers, triggers that remind me to reach out and get back in touch. Doughnut holes. Baseball. Firetrucks. Laughter. I rarely go very long without filling him in, and topics range from my family to the bleak outlook for the Phillies this year. As a lifelong Cubs fan, he can understand my frustrations better than most.
Just the other day, while playing Go Fish with my two sons, I laughed with him about all the times he brazenly cheated me at cards while we sat with a box of White Hen Popems at his kitchen table. He always feigned innocence, shocked indignation at my suggestion that he was cheating, before bursting into laughter. I am sure he gets a kick out of seeing me do the same to my boys.
I have told him about the time my oldest son played with his fireman's hat, his wide eyed stare as I told him about his great-grandpa pulling people from burning buildings. I have told him about what it is like watching my own parents with my kids, and the many similarities I see to my childhood visits with him. I have relayed accounts of classes when my students have left me full of awe and inspiration, and my disgust with recent standardized tests. I share with him all the moments when I am the father or husband or friend I aspire to be, and all the moments when I fall far short.
He died twenty-one years ago. I was seventeen.
Now, at thirty-eight, two of my closest friends have buried a parent in the past year. My wife's uncle just buried his wife this past Friday. All three died too early. All three have left an ocean of grief, and everyone involved must swim against the riptide of loss. Over time all must make their way through the rough crashing surf, fight for footing on sodden and shifting sands, and eventually stand again on solid ground. Everyone is trying, yet I have watched those I love get pulled under a few times since the storm began. Sometimes they really struggle to get back to the surface, but they always do. I am sure there are times when grief seems to be all there is in the face of their new and permanent absences. It seems that way, but grief is not the whole story.
Some people say that their loved one has died. Stopped living. There are no positive connotations to the word death; it is a word that speaks of finality and absence. In definitive and painful ways, that is accurate, yet I keep talking to my grandpa. He influences my decisions, and listens to my fears. He has an active role in my life. After three funerals this year I can attest to the fact that there are positive qualities to the end of a life. Beneath the tragedy of it all, there is beauty. Beside the agony, there is affirmation of life itself.
Funerals are beautiful in the closeness they create between those trying to cope. People who have been scattered by busy lives, families spread across the country, all come back together and re-connect. The fabric of conversations, woven around stories of the person we are burying, help tie us back together. There is something beautiful in such a stark reminder that our time here is short, and we must capitalize on every moment. We embrace people we have not seen in months. We tell everyone we value how much we love them.
For years, I always used some version of the word loss to talk about death. That word made sense to me. I had no real confidence in my understanding of what happened after people left this life, so in my eyes we had lost them. I knew they were gone, but I did not know where. Yet, here I am thirty-eight years old talking to my dead grandpa. If I am doing that, I must believe he is somewhere; I must believe he is watching over me and my life. He can't be totally lost if somehow I know where to find him every time I have something to say.
So, I have settled now on passed. I believe that our loved ones have passed from this life to another place. I hope it is as beautiful as imagination can make it. Beyond that, they have passed so much on to the rest of us. That is my consolation as I enter an age when death has become a reality. As I have written before, we have a very limited number of days and there is no getting around the eventual end we all must face.
I did not know her well, but I see my friend's mom in her own laughter, in the boundless joy of her son who hug-tackles my own son whenever they see each other. I see my friend's father in his own strongly held beliefs, his stubborn and admirable nature. I think of his father when we share a beer, just like I did with his dad sitting in their backyard celebrating another of his grandkids' birthdays. The other day my son ran around wearing a pirate hat from one of my wife's aunt's famous theme parties. He spoke pirate and laughed hysterically and for a moment embodied her joyful spirit.
My thoughts are with all of them as they struggle with this change. I wish those who have passed peace, and those who remain the solace of all that still remains with them.
Despite a cold start to the day, the sun is hot this afternoon and the air smells of spring. Tulips are popping up and the landscape hints of green. It is all beginning anew. Tonight, when I go outside to get the coals going on the grill I will touch base again with my grandpa. I want to tell him about the game of "Calvinball" my sons made up in the front yard today. I want to tell him about the dinner I cooked for his daughter last night to celebrate her birthday.
Twenty-one years and, as much as I miss him, he has not missed a thing.