Category: Narratives

To You, Grandma

164410_1762467225639_5271211_nThis is for you, Grandma.

It’s been four years, but it hasn’t gotten any easier. Four long years since I’ve heard your laugh, gotten one of your warm hugs, and had one of those chocolate cookies you used to keep in the refrigerator. I used to think it was so weird you kept them there, but you were right–they really are better that way. It’s the little things like that I miss most.

I miss you so much. They say it gets easier with time, and I suppose it does, but time hasn’t yet fully healed these wounds. Sometimes I bleed. And sometimes you’ll pop into my head for no reason at all. Maybe that’s your spirit’s way of reaching out–of trying to connect with me. And I’ll think back to that awful night when we lost you, and the pain becomes real all over again. The tears flow. I look up. I miss you, I whisper. I’d give anything to see you again, even for just a little while.

A few weeks ago, I dreamt about you. It wasn’t much of a dream–I was back visiting Castle Gardens. Why? I don’t know. Probably because that’s where you spent the last four years of your life and where some of my last memories with you were made. I should be grateful we even had your last four years, since we almost lost you twice before. I rounded the corner and there you were, as if nothing had changed. This can’t be real, I thought. It felt too real. We didn’t say anything–just hugged. Cried a little. Mourning the time we’ve been deprived of these past four years. And then I woke up, my pillowcase wetted with tears and the sensation of your warm embrace still with me. Maybe it was real.

My birthday is in three days. I’m turning twenty-two–can you believe it? I was only seventeen when you left us. You were right. Time really does fly. But it’s going to be hard for me. For seventeen years, you called me on my birthday. I got to hear your voice. Hear your love. And for four years, I’ve missed that. I’m left only to imagine what you would be saying if you were still here. You’d probably ask about school. How my friends were doing. Where I’m going for dinner tonight. You’d tell me you love me and miss me.

And I know those words to be true. Wherever you are now–in heaven, or out there somewhere in this great Universe of ours–I know you still love me, and I know you miss me as much as I miss you. (You’ll never admit it, but I know I was your favorite.) You miss our talks about life. About how we both hate autumn because it represents death. About how we both really hate driving. You miss how we’d watch The Price is Right when I came to visit–I know the only reason we watched it is because you loved Bob Barker. But I didn’t mind. And how we’d laugh at the naiveté of some of the contestants. You miss being able to make ridiculous jokes and laugh ourselves to tears.

It has gotten better these last four years. I remember when it’d only been a year since we lost you–how inconsolable I’d be. An absolute mess. Those nights when I’d look up to the sky and cry until my tear ducts said, “No more.” But that doesn’t mean the pain is gone. That doesn’t mean I won’t shed a few tears on Monday. Waiting for a phone call I know will never come.

I hope that some day, somehow, we’ll be reunited at last. That I’ll get to give you the biggest hug ever, cry, and tell you how much I’ve missed you. That I’ll get to catch you up on life after you were gone.

But until then, life goes on. I cling to these tear-stained memories and make do with what my mind remembers–it’s the best I can do.

I know you’re out there somewhere, and I hope I make you proud.

Love you, Grandma.


Big Guy

My grandfather and I were never particularly close—at least not for the majority of the time we were both alive. The awkwardness of our relationship always left me uneasy. I always thought grandfathers and their grandsons were supposed to be close, but it wasn’t so with us. Was there one specific reason for this distance? No—as I look back, there were myriad reasons he and I weren’t that close.

For most of my life, my grandfather’s health was terrible. Lighting up multiple packs of Marlboro Reds a day usually has that sort of effect on people. It seems like he was always in and out of the hospital. First it was heart trouble. He had a heart attack, then another, then bypass surgery, then this procedure, that procedure. When he died, they should have taken his heart out and put it in a museum—that thing was so goddamn resilient. And while all these heart problems were going on, other conditions began to manifest themselves. Emphysema was one of the early ones. Diabetes came next. Kidney failure was the last major one. I swear, it’s a miracle he never had to deal with cancer on top of everything else.

His health problems kept him largely confined to the recliner in the living room. Every time we’d go to grandma and grandpa’s house, you could almost count on the fact that he’d be plopped in that chair, probably watching Wheel of Fortune. It must have been such an awful existence—such a terrible quality of life.

It was this confinement that largely separated us physically. I’d known him for fifteen years, and the hours we’d spent talking could probably be counted on two hands. Not that I blamed him for that, though. He wasn’t able to go outside and play catch with me when I was a kid. Nor could he come to band concerts at school, or do anything that required him to be out of the house for more than a little while. His failing health meant we never really had any time to form that grandfather-grandson bond.

