The Time My Grandfather Schooled Me on the Meaning of Life

Meaning of Life
Photo credit: Alisa Bowman

My grandfather had fallen and shattered his femur. Then he’d suffered a mild heart attack. Now his lungs were filling with fluid and he was taking a second round of antibiotics to treat a persistent case of pneumonia.

I was behind with work, and there were interviews to conduct, two articles to write, a book to edit, another book to review, and an author to call. There were also editors to pitch, a book to promote, and business trips to plan. I also had a dentist appointment and an eye appointment. I’d promised to chauffeur my child various places. On the calendar was also Tai Chi classes and meditation class.

Just before I’d gotten the latest update about my grandfather, I’d felt as if I were juggling flaming torches and that dropping just one of them would cause the planet to fly into the sun. The news of his failing health had functioned much like Galileo’s telescope. Suddenly the notion that the survival of the solar system had anything to do with my to-do list seemed as absurd as the idea of the sun circling the Earth. Nothing was important enough to keep me in Pennsylvania.

The following day, I got on a plane for Colorado.

More than two decades before, during the early 1990s and my sophomore year of college, my maternal grandmother died of a painful and debilitating autoimmune disorder, and I wasted my spring semester by self-medicating my grief with keg stands, beer funnels, and body shots. During each drunken haze, I embraced and courted Denial — my grandmother is still alive, sickness doesn’t exist, I won’t die, I don’t have a drinking problem — as if Denial had been crowned the king of the prom.

Then, each morning, I woke with a headache, parched lips, and reality.

Toward the end of that semester, a professor helped me line up an internship at a newspaper in Pueblo, Colorado, near the home of my paternal grandparents, Harry and Elmina. Unlike my recently deceased city-dwelling grandmother, these grandparents had grown up on homesteads, lived off the land, been educated in one-room school houses, ridden horses as a means of transportation, sewn shirts out of flour sacks, made quilts from fabric scraps, powered their water pump with a windmill, raised and killed the animals they’d consumed, survived the dust bowl and the Great Depression, lost a child, and believed only a select few went to heaven.

They didn’t drink. They didn’t smoke. Nor did they take the Lord’s name in vain. They wore no jewelry. Television was against their religion. Women wore only skirts and dresses. They didn’t wear makeup. Nor did women cut their hair.

They kept their Bibles in special, protective cases. They read from them every night, and they attended meeting twice a week.

I showed up at their front door in sweat pants and a stained oversized T-shirt, and one of the first phrases that tumbled out of my mouth blamed their savior for my inability to breathe at high altitude. Unfazed, they reached out across the valley of our differences and embraced me as if I were the Prodigal Son.

That summer they served me decaf coffee, fed me huge daily rations of meat and potatoes, gave me a dress and brought me to Sunday meeting. That August I went back to Penn State healed and ten pounds heavier, but not saved.

In the years that followed, I visited them once a year or so, but I wrote rarely. I forgot their birthdays. Their anniversaries came and went without a phone call. Often, so did the holidays. Whenever I visited, they rejoiced.

Then my grandmother began forgetting things. At first, they were minor things, like the sentence that had come out of her mouth just a moment before. Over time she began forgetting important things, such as the pot roast she’d just put in the oven.

As her health failed, I learned how to overcome my discomfort and denial so I could be present — truly present — as her health deteriorated. I wore full surgical scrubs so I could sit in her 80-degree-room and hold her icy cold hand. When she called me “Sally,” I did not correct her.

There are people who refuse to visit the sick and the dying. For them the rotten teeth, deaf ears, painful sores, weakened limbs, and immobility are grim and painful reminders of what awaits us all if a car accident doesn’t stop our hearts first. For such people, death and dying are sad realities that ought to be pushed aside and forgotten.

I was once one of those people.

But now, as my plane cruised to 30,000 feet, I knew that it was this very attempt to forget that had caused my pain more than 20 years before. Now what I most wanted to do was remember, to be present, to make the most of the few moments my grandfather and I had left. I wanted to see my grandfather, to hear him, to acknowledge him, and to be with him. I couldn’t cure him. Nor could I make his body comfortable. But, at the very least, I could bring a comforting presence to his side.

The next morning, when I walked into the rehabilitation center, a smile lit up his face. He was on oxygen, and his body was thinner and frailer than before. His eyes seemed cloudy. His left arm shook, the first sign of Parkinson’s disease that I’d noticed. Somehow, despite all of this, he looked better than I’d imagined.

I leaned down, took his face in my hands, and kissed him on the cheek.

We sat quietly, just sharing the same space as the minutes ticked by. Sometimes, as I saw him struggling — his weak, shaky arm reaching for a tissue  — I got up and helped. He needed a lot of tissues, so I placed the trash bin near his chair. He was too weak to turn far enough to see it, so I described its location. Then we made a game of him trying to drop the tissues into the can. When he made it, I cheered.

