I’m a private person. Some of you call me “the turtle” — because I work things out in my head long before I’m ready to let those thoughts escape my mouth. I blame it on the odd combo of being both sensitive and deliberate. Normally I wouldn’t open up about something so personal in such a public forum but if writing this helps me, sharing it might help someone else…
My grandfather passed away yesterday. He was 96 years and 11 days old. The news shouldn’t have been a shock. Just recently he had moved into a nursing home and the doctors warned the family that he was on borrowed time. And I say “the family” because I wasn’t part of those conversations since we’ve been estranged for quite some time. I thought I would accept his passing with the same stoic indignation I did when he pushed me to the margins but it still hurt. Because even though he inflicted a fair amount of pain in my life, he’s still the only grandfather I ever knew.
I left work soon after I got the message. Went back to my 12’ x 24’ hotel room where I’m spending most of November and put my head under the covers for the rest of the day. Alternating back and forth between grief and thinking that the worst part of this job is those days when you need home but it’s the one thing you can’t have.
I’m thankful for the co-worker who walked me to my car. For the friend who called and offered to drive six hours just to sit with me so I wouldn’t be alone. Even more I appreciate her words when she said, “You can be sad. Even though you weren’t close he is still a part of who you are.” How true.
My grandfather talked politics and wouldn’t listen unless I had something intelligent to contribute. I blame the curse that is the love of partisan debate on him – because it was the surest way to gain his attention.
I’m strong. That’s what happens after years of being beat down. Not literally but, damn, his words could be harsh. And he didn’t spare anyone’s feelings.
Because I was his only granddaughter and didn’t want to be exiled to the kitchen when everyone else was having fun outside, I spent most of my childhood trying to blend in with the boys. I probably wouldn’t have lasted these eight years working with the military if it weren’t for those years pretending to be a tomboy.
He was also stubborn. In the same way I know I can be. It takes two people not willing to talk for years to not actually talk for years.
I had always hoped that when his health deteriorated, he would find enough love inside of him to reach out and tell me he loved me and was proud of me. But he didn’t. And that’s going to have to be okay. We both drew our lines in the sand. And those two lines might as well have been on different planets. I had my reasons. He had his. Sometimes that is just how things work out.
But I’m still sad. Sad he’s gone. The only grandfather I knew, my last grandparent left. I don’t know how to accept the “sorry for your loss” condolences. I lost him a long time ago when those lines were drawn. But today’s sadness is because yesterday I lost hope that our relationship would someday change. The ending to this story has been written. And it isn’t the ending I wanted.
I tried. I really did. Growing up I was much closer to my grandmother. I knew how difficult life was for him after she died suddenly more than 20 years ago. Because it was unbearable for me. I wrote letters. I called. I wanted so badly to build a relationship with him that might fill the void created after she was gone. But it didn’t work.
Family relationships like ours have an interesting arc. First a break. Then anger. Which sometimes can catalyze rebellion. Which creates a greater divide. Over time the distance eventually just becomes accepted. Lingering hurt rises to the surface on occasion but for the most part you’ve both just moved on. Sometimes a pivotal event can re-open communication and lead to forgiveness. But not always.
I’ve never liked the “never go to bed angry” cliché. Because we’re allowed to be angry. We’re even allowed to hold onto that anger if it gives us the strength we need to protect ourselves from more hurt. At least until that anger becomes as destructive and unhealthy as the source of it. And when that happens, forgiveness – the “in your heart” kind — is the best option. I learned all of this from him too.
I remember my last words to my grandfather and I’m just glad they weren’t hurtful. I visited him in March 2008, hoping the time that had passed since we last saw each other had mellowed our difference of opinion. It hadn’t. But I know I tried one last time. And that has to be enough now.
That’s what happens when you’ve lost people you love before. Especially when those last words weren’t the ones you would leave them with if you knew you would never speak again. It makes you careful not to repeat that mistake. And I’m thankful I didn’t.
His passing – for all of its lessons and observations on the twists and turns life can take – leaves me with the same thoughts I’ve had when grief has overwhelmed me before. Those universal truths we all acknowledge… That life is short. That we must give of ourselves. That we must do our absolute best to live without regret. That we can’t fix everyone and, in fact, the only thing we can fix is ourselves. That everyone in our lives is a part of who we are – both good and bad – and that we must honor our own paths by learning from them all.