The hardest part was not my grandfather’s death this past Saturday, but the week before. Specifically, a Friday morning, after M. had a speech therapy appointment and we decided to visit the hospital before heading home.
Grandpa was awake when we walked in, and perhaps it was my bias as a mother, but I felt as though his face lightened when he saw M.
“Hello, M.!” my grandfather said, and it was his voice that thrust my heart into my stomach. It was cracked and tired, but he had pitched it higher than normal and that just stopped me up. Underneath the raggedness brought on by age and illness I could hear that sing-song tonality that had greeted me every morning for the first year I lived in Maine and likely greeted thousands of children over the decades of his work in education. I realize as I write this that my son was the last child he would ever greet in such a way. This astounds. It hardly feels real.
It is astounding, because though he was in the last stretch of his life, there was still so much vitality. To me, it was clear he so wanted to remain with us, to continue to watch us all grow and flourish, the lush and wondrous garden he had helped plant and tend. I think, in some ways, at least on that last day I saw him, he wasn’t quite ready to go. I heard it in his voice that day, and when I came back alone in the afternoon, I saw it on his face as he slept, a grimace sunk deep in an unrestful face, as though as he slept he spoke with God, bargaining for just a bit more time.
I don’t know how that bargain might have gone, because my grandfather had already had quite a lot of time. Having been born in 1920, he had seen such tremendous change. He was born just months after women won the right to vote and died only months after being able to vote for the first woman running in a major political party (let’s not dwell on how this shouldn’t have taken nearly 97 years…). As a child it was not uncommon for him to see literal horsepower and as a man he saw us reach the moon and beyond. He saw a World War, the Civil Rights movement, and 18 presidents, including the first African-American to hold the office. The amount of history he was witness to continually amazes me, and he was so thoughtful and cognoscente of it all, right up until the very end.
But in 96 years, this is simply what he saw, not what shaped him or who he was. I can only speak about him from the perspective of a grandchild, but the man I knew, who I was so proud to call my grandfather, was larger than life for me. Even before I knew that I was going to teach, I admired him. I knew that his childhood had not been especially easy, that his family hadn’t had a lot of money and that he had suffered an accident when he was only ten years old that caused him to lose his leg. Despite facing difficulties, he pushed himself, he went to college, he chose to teach. I remember asking him why he chose to go into education, and he simply said he thought he could do a good job. And he did do a good job, as a teacher and administrator, as a husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. Doing a good job, being present, quietly caring for others without fanfare or the expectation of reward was, in my eyes, wholly who my grandfather is and how I will remember him. It is how I hope to shape my own life and the way I wish my children to live.
I will remember my grandfather in other ways, too. I will think of him when I eat at diners and stop at a yard sale. I will remember him when I hear big band jazz or listen to Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged album. He will be with me as I continue to pursue my graduate degree (something he was always keen to hear about). And my heart will ache for him just a bit whenever I am referred to as “teacher”, because that is how he thought of me, for even at his last he introduced me to his nurses as, “My granddaughter, Kirsten. She’s a teacher.”