We are mortal creatures. We know this. But we don’t understand it. Eternity is in our hearts. That we will one day cease to exist, is incomprehensible to us.
My grandfather died this week. I got the call this morning, and I am out of town, so I don’t even have a picture to show you.
I didn’t know him very well. By the time I came around, mental illness had claimed much of his vigor, and what schizophrenia didn’t take, strained relationships did. I only understood him through the lens of a hundred stories of days gone by, and vague memories of childhood holidays.
He loved to make beans and rice with carnitas (a Mexican beef dish). He was of Mexican heritage. His parents were Mexican immigrants, (legal, mind you) but he was born in the United States in the 1930’s, and raised and educated in the throes of the American golden age. He carried two cultures in his veins, and switched seamlessly between them.
With perfect Spanish intonation, he would call me, “mija,” a Spanish contraction for “Mi hija”—my daughter, and then talk to me about C.S. Lewis in flawless, native, English. He was the first person I ever met that could do that.
As far as religion, I couldn’t really say. He was raised Christian, I know. And if there is anything I know in life, anything at all, it’s that religious upbringing runs deep and dies hard. But, my childhood memories of him reveal little to this effect. From time to time, he might briefly mention such things. But nothing near the level I was getting at home.
He prided himself on education. He had come from humble beginnings, the son of a Pentecostal preacher. Then as a divorced, single father of three, he put himself through school, all the way through his Master’s, and then went on to a university career.
He had two younger brothers, and it was said bad blood existed between them. But, my grandfather, they respected.
“You made something of yourself,” they would solemnly nod.
As a father, he ran his family a tight ship. He had built himself, and he wanted nothing but excellence from them, despite themselves. It was this sort of determined approach to life that built America. So, why wouldn’t it work in his household?
It was all in good training, then, that he would do things like hold university dinner parties in his home, and insist that his children not only attend, but participate in discussion with university professors. This was also why he would demand his family in dress code to an evening out to do dinner. His children saw it as pretentious. And I’m sure that was part of it. But I understand it. I appreciate it. (I am prone to the pretentious myself, more than I will admit).
But in his day, he had had everything to prove in life, and worked hard to prove it. Now, he had created an easier life for his posterity, and wanted them to be poised for success and luxury.
I fell into his good graces early in life. First by being, “The first grandchild.” He was big on these sorts of things. Second, with my elementary school honor roll report cards. His face would beam with pride, when my mom would show him my report cards.
“Mija,” he would say. “Look at this. You are so smart.”
Later, when I announced that I had earned my high school letterman jacket, he paid the supplier’s hefty price tag. I wore that jacket through three high school winters, and I still have it tucked away in a box.
One of my last memories of him was a summer when I was in college. I was home for a brief interlude. He had just gotten out of the hospital, and as a family, we all went to visit him. He was shocked to see his doorstep full. And with all the gregariousness of his Latin heritage, he welcomed us into his tiny apartment. He refused to use his walker, and seemed embarrassed at our dad’s insistence. I think he didn’t want us kids to see him that way.
We flipped through old photo albums. There he was. A young, handsome Hispanic man, with jet black hair carefully combed-over. He wore a smart tweed suit, and thick-rimmed black glasses and in his swarthy hands was a hard plastic briefcase. I nodded and stared at the picture over and over. THIS is who he really was inside. Not this frail, stammering silver-headed man.
He began to tell stories of the different photographs. People we had never met, times where we had never lived. They were vivid in his mind. But, to me, they were as distant as the orange shag carpet and patterned linoleum in the photos. As I listened to his stories, it wasn’t the content that struck me.
It was the realization that he had an entire lifetime of memories, ideas, experiences that I knew nothing about. I wondered what he thought about life, and love and all the mysteries in between. I wondered what he thought about theology and philosophy and the great secrets of the world. I wondered who HE really was. But, it was late, and the room was full, and there wasn’t really the time and place for all of that.
I only saw him one more time, at a cousin’s wedding. His health had improved and he was doing well. He was in a wheelchair, but jovial and well-dressed.
“How are you doing, Mija?” he stared at me over the rim of his glasses as we sat around a reception table.
It wasn’t a passing question. His deep brown eyes probed into me. I hadn’t seen him in several years. But, there was something oddly familiar about it. He was part of me. And so I answered him with my latest feats in life and he tried to follow, but ended up in laughter.
“I’m glad you’re doing well,” he patted my leg.
“You look well yourself,” I said, with my formal-friendly smile.
We took bites of cake and then someone changed the conversation. That was the last time I talked to him.
This morning, when I got the call that he had passed of a heart attack, I was shocked. I knew his health had been failing him for a while. And yet, I never did find out who he was.
So, I have been thinking about my own life, and how vivid and real it is to me. And, yet, one day I will be gone. And all the stories, memories, things that hold tightly to me, will similarly cease to exist. My only hope is to leave a legacy. But Solomon writes that even this is meaningless, “For who know whether the person to carry it on will be wise man or a fool?”
Life is brief. A chasing in the wind…Love the ones that are here. For one day they will not be.