Today should have been my first day of teaching in 2015. My kids should have been returning to their elementary classrooms with tales of holiday gatherings and showing off their wearable holiday gifts. Instead, we were 3000 miles from home saying goodbye to my grandfather who passed away the week before Christmas.
The death wasn’t a surprise. I wrote about his failing health last November. And the last two weeks have really been a combined family reunion-vacation-funeral trip. The majority of my very large family is in California, and we get out her so seldom that even when we’re here for a difficult event like this, there are many new memories to be made at the same time. And of course my children are just six and seven years old; two weeks of grieving just isn’t in the cards given their youth.
Last weekend, my dad and his wife hosted a small gathering of friends, including some of my high school friends. They’ll typically do this during our visits so we can see a bunch of friends and family at once. During the festivities while I was catching up with friends, one of my dad’s neighbors leaned over to me and said, “Does anyone even miss your grandfather?” I was a little taken aback by the comment, and after a deep breath, I assured him that my grandfather was missed deeply. The neighbor just shrugged his shoulders and gestured to the room, as if to suggest that he certainly couldn’t tell given the context.
Today, a few dozen family and friends gathered at the Sacramento Valley National Cemetery for veterans where my grandfather’s ashes are being interred. As my immediate family of four headed toward the outdoor pavilion where the military send off would take place, I fought back the tears and held my son tightly to my shoulders. My daughter was walking with my husband, and after looking at me, she said to my husband, “Poppy, why aren’t you sad?”
“I am sad,” he told her.
“You don’t look sad,” she replied.
“People show sadness in different ways. You can’t always tell how people feel based on the way they look,” he explained.
And this was definitely a sad occasion. My grandfather as a great and amazing man, and I’m so proud to have been a part of his family and a benefactor of his parenting–both directly and through his son, my dad. Prior to the ceremony, my kids were fighting like normal, which means just shy of bodily harm. I counted to ten and dropped down to their level.
“This is a really hard day for Daddy, and I really need you and Poppy here with me. If you can’t behave, Poppy will have to take you out, and I can’t do this by myself. I’m really sad and having the three of you near me helps me feel better. Do you understand?” They nodded silently, and a few minutes later in the car, my daughter was complaining that her brother was looking at her funny. I wasn’t sure they’d make it, and I worried I wouldn’t be ready to forgive them for being so young any time soon.
Then during the ceremony, my daughter clung to me while the volley shots were fired, and she brought my hand to her face lovingly while “Taps” was played. When we were seated for the few short words shared about my grandfather’s life, my son climbed into my lap and hugged me as tightly as he ever has. The entire thing was overwhelming for me–saying goodbye to my grandfather, hearing some of the wonderful memories about him, the majesty of a military funeral, and feeling the loving pressure of my family so close to me. When it was over, I turned to my son with tears in my eyes and saw my emotional state mirrored in his own. Through his own tears, he said, “I’m just so sad Daddy.” We held each other and just cried for a bit before he shared some of his tiny hugs with his great-grandmother and my dad.
My aunt had printed up my grandfather’s obituary with a few color photos on it. My daughter noticed something she thought might cheer up her brother: “That’s you in the picture!” We looked, and sure enough, the photo of my grandad had been cropped from a photo with my son. We could just make out the corner of my son’s short afro in the bottom of the frame. He smiled, proud to feel so permanently connected his great-grandfather.
In the car, we all talked a bit about our feelings. My son told us, “I’m just so sad because I used to dream about my great-grandfather all the time, and now I can’t do that any more.”
“Of course you can buddy. That’s where he’ll live forever. When you miss him and you want to see him, you can do it in your dreams.” This apparently made an impression on him, because during the reception he mustered the strength to get up in front of the crowd and say so into the microphone.
I can count the number of times my son met my grandfather on one hand, yet he feels connected to him in this totally tangible way. I’m sure it’s got something to do with his status as an adoptee, like he’s subconsciously clinging to the things that validate his permanence in this family. And that’s something that my grandfather did for him. The two of them are separated by 82 years in age, but it’s comforting to see the impact his presence had on the next generation of this family.
It’s something I’m sure I’ll talk over with my grandpa in my dreams tonight.