I know you can’t hear me, or read this letter, but there are some things I wanted to tell you that I never said while you were still here. Maybe I’m being selfish, because this is just a way to make myself feel better about not telling you these things before, but who is it going to hurt, right?
Anyway, I’ve been thinking about you a lot. I’ve had dreams about you being alive, and even one where you were dead and then came back to life. It’s very strange how much I’ve been dreaming about you. Maybe there is some kind of meaning in those dreams. Maybe they are your way of letting me know that you’re still with me, though I doubt it. Maybe I’m just feeling guilty. Maybe I just miss you.
And I do, which is hard for me to admit. It’s so strange to go over to Grandma’s and not see you there. It just doesn’t feel right to sit at the table and not see you sitting across from me, sitting with your elbows resting on the table and your hands playing with the placemat. I know you always hated Grandma’s placemats. But you put them on the table anyway, just to make her happy.
It’s hard to see pictures, to look at images of you when you were healthy, and then think of the pain you went through at the end. Those last few months were so painful for us, watching you suffer; I can’t imagine how difficult they must have been for you. You were always such a confident and quiet man – the strong and silent type. I never heard you complain about anything, even when you were sick. But it was obvious that you were hurting from the way you groaned when we had to move you, and how you slowly forced your body out to the kitchen table so you could play with your great-grandchildren. I remember once, just a few days before it ended, you were at the table with us. You had just finished a bowl of Cream-of-Wheat (not because you were hungry, but to make Grandma happy) and I asked if you wanted any more. In your weak, frail voice, you looked at me and asked, “Am I supposed to have more?” It was heartbreaking. I had never seen you the least bit helpless or vulnerable, but at that moment you were completely without strength.
Those last hours, after you had gone to sleep for the last time, were just as excruciating. It was uncomfortable for us to watch you breathing; your breath was so hard and forced, and sporadic. We knew it was time for you to go, and we got to the point where we just wanted you to let it happen. But you hung on, even after you had slipped from consciousness, for probably 36 hours – stubborn even to the very end. It was like you were reminding us, for the last time, of just how strong you were. Grandma always said you were “strong as an ox”. She was right. She also said you got kicked out of ninth grade for fighting, which is fitting. You didn’t let death beat you; you fought it to a draw.
Anyway, what I wanted to say is that I see a lot of you in me. I’m not claiming that I am as strong as you were. I don’t think I am; at least not physically. I don’t think I could be as brave in the face of death as you were, but I guess I won’t know until it happens. But you passed on more of yourself to me than I ever realized. I wonder if you could see it.
I’m certainly not mechanical like you were. You were famous for your ability to fix anything. I’m infamous for my inability to make anything work. You never cared about appearances, either. You could patch something together with duct tape and leftover wood, making it look like a medieval experiment gone wrong, but it would work better than new. That’s not me. I don’t even attempt to fix mechanical things anymore. I leave that to the people who know what they are doing.
While you were content with being a simple man, I’ve been cursed with ambition. I felt like I need to do something great and admirable, so I joined the Navy. I remember, when I was talking to the recruiters and talking about joining, you sat me down at the kitchen table for a talk. You told me you didn’t think it was a good idea, and warned me that it wouldn’t be the way the recruiters were telling me it would be. That was the only time that we ever had a serious conversation like that; the only time you ever discouraged me from doing something that I wanted to do. It had a profound affect on me, and made me second-guess myself. Of course, I didn’t listen to you, and now I’m glad I went away because it has made me a better man. But the fact that you cared enough to try to get me to do what you felt was right meant a lot to me. Without that conversation, I may never have known how much you cared.
That’s where I am a lot like you. You didn’t show your feelings very often, at least not explicitly. You showed your love by doing things for the people you cared about. You would show up, unannounced, and mow someone’s grass. Or come over and trim my tree branches so they didn’t hang over the road. Every fall, you would pack up my lawn mowers and take them to your house to store in the shed for the winter. You would jump at the chance to pick up my daughter from the school bus if I wasn’t able to. On one of your last days, you made Uncle Mike and I go down to the basement and find the money you had hidden. You literally would not rest until that money was given to Grandma; your last (clever) way of helping her and showing you cared.
That’s how you showed you cared. While I don’t do as many things for other people as you did, I too am shy about sharing my feelings. I don’t feel comfortable exposing myself by opening up to someone, and I think I got that from you. Only once do I remember seeing you cry. That was the night Grandma had her stroke, and we dropped you off at home after we left the hospital. I’m sure you were scared about Grandma’s condition, but I think you were most upset by the fact that you had to rely on the people who had always relied on you. For the first time, you needed help from us, and that took away your method of caring.
Grandma is back in the hospital now. She fell a few weeks ago and broke her hip. When they were doing the hip replacement surgery, her heart stopped and they almost lost her. She’s okay now, but I don’t think she has much fight left in her. Before, when you were still here, she was stubborn about getting stronger and going back home. Without you here, I don’t think she has as much to fight for. I think she’s anxious to be with you again, which is what she thinks will happen soon. For all I know, maybe you have had a hand in all this, trying to speed things up a bit. I’m sure you don’t like being alone, wherever you are. If you can see what’s going on here, I bet it’s killing you that you can’t help her.
So, anyway, I’m a lot like you, Grandpa. I’m quiet but confident. I have the same sarcastic sense of humor. Despite my damned sense of ambition, I also like being a simple man. I wish I were more like you in that way. I wish I could be completely happy with just my house and my family. Maybe I will be one day. Maybe, when you were younger, you were more like I am now.
We miss you, Grandpa; I miss you. I wish I had spent more time with you when you were here, and healthy. I know it’s a cliché, but you truly were the greatest man I have ever known. That should be enough to convince me that I don’t need to be
great – in the world’s view – to be great. You were far greater than I could ever be, and you were almost completely unknown outside of your family.
As hard as it is, I will try to remember you the way you were before you got sick. That’s the way I want to be. It may take a while, but I think the foundation is there. I got it from you. I feel better already.
In your words, “That wasn’t too easy, was it?”