My mother called me on the phone the morning before Thanksgiving.
“Shawn, Grandpa died this morning.” My Grandpa Tom in Wausau.
I was home for the holidays but had spent the night at Erica’s house on the west side of Madison. We had spent the previous evening talking, eating cookies, playing pool, and laughing a lot at a friend’s log cabin out in the country. Meanwhile, my grandfather was spending his last night on earth in a hospital bed in northern Wisconsin, his wife of 63 years by his side, in his 85th year, giving up the ghost in his singularly good-humored and gentle way.
We drove north that afternoon, Erica, my uncle, and I. We talked a little bit about life & death and Grandpa. At dusk, we arrived at the house on Skyline. No one was home – the siblings and Grandma were still at the funeral home making arrangements. We kept the engine running the cold November frost, eventually pulling out of the driveway to meet the family at a Chinese buffet. We waited, hugged, ate, and spoke little of Grandpa’s passing. A pall in everyone’s step and eyes told it.
Thanksgiving was strangely comforting, even jubilant. With 20 of us in the house, we didn’t all fit at the long table in the sun room looking across to Rib Mountain. We sang “Back of the Bread” for grace – one of Grandpa’s favorites. Turkey & fixings that tasted more rich than ever, lots of good football, and plenty of card games made for a homey afternoon.
For the next four days, we prepared for the wake and funeral. The hours passed and I was not thinking much of anything beyond those present moments with my aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, brother, wife and Grandma. I remember drifting from person to person, asking to help with anything that needed tending to: sorting clothes, retrieving items for the displays showing Grandpa’s interests, playing with the younger kids. It’s all a sort of bittersweet blur of a long winter’s weekend now.
The funeral service was on Sunday afternoon, with a visitation an hour before. I had tried to avoid visiting the casket at the wake the day before, but ultimately brought my mother forward to it near the end of the evening so she could, “say goodbye to my Dad.” I’m not sure why I acted like this – perhaps I wanted to avoid saying goodbye, maybe it was the utterly uncomfortable feeling of seeing the body of a man who was so vibrant and witty during his life lie motionless in an eternal bed, make up caked onto his face along with a cold, straight grin he never would’ve worn. A body is just a vessel for the spirit & the soul, and to see his existence to reduced to a corpse for people to visit seemed a crude symbology in which I didn’t want to fully partake. Nonetheless, I visited the casket alongside my cousin at the visitation. I cried then. Seeing others cry made me feel my grandfather’s absence.
I had a heavy and hard time until the beginning of the funeral. I served as pallbearer with some of the other men in the family. The service was meticulously planned by Grandpa and included four hymns, three readings, a family remembrance, a version of a creed he wrote himself, and a military farewell featuring a firing squad and “Taps” to conclude. My eldest uncle led the family remembrance, ending with the lines, “I always looked up to my father, and I can still do that today & forever more. Hey, Dad!,” his hands and face rising to the sky.
Another uncle and a trio of cousins performed Grandpa’s hymn “My Cup is Overflowing” during the service and it has been stuck in my head all day. I’ve only realized the significance of this metaphor in the last few hours as I returned to Oakland and went to my school. When you are so blessed to be around caring people you can call companions, to have a loving family, to be in good health, to be living & breathing in this magical world the gods have given us, how can you not be overcome with joy and thanks? Your cup overflows with these blessings, life is beyond good: it is blissful, with an infinite number of possibilities for the present and future. So treat others with kindness and be a generous listener, for that is the pinnacle of earthly existence; to share moments of beauty and curiosity with others and to appreciate it all the while. I used this frame all afternoon, speaking with students and colleagues, each and every interaction. By practicing patience, being open, sharing my thoughts, doing simple deeds, and listening to others, I felt a tremendous happiness and gratefulness. Thank you for teaching this to me, Grandpa.
As I continue to reflect on Grandpa’s teachings to me over the years and emotionally process his flight from us, I continue to return to the question of how to honor one’s memory. There are simple ways, like putting his picture in a place in our apartment or meditating with him in mind & spirit. But I feel the most meaningful way for me to honor my Grandpa Tom will be to ponder his father & presence, continue to apply his teachings & learn from his example. That doesn’t mean duplicating all of his life choices, though I always admired his well-rounded, renaissance-man nature and hope to continue to develop myself in that direction. I think it means to remember his commitment to family, to kindness for others, to intellectual self-improvement, and to humor; a hug a day, a smile every ten minutes, plenty of reading & writing, and lots of jokes. I will keep him with me by leading a life with these the tenets in mind. In doing so, he will live on with us, in spirit & smile, forever. Love you and miss you, Grandpa Tom.