On Thursday, my grandfather died.
He was 89. There was some Alzheimers — more on some days than on others — as well as the usual and not-entirely-gentle ravishes of aging. He moved slowly, forgot most things, recognized rarely, but he was happy. Happy to sit in his chair and stare at his wife of 65 years. Happy to eat pie for dinner. Happy to watch old movies. Happy, generally, to have earned the time to simply be happy and do nothing at all.
But behind the scenes — behind his simple happiness — was the typical maelstrom: the unraveling and fracturing of the siblings, the warring over “what is best,” and the miscommunication born of the heartache of a long goodbye. It’s hard to grieve the living. It feels disloyal, but it’s also inevitable.
Aging in America is often the true great American tragedy. He was fortunate to age with money; financially capable of making his own decisions about where and how. Like many of us, he did not care to plan for the inevitability that he would, one day, no longer be capable of the things he desired: to sit and stare at his wife of 65 years, to eat pie (or anything at all, really) for dinner, to watch old movies. The plans we make for our golden years are often painfully optimistic. We will live, we will travel, we will be visited by those who love us, and then, as if on cue, we will die peacefully in our beds. He was one of the lucky ones. His death — swift and graceful — happened amid the ongoing conversations about what his (and their) next chapter would be. As if he sensed the mounting arguments for a “facility” and wished to cease them without further argument, he died.
He was not taken too soon. He did not suffer. He did not have so much more to give or so many things left unsaid. He lived long and well, retired slowly and (mostly) on his own terms, and then left swiftly and with most things organized and well executed. And yet.
And yet this simple grief, clean and transparent, seems deeper somehow. As if, without the distracting narratives of tragedy, I cannot fully manage this grief. Because this grief, this simple grief of losing him, is more about me than about him. There is no young widow to worry about, no children to set up a GoFundMe for, no endless meal trains to organize. There is no relief in distraction.
This grief requires introspection. With his passing, I am forced to face my own mortality, the passage of time, the aging of myself and my parents, and the simple truth that, one way or another, we all go. This life is simply a trip to a place we did not know before and likely will not know again.
I’m often grateful for the experience of parenthood because our children are a true and resonating measurement of time. They remind us of the seasons, the months, and the years. Their constant evolution is a reminder to their parents of the reality of time. To be a parent is to grieve constantly, in small and big ways, for the things we had and lost, the versions of our children we have known and now only have in memory. Traditions emerge accidentally from routine and before we’re fully aware of what we’ve done, we’ve created an entire childhood.
My grandfather was the last of the great patriarchs. A man of high morals and good character, a man who intrinsically and without persuasion detested racism, sexism, and bigotry of any kind. His wife was his equal (some might even argue superior) and his friends were of all color, race, gender, sexuality, and creed. He believed in the equal exchange of ideas and facilitated that exchange in myriad ways throughout his life. He was a family man of the highest order; his belief in the value and priority of family was without question. In all things, family came first. He curated a life surrounded by children, grandchildren, and friends he regarded as family. What I didn’t know — didn’t realize until I was grown myself — was what a privilege it was to be raised in that family.
I had a storybook childhood. Scrapbooks tell stories of egg hunts and BBQs, a family law firm with a storied and infamous gathering space. As a toddler I unknowingly sat on the knees of politicians and power players. I was surrounded by influence, but born into a family of Texas liberals — a then rare and soon dying breed. In some ways we were as close to a dynasty as it came and at the head was my grandfather: a man who was poised to be the villain, but instead dedicated his life to being the champion.
What I now grieve is not the loss of a single human who left this plane, but rather the spirit of a man who created something so much bigger than himself, who made us think a little harder about who we should be, as people, parents, spouses, and friends. There are no saints and no saviors, and I don’t care to fall victim to posthumous exaggeration, but we were all better when we knew he was watching, and we are all kinder because we knew it’s what he expected. I also grieve the parts of my own life gone by, both those I knew were gone and the ones I’m just now realizing. There won’t be another family Christmas with grandparents and grandkids. Gone is the VHS camcorder on the tripod on the living room, capturing every moment. There are smells I’ll never smell again, many of which have already faded from my mind. My childhood, though gone 20 years ago, fades further into memory now. With him, some of those things still lived, if only as faint embers, and now they’re gone. I’ll never be a girl of 10 drinking hot cocoa at a law office, unwittingly watching the future of politics unfold. I’ll never have another hot summer night on the Guadalupe without care or responsibility. I’ll never eat a bucket of chicken at their kitchen table, 9 months pregnant with my first born. Those things are all in the past, and with his passing, so too is any new possibility.
This is a simple grief. The grief you feel when there is no great tragedy other than the passing of time or the reminder that we are fleeting.
It is a simple grief, but it consumes all the same.