The two of us couldn’t have been more different, and our relationship was characterized by contrasts. He was advanced in years, but I was young and growing. He’d been a farmer—a man who worked the land and was fiercely self-reliant. I, on the other hand, hated physical labor and usually spent my time running around playing games (or, in later years, with my nose buried in a video game or my phone). Grandpa was the rugged outdoorsman and I was the kid who preferred to toss around a ball and play Pokemon.

The few times we’d actually sat and conversed were awkward. After compulsory discussion of the weather, how school was going, and all the other goings-on in my life, we were resigned to desperately try to find something to talk about. Sure, I wanted to try to get to know him better, but our differences complicated the matter. Our differences created a distance that was difficult to narrow.

My grandpa never communicated love very well. In fact, I’m not sure he fully understood the concept until the very end. He was always so emotionally distant—so removed from the family. Now, I’m sure he genuinely cared about all of us, and I’m sure he was capable of feeling affection, but those feelings were never conveyed. It’s like he wanted to show us that he cared, but he didn’t know how.

In the last months of his life, however, we all began to notice a change in him. In mid-autumn of 2007, we were over at my grandparents’ house for one of our usual visits. I hadn’t seen him in a while, and there was a marked change in him. He was kinder, more engaged, and more energetic than I’d seen him in months. It was a pleasant change, but the real surprise came as my parents and I were leaving. As I was pulling away from my usual goodbye hug, four words escaped his lips. “Love you, big guy.” (‘Big guy’ was his nickname for me for as long as I can remember.) Those words echoed in my head. Love you, big guy. For the first time ever, he told me that he loved me, which is something I had seriously doubted until that point.

Awestruck, I managed to say, “Love you too, grandpa.” We turned and left the room, saying goodbye to my grandma. Again, my grandpa blindsided us.

“I love you all. I really appreciate you coming over to visit.”

The gravity of these words was too great to process in that moment. As my whole extended family exited the house, there were murmurs among my aunts, uncles, and parents.

“Did you hear that?”

“I know, there’s definitely been a change in him.”

A change in him. I wasn’t the only one who had noticed how out of character he had been.

Over our next few visits, grandpa and I became closer than we’d ever been. I would sit on the couch near his chair and we’d talk for hours. We talked about anything and everything—school, sports, my upcoming trip to Europe—we left no stone unturned. It was like I was really meeting him for the first time. He told me about his time in the Army, and how he was stationed in Europe during the Korean War. It turns out we did have something in common: music. Grandpa came from a very musical family. His brother Ronnie attended Julliard and could play a host of different instruments. My grandpa had even led a local big band in the 1950s. This family talent had been passed down to me—I play both the piano and trumpet. Music became the thing that bonded us together. I was absolutely fascinated to hear about all his experiences. Smoking and alcoholism aside, he’d led a pretty interesting life. I loved this newfound closeness between us—everything was great.

In early December of the same year, the phone rang as my parents and I were at home, busily preparing for the upcoming holiday season. My dad answered, talking only briefly with the person on the other line. He came into the living room with a somber expression—I knew it could only be about one thing.

“Dad’s taken a turn for the worse—they aren’t sure he’s going to make it through the day.” Grandpa had been in the hospital for a few weeks, but it had seemed like one of his routine visits and it wasn’t something I was much concerned about. After my dad hurried to the hospital, my mom burst into tears and hugged me.

“We need to pray for your grandfather.”

Later that afternoon, mom and I joined our extended family at the hospital. After a few dull hours in the intensive care waiting room, we all headed to the cafeteria for dinner. Despite the circumstances, everything seemed fairly normal. It was as if nothing at all was wrong. Looking back, I suppose it was because grandpa was in such poor health that none of this was out of the ordinary anymore. It had become routine–it was the norm. I guess years of him being in-and-out of the hospital had desensitized us to it all. And as the years went on and his body found new ways to fail, “when” became more of an appropriate word when pondering his eventual death.

Halfway through the meal, we heard an announcement over the intercom—a code blue in the ICU. Knowing that a code blue means a “respiratory emergency,” my dad, aunts, and grandma hurriedly left for that wing of the hospital. The rest of us later found out that they had to resuscitate him.

I sat in the waiting room of the intensive care unit with my mom, an uncle, and two cousins. We sat there for hours and hours. We had our diversions—my cousins with their video games and me watching television—but those were long, long hours. At one point, my mom and uncle left the room rather quickly. “Where do you think they’re going?” asked one cousin—she was nine at the time, and matters of death were still new to her (I, on the other hand, was fifteen, and had at least a cursory understanding of the subject). “I’m not sure,” I replied, “But wherever it is, it probably isn’t good.” Almost as soon as I uttered those words, my dad appeared at the doorway of the room, beckoning me over. He looked strangely calm, even though it was obvious that he’d just been crying.