I combed his hair and readjusted the padding on his oxygen tubes, but mostly, I just listened and asked questions.

He talked about his house in Pueblo where he and my late grandmother had lived for more than two decades after they’d sold their farm and retired. From past conversations, I knew that he was proud of his being able to retire. Not all farmers experienced such fortune. Among his peers, he was a success, and that house in Pueblo symbolized a lifetime of hard effort. It was a blessing that he’d lived in that house as long as he had, but he would never be able to go back. His final days would be lived either in this rehabilitation center or a nursing home. If he were extremely fortunate, he might have a shot at assisted living. But independent living? That was now the past.

“I had a nice little home,” he said again. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get to go back there.”

“What did you love about it? What made it so nice?”

He said, “Oh, I would get to thinking about the good times, all the people who had been there over the years.”

I asked, “Did home remind you of Elmina?”

He answered, “Oh yes!” Now his face was bright, and he was smiling. “Sometimes I would wake at night and it was like she was there, and I would talk to her.”

“That doesn’t happen here?” I asked of the rehab center. “No,” he said, his eyes filling with tears.

My eyes filled with tears, too.

“Poor Elmina,” he said. There was a long silence.

Then he continued, “She went through all of this,” he said. “She must have been in this much pain. They tried to get her to stand just like they are trying to get me to stand. They fed her these thickened beverages that they are feeding me. And I never heard a peep out of her. She never complained.

“She was the most patient person I’ve ever met,” I said. “I never once saw her angry. Did you?”

Now he was smiling again. “Oh yes, after she started going downhill with dementia. She used to get angry with me. We’d be sitting at the dinner table and she’d just get up and walk away. I wouldn’t even know what I’d done,” he said with a laugh, as if this was one of the good memories, a time that he’d gladly re-experience over and over again for eternity. Perhaps, at the end of life, when the only pleasure one has left is the Pepsi one’s granddaughter sneaks in against the advice of the medical staff, the memory of one’s wife abruptly walking away from the dinner table in a fit of anger is one of the good ones.

“Oh, Elmina,” he said, this time his voice filled with regret.

“What?” I asked.

“She didn’t want to be in that nursing home. Every time I visited, she wanted to come home with me. Maybe I could have brought her home. I don’t know. Maybe I could have brought her home,” he said.

“Grandpa,” I said, “she did not seem unhappy in that home. If anything, she seemed as if every moment was a gift.”

There was another long silence. Then he said, “I made a lot of mistakes.”

“What kinds of mistakes?” I asked. I thought he was going to mention the nursing home again. He didn’t.

“Well, I read about all of these places. Then we took this trip. And I was standing there thinking, ‘I’m standing at the place I read about.'”

“What places?” I asked. “Well, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and George Washington’s home. I remember standing there looking out over the Potomac and thinking that this was the place I’d read about. I’d read about it, and then I was there.”

“Those don’t sound like mistakes to me,” I said.

He thought for a while, and then he said, “Sometimes you accidentally do something right.”

In that moment, I understood that life — and especially love — was as much about accidentally doing something right as it was about accidentally doing something wrong and learning from it. It was as much about cursing and wearing jeans in the home of one’s Bible-loving grandparents as it was about sitting quietly and talking lovingly with the same grandparent more than two decades later.

Many years ago, a pastor told me that life is a lot like a sweater turned inside out. During our lives, we can only see the imperfections — the knots in the thread. It seems as if life is messy, that it doesn’t make sense. If only we could turn life inside out, said the pastor, and see it from a different perspective, we’d be able to take in its beauty.

I not only could see the beauty of my grandfather’s life, but I could also see the beauty of my own. Just as a sweater can’t exist without every piece of thread, neither could our lives. Every moment — painful or comfortable, happy or sad, heart-warming or heart-breaking— is precious because the next moment depends on it.

As I got up to leave that evening, I asked, “What contraband do you want me to sneak in tomorrow?”

My grandfather grinned, “I feel like a little kid, but … could you bring me a Hershey Bar?”

“Of course I can,” I said.

When I walked in the following morning, I handed him not one Hershey bar, but two. I waited for him to smile, but he didn’t. He wasn’t feeling well, and the chocolate, while welcome, wasn’t enough to remove the suffering. That morning he slept for most of the visit, occasionally opening his eyes, focusing, seeing me still there, and then closing his eyes again.

A few hours later, I hugged him good-bye and kissed him on the cheek.

“I’ll come again,” I said. “As soon as I can. I’ll come again.”

“Well, we’ll see,” he said.

We both knew what was true. It was much more likely that my next trip for Colorado would be for a funeral than for a visit.

I lingered for a moment, and then I walked down the hall and into the next moment.

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Article Posted 3 years Ago

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