Grandpa is dead.
Our beloved husband, father, and grandfather was stolen from us by a sudden and unexpected illness. A twinge in April. A funeral in August.
Half a year later, we are still struggling to accept the reality of a world without “Grandpa G.”
This man who delighted in his grandchildren: cuddling the babies, playing “horsey”and “Big Bear” with the toddlers, taking the big kids to cool places like the dump and the driving range, and letting them ride “shotgun” in his classic Corvette. Gone. How can that be?
Three years ago my husband and I moved to Courtenay to be closer to our large family—six kids, four spouses, eight grandkids—who all reside on Vancouver Island and in the Lower Mainland. Our eldest daughter’s family lives in nearby Union Bay. When Bill became ill the rest of the family all came to stay, squeezing into our two houses, sharing meals, stories, tears, and laughter. Although we had to cancel our annual summer gathering at a Rathtrevor Beach family camp, those three weeks together brought us closer than any vacation could ever do.
The grandkids, who range in age from 21⁄2 to 13, witnessed their parents dealing with the caretaking, the grieving, the finality of death. They visited their grandfather in the hospital, and later, in hospice. They drew pictures to decorate his room. Our eight-year old granddaughter Maysa, who has cystic fibrosis and is all too familiar with hospitals, made a card that read “Dear sick Grandpa, I love you more than ever now, and I wish you couldn’t die. I hope you are feeling OK, I know how you feel in the hospital.”
The day came when, one by one, the children were brought in to say goodbye to Grandpa G.
In accordance with his wish to be buried in a simple pine box, two of the uncles built a plain, yet elegant, pine casket. An hour before the funeral, six-year-old Julia asked if we could tie a red ribbon around it “so Grandpa will be wrapped in love.” (This sent her mother on a frantic last-minute search for several yards of three-inch wide red ribbon; a local florist came to the rescue.)
The family graveside service took place on a hot, sunny August day. Bill’s best friend, a retired pastor, led a short service. Family members read psalms, played guitar, and sang songs. Two-year-old Charlotte joined in lustily, undeterred by the fact that she didn’t know any of the words.
Afterwards, the children chased one another around the huge grassy field, while Charlotte played a game of her own invention: running from one grave marker to the next, then yelling “I win!”
The grandchildren were told that Grandpa was in heaven—presumably playing golf with God and hanging out with all the dogs, cats, guinea pigs, and gerbils we had ever owned—and that someday they would see him again. One of the mothers read them a story book about a magic thread that connects us to those we love, wherever they may be.
I wondered just how much Charlotte understood of all this, and whether she would even remember her grandfather. I need not have worried.
Two months later we gathered at my house for our traditional Thanksgiving dinner. It was a gloomy affair without “the Patriarch” presiding at the head of the table. The eldest son said grace, referring to our dear, departed Dad. In the poignant silence that followed, Charlotte pointed to the ceiling and hollered, “HEY GWAMPA! GET DOWN HERE! WE EATING!”
She could not understand why everyone burst out laughing. After all, people are supposed to come to the table when dinner is ready!
The other day I looked after Charlotte and her brother Max while their mother took their older brother Oscar skiing at Mount Washington. Charlotte turned three in December, of which she is inordinately proud. We were eating cereal together when she spotted a framed photo of Grandpa on the wall.
“My daddy really misses Gwampa,” she remarked.
“I miss him too,” I said, “but I know I will see him again someday.”
“Can Gwampa see US?” she asked, looking up at the ceiling.”
“What do YOU think?” (My standard response to difficult grandkid questions.)
She thought he could.
Then came the question I dreaded.
“Why did Gwampa die?”
I took a deep breath (and a good-sized slug of coffee) and plunged in.
“Charlotte, how old were you before your birthday?” She held up her index and second finger.
“And how old are you now?” The ring finger refused to join the other two. She surmounted this difficulty by raising her thumb instead.
“And how old will you be when you have your next birthday?”
“Four!” Up went all the fingers.
“Are you sure? Maybe you’ll be two again.”
“No, silly Gwamma. I be four.”
“You’re right! People grow up, not down. That’s the way things are. And soon you’ll be going to school, and one day you’ll be a teenager, and before you know it you’ll be a grownup, and maybe you’ll get married and have babies.”
Her eyes grew wide. “LOTS of babies!” she crowed.
“And your babies will turn into kids, and go to school, and grow up and get married and have their own kids, and when they do…” I paused for dramatic effect. Her eyes grew wider.
“You’ll be a grandma!”
“Exactly! And someday, when you’re a very old lady with white hair like Grandpa’s, God will say “Well, Charlotte, you’ve had a good, long life down there, but now I need you up here.”
“AND THEN… I SEE GWAMPA!” She tilted her head back, aimed a big smile at the ceiling, and waved.
“SEE YOU LATER, GWAMPA!”
Yup. She gets it.