“David, grandpa’s about to pass away, and I came to see if you wanted to say goodbye to him.” I could feel the tears began to well up in my eyes, and I just stood there in silence. Words completely failed me. I’d been expecting to hear something like this for a long time, but my numbness in that moment froze me. I’d been completely blindsided.

“Oh, Dad, I don’t know. I don’t know if I can do it.”

“He’ll still be able to hear you if you come and squeeze his hand and say goodbye.”

The tears began to roll more freely. Was I ready to face the reality of losing him? Did I have the courage to go tell my grandfather how I felt? The past few months of growing closer had been so wonderful—how could I take him by the hand and say goodbye so soon? After standing in solemn silence for what seemed like an eternity, I managed to say,

“I don’t think I can do it. I just don’t think I can.”

“That’s okay, son. I understand.”

My body now began to tremble; speech became even more difficult. I wanted Grandpa to know how much I cared, even though I couldn’t say it to his face.

“Dad, please tell grandpa how much I love him. Please tell him that.”

“I will.”

And with that, my father went down the hallway, heading back toward my grandpa’s room. I turned around and sat back down, knowing that I had made a mistake. Part of me wanted to run after my dad and go say goodbye to grandpa one last time, but I didn’t.

It was only a few minutes later that my mom and uncle came back to the waiting room with tears wetting their faces, and I already knew. They took us into a little side room. “Briana, Nathan, grandpa just passed away.” They started to cry—even my youngest cousin, who was only four. I, too, began to cry, but I felt so conflicted. Part of me was almost relieved to see him pass. Grandpa had suffered physically for so long, and death had relieved him of that suffering. But sorrow also filled me. I wasn’t ever going to hear another one of his stories, or hear his raspy but warm laugh. God, I was going to miss those little things. After a few tearful minutes, I turned to my mom and asked,

“Did dad get a chance to tell grandpa that I loved him?”

“No, grandpa passed just before he came back.”

My heart sank even deeper. I’d frozen when it mattered most—stood there like a deer staring into the headlights of an oncoming car. I’m the reason my dad wasn’t there when his father died.

I was filled with a whirlpool of emotions, each of them swirling, surfacing, and then disappearing, only to surface again later. Devastation, heartbreak, and anger coursed through my veins. Why did he have to die now, when we were starting to grow closer? None of this seemed fair at all. Death had snatched him away. What other stories could we have shared—what other memories could I cling to?

My mom led me down the hall toward the intensive care unit. I’d managed to collect myself, even though I knew that it would all come unraveled when I saw my grandpa, grandma, and the others. As we approached the room, I dreaded going in. I dreaded to not only see him, but also to face the guilt of knowing that my father had perhaps missed out on a chance to say one last goodbye.

Everything about the room reeked of death. The air was marked by a heavy presence that I had never before felt, and have only felt once since. My eyes were drawn to the pallid corpse that was my grandfather—his once-bulky frame now thinned from the wear of deteriorating health. I ran over to my grandma and let out deep sobs, saying, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” As I embraced each of my relatives, their calmness struck me. Witnessing my own emotional breakdown had moved them all back to tears, but their expressions were filled with an air of acceptance that I’d not expected.

My dad approached me. “Would you like to say goodbye?” I walked over to the bed and took hold of my grandpa’s frail, lifeless hand. I managed to choke out the words “I love you, grandpa. I hope you’ll always know that.”

Putting his arm around me, dad said, “He knows, son.” He looked up. “He’ll always know.”

Lessons From the Woods

For the past nine years, I’ve spent one week in July out in the woods of Windsor, New York attending a music camp that has surely shaped my life for the better. I spent eight of those weeks as a camper, and I had the privilege of being a staff member this past summer.

Camp is one of my favorite places. Nestled deep in the woods of Upstate New York, it offers a kind of peaceful solitude seldom found in today’s busy world. The central lake—whose calm waters are backdropped by tall green trees—is tranquil. Rustic log cabins dot the banks surrounding the lake, giving the place an air of old-school authenticity. I remember those cabins well. We slept in bunk beds, whose old mattresses were markedly more uncomfortable than our beds back at home. The wooden walls were filled with signatures of campers past. The air overpoweringly smelled of nature, and the whole setup was a constant reminder of the simplicity of camp living, if not of the simpler things in life itself.

We did have some modern luxuries in the midst of all this, however. Founders Lodge is the central dining hall that sits right up the hill from the shore of the lake. Although it’s new, it is built in a similar style as the rest of the buildings on the grounds. The hall is beautiful—exposed golden oak beams hold up the towering ceiling in the main room. A host of amenities are present, including a full industrial kitchen, a stage for performances, and apartments for the camp directors (I was always jealous they got those spacious living areas for the whole week). During music camp, the building is a gathering place for meals and rehearsal space for the camp’s musical ensembles.

