Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A Year Passes Away

On Monday morning, September 25th, 2006, my mother called, frantic. My grandfather was in the most critical state imaginable--the physicians were working to save him, but I knew the moment had come more quickly than any of us expected. At ten a.m. Grandpa Smith was in the arms of his Savior, my grandmother and his parents--gone from us until he greets us, himself, on his side of heaven.

Today I can barely allow myself to consider that one year has passed away from us since then. As soon as I remember the man I have to stop--because the sorrow is still too tender, raw and real. The way his hand would rest on my shoulder; the thumb-to-pinkie stretch of his arthritic fingers on the piano as he played the songs of his era with such ease; his gaze through his glasses at the day's paper, a thick historic novel, biography or essay; his constant unconscious whistle and coin jangling...

My grandfather seemed, always, to be content with his lot in life. He worked hard and well, loved his family, was loyal to his wife and his church, and had very little to regret at the end. I remember over the five or six years before he died, that he would read the obituaries the way my generation read the engagement announcements a decade ago. He inevitably knew someone who had recently died, through church, his club, the neighborhood, or other associations. He would sorrowfully sigh a long, "Ohhhhh," and then state the person's name, aloud, "So-N-So died." Then he'd carefully read new historic facts about men and women he'd known for years. "I didn't realize he did that..." he'd state, in wonder, and even sometimes amazement. He started thinking about his own obituary--I could see him begin to compare his life to others then. I don't remember him doing that before or after those armchair moments, but I watched Grandpa start to consider what else he might have added to his own life: what degree, what association, what accomplishment.

Grandma died in 2003, after having met and held my firstborn child a couple of times. We were all gathered with her as she passed away from a five-year battle against her body from a series of stroke-like attacks on her brain. Grandpa gave five years of himself completely to her--his devotion and dedication made him all the more precious to those of us who loved them both. When she was gone, though, he was lonely.

His last two years were like a new life, as he found and fell in love with a woman who had done many of the things in her life which I think Grandpa wished he might have done. She was physically fit and active in her 80's, skiing downhill every winter and golfing regularly. She awoke, in him, this passion to do more and be more, even as he could see the end of his life closing in on him. With her, his mind was less focused on who around him was dying; he began to live this life in new ways that resurrected his spirit.

That was the man who died. He'd been golfing. He'd gone on vacation. He was strapping and handsome, funny and joyful. He was content, and happy. He was more alive than any of us had seen him in so long, just before he died.

I remember Grandpa calling up to my sister and me when we were children, "First one to sleep, whistle!" We'd laugh and argue that if we were sleeping, then we couldn't whistle! But that was the gentle way he would encourage us to do the right thing. We'd be negative and down on ourselves in some way, and he'd say, simply, "I can't never did anything." If we were dawdling before church on a Sunday morning he'd call up that the train was leaving, and we'd cry out, "WAAAAAAIT!" to which he would call back, "Weight's what broke the wagon down!"

We all know "Hey" is for horses...but my grandpa had an overflowing pocket full of expressions like that. Gentle ways to draw us back in line, with love. I do not employ these kinds of responses often enough as a mom.

He also used to stop us from crying over injuries by overemphasizing their seriousness:

"Hmmmm," he'd say as he seriously looked over a paper cut; "Looks pretty bad. I think we might need to cut that finger right off!"

"Nooooo," we'd protest, "It's not that bad!!" And, the tears would stop, with a snap.

So, I don't just miss the man, my grandpa, but his entire gentler era, personified in his and grandma's mannerisms and character. She'd call up the stairs to us, "Yoo hoo!" And when she dropped something, the consistent expression we could depend on was, "Whoopsie!" They had nicknames like Shorty High Pockets and Silo Smith--and that was "cool."

I have a friend here in northern Virginia who talks like that. She talks about her daughter's "grumpies" and kids with children in the same delightful manner that my grandma used to--it's the most precious thing to witness. I appreciate her influence on my parenting style. I miss my graham as much as my gramps when I hear Nora gently correct her nephews and daughter.

The way I can help Graham and Gramps live on and on is to teach my children about them and reflect their influence on my life through the choices I make with my own children--Lord, help me be more gentle, as they were gentle.

How I miss you, Grandpa, today more than ever. Who would I be without you? Thank you. I love you.

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