When I woke up two Mondays ago, my Grandpa was dead. He had already slipped out of this world and I didn’t even know it yet. I was sitting in a bagel shop, about to take my boots to be repaired when I found out it was the first day I was living on this earth without him.
I knew it was coming, because when your grandpa is ninety you have to know it is coming. For the last ten years, every time I’ve said goodbye to him I’ve always wondered if it would be the last (even though he stayed healthy up until very recently). I think he must have thought about that too, because each time we parted he’d close with a broad statement like “I wish you all the love and happiness in the world” or more recently, “I hope your marriage is as long and wonderful as mine has been.” That’s an admirable way to live, I think—making sure your love never goes unspoken.
But in just as many ways, I also never saw it coming. Because in the past twenty-eight years, my grandpa never looked a single day older to me. I knew logically that he had to be aging, and my aunts would comment on it, but I truthfully never saw it. To me he always just seemed both young and old in a way that defied physical appearance.
Also, I still had all four of my grandparents up until a year ago, so for a long time I liked to believe that I was the one exception in the universe and none of my grandparents or anyone close to me would ever die.
A couple years ago I told Doug that since I’d gone so long without losing anybody, I worried I wouldn’t know how to handle it when it happened.
“You’ve probably been preparing for loss all along in ways you don’t even realize,” he’d said.
I suppose that’s true. Loss isn’t just when somebody dies. We lose things that are important to us all the time. Loss happens in all kinds of small steps, every day of our lives.
Two summers ago, my grandparents moved out of the house they’d lived in since they were married. The house where my relatives gathered for countless Thanksgivings and Christmases. The house where my cousins and I would spend a week each summer without our parents. My grandparents called this time with us “Camp ME” (ME was an acronym for their names—Marian and Ed).
I was sitting at a fancy restaurant in San Francisco one night that summer, celebrating the engagement of a friend to his mail-order bride when the reality suddenly hit me that I would never be inside that house again. Tears dripped down my cheeks and into my martini glass as I thought about their upstairs bathroom that smelled so strongly of mint.
And their living room, where I’d sit with my relatives as my grandpa distributed our newspaper-wrapped gifts. My grandpa loved going to flea markets and buying silly objects for next to nothing. He’d wrap them in newspaper because he didn’t believe in spending money on wrapping paper and hand them out whenever we came to visit. Ornaments or mugs or little wooden toys or pens and notepads from banks or tin wall hangings that said things like, “If you want the best seat in the house, move the cat.”
The last time I ever saw my grandpa, I brought him a gift wrapped in newspaper. It was the only time I thought to do that. I gave him a box of classic pranks, because it reminded me of the time when I was little and he scared my sister and me with a fake arm in his car door.
My grandpa was legendary in his town for his jokes and stories and friendliness. He made friends with people from all walks of life, everywhere he went. He’d go out to dinner and the server would become his best friend. He’d buy something at a store and keep in touch with the cashier for the next several decades. After he died, we learned that he had an account at every bank within three counties because he enjoyed visiting all the different bank employees. (This also explains why he was always giving us so much free bank merchandise). When my mom went to close all his accounts last week, the employees all cried and showed her all the little gifts he had brought them over the years.
My grandpa’s death cannot be considered a tragedy. His life was extraordinarily long and happy. He was loved by everybody. He traveled the world. His wife was the light of his life, and she was by his side until the very end. But what I learned this week is that the end of a well-lived life is tragic in its own, different way. It forces us to realize that, even in the best of circumstances, everything we love must come to an end.
Two hundred people came to my grandpa’s funeral. Two hundred. To the funeral of a ninety-year-old whose closest friends all passed away years ago.
I had the unique experience of sitting behind my grandma as each of my grandpa’s friends greeted her at the wake and told her how lucky they’d felt to be friends with Ed.
My grandma, composed as always, gave each one a similar response: “And I feel lucky to have had him as my best friend for sixty-four years.”
This is the speech I delivered at his service:
Hello. I’m the second youngest of Ed’s five granddaughters. My grandpa adored me, like he adored all of the many women in his family.
I’ve never met anyone who was as unconditionally loving, supportive, and approving as my grandpa was. Or someone who expressed love so constantly. He never passed up an opportunity to hand out compliments or praise or to let you know how perfect he thought you were, just for being you.
When I smiled, he’d say it was the prettiest smile he had ever seen. When I laughed, it was the world’s best laugh. Right now in heaven, he is probably nudging God to let him know that I’m giving the best speech ever.
You never had to worry about being judged or criticized around my grandpa. You never had to worry about letting him down.
No matter how old and beat up and close to breaking down on the side of the highway your car was, my grandpa would always make a point to tell you that you had a beautiful car.
As a shy kid, it was very easy to be around my grandpa. I never had to think about what to say because he’d do all the talking for me. Story after story after joke after joke. He was a one-man show. A never-ending stream of memories and laughter and enthusiasm and joy.
That’s why he drew people in. That’s why he made friends literally every place he went, and why he is legendary throughout Oxford for his kindness and his storytelling.
To be honest, I only half-listened to most of his stories. The details of many of them died with him last week. But what I do remember is the point he was making by telling them. The true message behind all his stories, and what I now realize he was really trying to say, was this:
Have fun in life.
Be kind to people.
Make friends with everybody.
Never pay full price for anything.
Seek out interesting experiences.
Explore many hobbies.
Always look for the humor in life.
Don’t take yourself too seriously.
Love your family above everything else.
Your life will be richer for these things.
And he was right. My life is richer for these things, and richer still because I was lucky enough to have him be the one to teach me.