But aside from the physical place itself, the best thing about camp is the people. I reluctantly first attended during the summer of 2003, right after I had finished sixth grade. At the time, I was a relatively shy child who’d not spent more than a weekend away from my parents. The thought of going someplace new, surrounded by strangers for a whole week, terrified my adolescent self. I’d practically begged my parents not to make me go, because I didn’t know how I’d survive without them.

But these fears were soon dispelled when I began to exit my proverbial shell and get to know the people around me. I opened up and got to know my counselors and cabin mates. We shared stories, told jokes, and made wonderful music together. It was a life-changing experience, and my parents hardly recognized the outgoing, more independent child they brought home with them. By the end of that first camp, they had to force me to leave.

Over those summers, I’ve grown close with people I’ll cherish for the rest of my life. Campers were separated by their year in school, and our class grew particularly close. Year after year, we’d laugh together, play games together, hike and swim together, and spend most of our free time in each other’s company. The experiences we shared laughing and crying through those summers have made these friends more like siblings. In fact, one girl in our group—Catherine—and I became so close we dated briefly during our freshman year of college. This collective circle of friends also bonded with two of our counselors during the summer after senior year. Their loving kindness was marked by kind words and a willingness to be there for us on a more personal level (after the loss of a former camper to suicide, they began the tradition of giving out their phone numbers and the assurance they’d always be there to pick up the phone). Sarah and Michael’s words and deeds gave them a permanent special place in my life—I strive to live up to their example and be as genuinely good as them.

Music camp has many traditions, and among the most important is the talent show, which takes place on Wednesday night of camp week. While all of the acts showcase incredible talents (this is a camp of music nerds we’re talking about), the most memorable part of the evening happens at the very end. After the senior campers perform their chosen routine—ours was singing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”—they sit in a line at the front of the stage before the entire camp. The director, Matt, then speaks to them briefly about this tradition (which has gone on for as long as anyone can remember), but they need no explanation, for they already know what’s coming. Soon after, the calming, melodious sound of a twelve-string guitar sets a bittersweet tone that often moves people to tears.

In 2010, the time came for our circle of friends to be sung to. We, like so many campers before us, knew exactly what was to come. Matt had given his usual introduction, and the song began. The notes echoed from those giant wooden rafters in Founders Lodge and reverberated until finally meeting my ear, only to enter my mind and move me to the very core. Us seniors huddled closer, joining hands and swaying to the music. We knew this marked the beginning of the end of our time there as campers. Tears welled up in our eyes, each rolling down our cheeks and falling to wet our shirts. Those tears contained the many memories of summers past—they mourned the end of a chapter that had provided so much friendship and meaning to our lives. That warm summer night in the woods—when it was my turn to be sung to—will stay forever suspended in my memory.

The song he sings is truly one of the greatest I have ever heard. It’s called “Everything Possible” by songwriter Fred Small. The melody is wonderful; the lyrics are moving. It’s a song about how to live your life and leave your mark on the world, even after you’re gone. It’s a song of self-acceptance, love, and encouragement to live your life the way you wish. But of all the lines in that song, there’s one that has stuck with me the most: And the only measure of your words and your deeds will be the love you leave behind when you’re done. Although I’ve heard it for many years, the power of this text resonates with me to this very day. Think about the gravity of that statement. No matter what you accomplish in life, you’ll be remembered for the love you leave behind. It’s both troubling and inspiring—on one hand, it downplays the value of many societal structures that are highly valued, such as education and careers. But on the other hand, it provides refreshing simplicity in a world burdened by complexity.

Every day, I try to live life by the message encapsulated in the single line of text from that song I first heard nine long years ago. After my life is over, I want people to remember me for the love that I leave behind. I don’t want to be remembered for my attendance at Syracuse, my time in marching band, or my legal career—in the grand picture of life, those things become less and less important as the years pass. No, I want people to look back on my life with fondness and remember me as a kind, compassionate, friendly, and loving person. If the whole world were to live with this goal in mind, wouldn’t it be a much better place? I don’t mean to diminish the value of a good education or a successful career, but as I survey the world, it appears too much value has been placed on these institutions. Humanity would benefit if—even for a moment—the simpler aspects of life were more appreciated. Those weeks in the rugged, rustic setting of camp taught me to take time to value those littler, simpler things in life.

Great American thinker Henry David Thoreau spent two years living in the woods, and wrote of his experiences in Walden. He immersed himself in a simpler life, and from these writings comes one of my favorite quotations:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

I, too, have gone to the woods, and I have learned what it has to teach. And because of those summer weeks spent with friends by the lake and amongst the trees, when I come to die, I’ll be able to say that I have lived—lived well and left a legacy to be proud of. What will you say when it’s your turn?