My grandfather died on January 20.
I heard from my mother that he was sick, refusing meds, home in bed. He was surrounded by people, professing to hate that. An old dog that wanted to die alone under the porch.
I wanted to respect that, so I declined offers from my wife that she would take off work and we could travel together to see him. I met with my therapist, who thought maybe I was avoiding confronting this situation out of a fear of the awkward emotions that accompany it, and that my respect was a justification. After all, we agreed, the visitation would be not for his sake, but for mine. All the more reason to avoid it, I thought.
Burdening him with more tears and silence; who does that serve? It seemed selfish. Still, will I regret not having seen him weak and dying?
At Christmas, I told him I loved him. He was standing then, perhaps in pain, but smiling, because around him was the family he had created. They acted more like a family than they had in years, despite the ill-suited nature of the gift exchange. He smiled, he shook my hand. His callouses made his hands dry and rocky and years of self-induced hard labor made them strong. He asked me to use my voice to emcee the game — I did my duty by him — but something in him was actually saying, “I’m proud of you. Don’t forget.”
Grandpa passed away quietly today at 11:21 am, we will see you soon …love to you all :(
Love you, Mom. See you soon.
My cousin called, then texted, then called again. “We were hoping you would be a pall-bearer,” he said, his gentle strength spoken large, even through a speakerphone.
I was beginning to feel a solid silence take hold of me, one I wanted to live in for a few weeks. My grandfather, the stoic spirit, looking over me. He was a man of his era. He expected and delivered a masculinity that had become verboten during the Lilith Faire 90’s, then forgotten in the age of social media. A kind of Don Draper, a kinder kind.
“Sorry to call back. We were talking about who might be good to deliver the eulogy, and your name come up.”
“Yes. Of course.”
“You don’t have to. It’s —”
“No. I will.”
“Ok. We can have Michael be pall-bearer. We want someone from each family.”
Eulogy for my Grandfather
For those who don’t know me, my name is Christopher. I say “for those who don’t know me” for a couple of reasons: my grandfather touched so many lives, and was an important part of such a colossal family, that it’s possible I’m closely related to you, and yet we’ve never met.
I am known, for better or worse, for being somewhat loud and talkative. I remember once when I was very young and Grandpa was teaching me to play chess, I told him that I wanted to be a gastroenterological surgeon. He made a little smile and asked me why that specifically, but I couldn’t answer him. It was just the largest word I knew and I wanted to impress him. In his chosen profession of medicine, my grandfather helped improve thousands of lives, inspiring many of his children to also go into science and medicine, and all of us to be empathic, caring, gentle people.
One Thanksgiving, after I had officially made the move from the kids table to the adult table, he pushed away from his plate of turkey and Grandma’s famous stuffing, and began his usual rounds, asking people what they would like to drink. In the list he gave, there was a new offering that year: a high ball. To this day, I don’t know what kind of cocktail that is, and it seems there are many answers to that, but I accepted because that was the true mark of adulthood in Grandpa’s eyes. I would always be his grandson, but now I was also a man. When he brought it to me, we sat across from each other in tall, cushioned lazyboys and watched the Packer game, sipping our drinks. Then, when a commercial came on, he looked over at me and told me one of his infamous, slightly off-color jokes. I don’t remember the content now, but I remember that the funniest part was the way he told it. It was not the joke that mattered, but that he wanted me to laugh. It was of utmost importance to him that his family be happy during the holidays. He had taken me through my rite of passage effortlessly, and I will always remember and be grateful for it.
Now that I had reached adulthood, he would ask me at each family gathering how my education was coming along. When I graduated with a degree in Literature at the age of 35, he made a point of telling me that he had finished his schooling later in life as well, and what mattered was that I had seen it through. He never mentioned the drastic change of subject matter. It was education, the bettering of one’s self in the service of others that made the difference. He had worked hard for his many advanced degrees, and he translated that work into a love for teaching others. Grandpa was always so pleased to see his children and grandchildren succeed, no matter their path through life. They were his favorite students.
This past Christmas, at the now familiar Mr. Beef, he stood and shook my hand, probably in pain, but smiling through it, because around him was the family he had created. Years of hard work — on his farm in Wisconsin, in his home and his garden — made his grip strong and his hand rough. He chuckled his Grandpa chuckle, and asked me to bring the family together for the game. But, over time, you learned how to read Grandpa’s reserved nature, and I knew part of what he was actually saying was, “I’m proud of you.” It was an honor that he wanted me to speak for him. I’m honored again to speak for him here.
We are a lot alike, my grandfather and I. Like him, I am tall, hale, and hearty. Like him, I don’t really like having my picture taken. Like him, I get restless and want to get things done rather than sit idle, even if it’s just to play several hands of pinochle while we talk at the table. I learned from him to eat ice cream by carrying a single spoon of it around the house with me. I have the “Blechl head,” which I think refers to more than just the baldness, but a keen perception and a certain headstrong quality which can, at times, be a virtue.
There are many things to admire in my grandfather. His stoic, unwavering strength in times of need. His kind smile and overflowing generosity when surrounded by the warmth of his family. Our family. That word can mean so many things. From his great faith, he taught me that it means to give —sometimes what is needed and not what is wanted — it means to sacrifice your needs for the needs of others, to love unconditionally, to forgive and be forgiven. Together with his loving wife, my grandfather gave us all that gift, that pure and perfect unbreakable bond of family.
So, beyond our grief at missing him, let us all celebrate that gift together, as he would have wanted, and let him watch over us, smiling quietly, as always.