One by one, he picked up the cards between his hands and tore them open slowly with his finger. His hands are losing strength, but he managed to free each of them from their envelope. And with each one, he read it aloud to all of us sitting at the table with him, and tears choked his voice. My grandfather wasn’t always like this, but the medications that make him less volatile also make him more emotional, and I think he knows that he’s starting to forget things.
My grandmother died a few months ago, and he has trouble remembering that she’s gone and won’t be coming back. They say that when a loved one dies, our souls go off in search of them, restless to understand the disappearing act. Where did she go? Imagine what that would be like if the part of your brain that balances your emotions with the reality of death is broken. My grandfather has been asking my father to open her casket for months.
He lays the cards down on the table and tearfully thanks everyone. I put a hand on his shoulder and he turns to me and tells me how much he loves us.
“I have the best family in the world, and it all went so fast.”
A few years ago, we were all up at the lakehouse for Labor Day weekend. Uncle Jim got out great grandma’s old projector and several dusty boxes of slides. We found pictures of her classroom and students. We found pictures of family reunions and birthdays and anniversaries, and of the old farmhouse in Aurelius.
We found a picture of my great grandfather holding onto my cousin David’s hand, swinging him up by his arms. Great grandpa’s face is almost cut out of the frame of the photo, but his strong arm and torso are swinging up a giggling five-year-old David, and everyone smiled and laughed before Jeremy clicked to the next slide.
“Wait, turn it back!” Jim said. Jeremy clicked it back into focus. “I’ll be darned. He’s smiling. Grandpa Harley is smiling.”
Sure enough, there in the upper right hand corner, the smile that was accidentally captured. The one he rarely gave anyone, the one he refused to show for the camera. Our eyes grew wide as our parents walked slowly up to the screen, like they wanted to reach out and touch it.
Being like our parents is both a blessing and a curse. When children are young, we marvel at the startling blue eyes they’ve inherited, the way they learn so early to crawl beneath a tractor just like their father. Later these children worry that they have also inherited their parents’ bad temper, their penchant for breaking the things they meant to fix, their high risk for cancer or Alzheimer’s, too.
It’s hard to be honest about these things. It’s hard to foresee the moment, fifty years from now, when “just another day” will become a dilapidated old farmhouse we can’t go home to anymore, when the seasons of our lives sit as a stack of old letters in the back of our closet, when a rare smile is discovered in a dusty box of slides by our grandchildren many years after we’re gone. It’s hard to tell our children the story of how we loved each other, but didn’t always live it.
What will our children inherit? What will we leave for them to sift through when we’re gone?
Maybe it is when we choose to tell these stories, when we dust off the old slides and bring out the box of letters, when the cards are laid down on the table and we look around at the family we love, when we learn to utter the words aloud, “I love you all,” that a new chapter begins in the story of us.