My grandfather died yesterday.
I had anticipated his death in my mind but not in my heart. There is a big difference between the two. The head takes these things pragmatically. A man is old and he dies. A man is sick and he dies. A man can only last so long before his cells begin to degrade to the point where he can no longer function as a man.
I can easily recognize that my grandfather was a man.
He had the usual organs and was made of flesh and bone.
But my heart sees people with tunnel-vision. My grandfather was a super-man, an immortal, and everyone who I love will exist forever, because I need them. The heart is selfish like that, but the heart is also quiet, letting the logical part of a person talk the loudest.
Until your heart begins to break.
Then it screams and cries out inside of you.
My grandfather was only a man like any other man.
And my heart won’t let me believe that.
Let me tell you about my grandfather. Superman. A man. Just a man, I tell myself, but my heart wilts to think of it. Let me tell you about the person he was so I can capture the image like a photograph, but it’s so much more than that. Let me remember him through your mind and through my words. This is not a pity-party. I am not fishing for sympathy. Rather, I want to help myself remember pieces of a man who lived a full, beautiful life because there are so few who achieve that.
What I remember most are hot sunny days, and his nut-brown skin (everyone in my family tans but me). My grandparents lived on an island in Florida and the bay was an extension of their backyard. A little-kid’s dream house, which my grandfather spent a number of years building by himself when he was already in his fifties. He had an engineering degree from Cornell and was a whiz at making and fixing things.
He taught me how to de-head shrimp (by popping the heads off with my thumb) and tried to teach me to water-ski. When I would visit in the summertime he and I would go clamming in the dark muddy sand, feeling with our toes for the telltale hard lumps. We’d throw the clams that were too small or too big into the neighbor’s piece of shore, and then take the good ones up to the house to steam them for eating with melted butter.
I shared my grandfather with thirty-something other grandchildren and he was lucky enough to be alive for the birth of some of his great-grandchildren. He and my grandmother brought six children into the world and their kids all decided to have four or five or more (I am the oldest of seven). My grandfather was rich, not just in offspring, but in money, too. He made his fortune in oil and Styrofoam. Like the fact that your eggs aren’t cracked? My grandfather helped design the packaging they still use today.
He knew interesting things about the fishes and he knew how to make manatees come to the dock by luring them with fresh water from the hose. He always drove the boat gently when the little kids were in it, indulging anyone’s whim to be taken out on the motorboat, the sailboat or the Hobie Cat. He’d usually take me out on the bay to see the big, green concrete dragon that someone had sculpted on a jetty.
My grandfather was a natural businessman, a Christian and also one of the youngest people ever to have full command of a Navy ship. Later in life, he became a preacher and had his own church. I saw him give services to large congregations with all of the quiet grace that he presented while saying the blessing before meals. He had made his peace with God years before, and so he walked through life with the ease that only comes from being sure.
Sometimes, if goaded, he’d play the saxophone. He had one of each, bass, tenor, alto and soprano, and that man could blow jazz. Mostly for the grandkids, he’d give us concerts, switching between saxophones, but his children, too, would stop whatever they were doing when he started to play. The last time I heard him, before the Parkinson’s took that joy from him (us), he gave me his soprano sax. There was something extra special in the gesture. I wasn’t the only one who’d coveted one of those shiny instruments, but I was the only one who was always so far away.
My grandfather presided over his family, but didn’t rule it. He sat at the head of the table and carved the ham. He had his favorite armchair and often rested there, talking about faith or the antioxidant properties of citrus pith or whatever with whoever wanted to listen, while the generations of mothers were in the kitchen. But it wasn’t a patriarchy; he was usually content to say “Yes, dear.” It was the natural result of age, hungry children, scraped knees and family. He was more than willing to care for the children and to take the little ones onto his lap and read to them from Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes.
He died in that armchair, in his own home, with his wife of over fifty years nearby. He died while his body was still functional, though it shook, which I think embarrassed him. I don’t think he had any regrets, and when asked, he’d always maintained that though there were men richer in money, he was as rich as he could ever want. In spirit and children and grandchildren and faith. I have no doubts that he is in the heaven that he imagined for himself, content.
He had a good, full life, so while I am not ashamed to cry because death hurts the living, I know I will smile when I hear jazz saxophones playing. I will tell my youngest brother, Joshua, (who will not remember his pop-pop because he is only three now) about the concrete dragon and the clams and the sound of my grandfathers voice as he greeted us with a loud "Heyyyyy!" I will play the sax he gave me, and eat seafood and the salty sea air will remind me.
I am sad today, sadder than I've ever been in my entire life, but it will fade to bittersweet. I love you, pop-pop, and I miss you.
For what is it to die but to stand naked in the
wind and to melt into the sun?
And what is to cease breathing, but to
free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise
and expand and seek God unencumbered?
-The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran