My grandpa died in November 2014. We knew he was sick, but thought he was getting better. When my mom told me he would be moving on soon, I remember thinking it wouldn’t be fair for my children (all under age 5 at the time) to go through life without a Grandpa Johnson (though they do have 2 wonderful Grandfathers)…I’d have to find a replacement for their Great-Grandpa.
I’d have to find someone who would be excited to see them every single time they came around…who’d say their names like he was more surprised and delighted to see them than he would be to see anyone else in the world. And this new person would have to tell jokes…good jokes that make people belly laugh…and he’d have to laugh as hard as everyone else no matter how many times he told the same jokes. He’d have to sing…fun songs that make kids giggle, and tender songs that make grown-ups cry. I think that’s about as far as I got on my list before I realized my Grandpa would be gone in just a few days and that I would never, ever find someone just like him.
Our family is quite musical…we got that from him and Grandma…so we had a big family choir at his funeral. It’s hard to sing and cry, so we all put on brave faces the way people do and we sang beautiful songs for him. But when the singing was done and it was time to follow Grandpa out of the chapel, everybody let their bravery fall down and we wept. One of my aunts played a heavenly arrangement of “Goin’ Home” on the piano while the rest of us…aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, husbands and wives, children and grandchildren…held onto each other and wept soul-deep, grief-filled tears while a few of our uncles, brothers and husbands carried him away.
Once we got to the lobby of the church, the pallbearers took Grandpa’s casket out two sets of glass doors and began loading it into the hearse. One of my aunts stood at the first set of doors with her hands resting on the barred handle. She is grown and beautiful and graceful and poised but in that moment she looked like a little girl whose father and hero was being taken away. She looked like she might at any moment run out to stop him. We all felt that way and wished we could call to him and have him come back. Most days I still feel that way.
The lyrics to one of the songs we sang at Grandpa’s funeral comes to mind almost every time I think of him…the song the grandchildren sang, which said, “I wish every child in the whole wide world had a Grandpa just like you.” I do wish that. I wish it deep and pure and true. His kind of love and kindness and goodness were life-changing. His hugs made you feel whole. The way he called out your name made you feel like nothing else in the world mattered but you. I think if every child in the whole wide world could experience that kind of love our world would be transformed by it. I think every child deserves to be loved that way…every child should be loved that way.
My littlest baby – Kate – was born after Grandpa died, but I think she knows that kind of love. I took her to Brave Girl Camp when she was just a newborn (the way I have with almost all of my babies), and just like all of my babies she was welcomed and held and snuggled and loved all week by the women at camp…guests and staff…many of my beloveds. At the end of the week, we were sitting in a circle and one of the women who’d come as a guest said, “I don’t think I’ve seen that baby put down at all this week. She is so lucky to be so loved. That is not the reality for everyone.”
I wanted to hug her just then. I wanted to hug her and every person who could say from experience, “that is not the reality for everyone.” If I had thought of it in that moment I would have gone to her and held her shoulders and looked in her eyes and told her that it should be the reality for everyone…that it should have been the reality for her…that she should have been rocked and swaddled and caressed and sung to…her hair should have been gently brushed and her tears tenderly wiped away by loving and kind parents. I wanted to tell her that if that wasn’t her reality, and if she in some way felt angry or bitter or ripped off because of it, she was right to feel that way, for she had experienced a tremendous injustice.
Every child deserves a Grandpa like mine… and a loving mother and a protective father. (Of course when I say child I mean grown-up children, too. I mean me. And you.) It doesn’t seem like a lifetime is long enough to be able to make sense of it, but some peoples’ realities are different…like my sister at Brave Girl Camp told me. It’s not right, and I’ll never understand it.
My kids won’t remember my Grandpa…they know that he’s the man in the photo on our fridge, and as they grow I will be able to tell them about him, but they’ll never know what it felt like to be wrapped up in one of his hugs..or hear his belly laughs. Sometimes that makes me mad. It always makes me sad…sad for them…sad for me…sad for anyone who doesn’t know his kind of love and light and fun and goodness.
But recently I learned something that helps…..
Grandpa didn’t leave much behind…not as far as the world would say anyway. He didn’t leave money or a legacy of fame or a collection of cars, which I know he probably dreamed about. My Grandpa left a legacy of kindness. Of mercy. Of service. Of love. He touched people one by one in simple ways.
His legacy doesn’t require trust funds or attorneys or paperwork. If I want some of his legacy, all I have to do is decide to pick it up and keep it and make it part of me.
Whether you and I have loving parents and grandparents like we should, or parents and grandparents who did little to deserve our trust and devotion, we can make sure we mark the end of those kinds of legacies and begin new ones. We can’t change the past and we just as certainly can’t turn people into the people we want them to be, but what we can do for sure is create what we wish we had.
I can’t give my children the Grandpa I had…but I can give them a more gentle mother. I can make people feel important by the way I say their name. I can hug tight and real and deep. I can laugh with my whole soul and sing the same way. I can keep my heart open to people from every walk of life and offer a listening ear and understanding eyes.
And if I choose to do that – even though I still miss him fiercely – it seems like in some ways I can pass my Grandpa’s love along in this world…and in some ways he will live forever for my children and theirs and for everyone we meet.