How bad, how good, does it need to get?
How many losses? How much regret?
What chain reaction would cause an effect?
Makes you turn around,
Makes you try to explain,
Makes you forgive and forget,
Makes you change?
Wednesday, October 31, 2012
That Sounds Just Like My Grandfather: Reflections on His Death
I got to know my grandfather best when I started college. I knew him before, but as a distant figure. He and his wife moved to Florida when I was young. I have two brief memories of them before they left Maine. In one, I remember being at their house and my great-grandmother was there, sitting in a chair in a corner. She wanted a kiss, but I didn't know her and felt scared.
The second was later, I believe. I think they hadn't moved from Maine yet, but maybe they were just visiting for the summer. We were walking to their apartment one summer day. I was in between them, holding their hands, and we were swinging their arms. When we are at their place, I remember thinking their refrigerator was weird, because it was a side-by-side refrigerator and freezer and I had only ever seen a top-freezer unit.
After that, I remember them coming to visit one summer and I didn't recognize them. Although young, I felt bad for not recognizing them and even worse for not feeling comfortable with them.
As I grew older, I began to remember and I would even expect them in the summers. I appreciated the birthday cards and the money inside. I would write thank you letters and make birthday cards for them.
Then when selecting a college, I looked into Palm Beach Atlantic University, which was about 20-30 minutes from my grandparents home in Jupiter, Florida. I became very well acquainted with my grandparents. I practically lived there for my first semester. Their guest room became "my" bedroom. It was still the guest room, of course, but it was often referred to as "Trevah's room." They lived in Florida for over 20 years, but the Maine accent never went away. It'll fo'evah be paht of his chahm in my mind like it is still paht of Joan's.
Like a college student becoming his own individual, I started making friends my own age. Consequently, I was visiting my grandparents less. I had joined the choir at their church, so I would see them every Sunday. I was struggling with faith at the time and I was uncomfortable with some things in that church. I left the church, so I stopped seeing my grandparents every weekend.
I never stopped thinking about them. I never stopped visiting, but the visits became infrequent. They understood that I was developing, I was becoming my own man. I missed them, but I didn't know how to balance multiple relationships that don't travel in the same circle. I still don't.
I don't keep in touch with my parents or brother enough. I don't keep in touch consistently with many friends who don't live close to me. And if I make new friends who don't travel in the same circles, I don't do well giving my time and attention to both groups.
That imbalance has influenced most of my grief since my grandfather died Monday night. Really, it started Sunday night when I heard he collapsed while preaching.
When I started graduate school, things only became worse. When I made friends in Florida, I brought them to visit my grandparents. They met girlfriends, roommates, and other friends. When my friend and roommate Matt and I graduated, they hosted a cookout in our honor and invited his family. "He made me feel like part of the family," Matt recently wrote me.
And when I moved away for graduate school, that imbalance became worse. I sullied what was a great relationship by barely ever contacting them. They, like my parents, wouldn't initiate contact, because they thought they would bother me. Sure, I'm busy. Sure, I'm terrible at returning calls. But I never think someone's call is burdensome. They would never have been a bother. I loved them. I still do. Both of them.
This past year, I was proud to send my grandfather a card for his 84th birthday on September 20th. Not only did I send the card, but I also sent it before his birthday. Usually I'm late, if I send a card at all. I even included a letter this year. He wrote me back "[w]ithout delay," which he said, "expresses my appreciation."
I'm fortunate to have not recycled the letter just yet. The letter is a good memory.
I had plans to call him or write him another letter, telling him about my recent cruise. When I hadn't done it right away, my parents reminded me that I should call. I put it off. Last weekend I was going to write a letter, but I ended up hiking, going to a haunted house, and grading assignments.
I never imagined I would run out of time.
Sunday night I lay in bed trying to sleep, but only regretting. I lay on my back and the tears slipped from my eyes and began to fill my ears. Why didn't I just call? Why didn't I write and send the letter in a timely fashion? Why didn't I assure that he and Joan know I not only love them, but think of them often? Did he feel again like that distant figure he was when I was a child and didn't recognize him?
Funny how we experience mourning. My grandfather died, left behind a large family, including his wife, and I am worried about how he felt about how I felt.
I am sad that he is gone, but he went in a "good" way. He never wanted to have a prolonged death. He didn't want to be resuscitated. In fact, back in 2004 or 2005, I was the witness who signed a statement saying he didn't want to be kept alive if his quality of life was or would become significantly worse.
He collapsed while preaching Sunday night. He opened his eyes long enough to say that he was doing fine. That sounds just like my grandfather, using his last words to calm people by saying things are OK. He was revived, but not soon enough to prevent brain damage. He passed away in just over 24 hours, dying around 10pm Monday night. His death wasn't a prolonged process. He died while preaching, something I know made him nervous after such a long sabbatical from the pulpit. But he also enjoyed doing it, being involved again. There are certainly worse ways to die.
And what now?
I would like to say that I have learned about the shortness of life and how I will never again waste time in communicating with loved ones. But let's be realistic. For the next few days, weeks, maybe, I'll try to be honest with people about my feelings. Perhaps I'll even make a few more calls, send a few more letters. But it won't last. As my mourning progresses, I'll forget again about how we are not guaranteed more time together. I'll probably remember, occasionally, this lesson, but it cannot stick.
People die all the time. I am aware of my mortality and the mortality of those around me. We are aware, all of us. It doesn't change enough, not for any of us.
I don't know the answer to Tracy Chapman's questions. I suppose the answer is different for all of us. Sometimes I wonder if the answer is only temporary for all of us, just as temporary as life. And even if we change--when we change--there is always more to change in life. There is always more to do to make life better for all. Balancing relationships is just one thing I want to do better. Next, how do I balance passions? How do I balance taking care of myself and taking care of others? How do I balance those cares with relationships and my professional life, my professional lives?
Excuse me for getting a little preachy, but I want my grandfather's death to mean more than just the loss of one great man. I will be asking myself questions about change and balance for weeks and months. But I must ask you, what will it take to make you change? Is your balance what you want? Is it what you would have wanted 10 years ago? Is it what you will be pleased with in 10 years? What other changes can you make?
We can always be better. Always. In his letter to me, my grandfather said he was "reaching for the stars." The tattoo on my left arm has a tree growing for the stars. I tell people the tree is reaching skyward. Every time a tree grows, it gets closer to the sky--it reaches its destination every time it grows. Yet, it always have farther to grow, because the sky is always higher to a tree.
We are like that tree, like my grandfather "reaching for the stars." Every change we make is what we want, but it always requires more change. Tracy Chapman's question will never be fully answered, even when it is addressed. Like my grandfather said in his letter, "That's probably a little over stated but it sounds good when you can't really observe the facts."