My grandfather died last weekend. He was 86 years old.
When your grandfather is 86 years old, it might sound strange to say he died unexpectedly. But he did. We didn’t expect it. One day he was fussing with my grandmother over what to eat for dinner, admiring my cousin’s new car, arranging the contents of the dishwasher just so, and the next day—he was gone.
I spent the days following his death in Fort Worth, Texas, in the house where he and my grandmother raised my mom and her three sisters. The hours were filled with family—aunts, uncles, cousins. My grandparents were married almost 63 years, and they spent over 50 of those years in that home. It’s saturated with memories—closets stuffed with old prom and bridesmaid dresses, drawers filled with newspaper clippings, yearbooks, photographs. We sifted through piles of pictures, laughing at old hairstyles and cooing over decades-old baby pictures.
At times it felt like any visit to my grandparents’ house, with my aunt mixing cocktails and my grandmother playing the piano. As if my granddaddy were asleep in the next room, as he often was, and any minute he would holler for us to keep it down out there.
It almost felt normal in those moments, and we could let ourselves believe he wasn’t really gone.
But then, amid the joking and reminiscing, my grandmother would place her hand to her chest and say very quietly, “Oh, dear. Oh, dear.”
And there was no more pretending. The weight of my granddaddy’s absence loomed heavy and oppressive, and altogether unbelievable.
Tears came unexpectedly as I crammed dishes into the dishwasher, knowing I was doing it all wrong, that my granddaddy would be right behind me to rearrange all of it—but he wasn’t there.
He lived a good life, a long life, and I’m fortunate to have had him for almost 39 years. But when it comes to people we love, we’re greedy, aren’t we? No matter how much time we’re given, we always want more.
At the funeral home the night before his memorial service we visited with my granddaddy one last time. He looked peaceful, younger. He looked as if he were sleeping. It wasn’t uncommon for him to doze in a chair while his wife and daughters chattered around him, and as odd as it sounds, that afternoon in the funeral home felt…almost normal. For the moment, he was still there, he was with us. I could see him.
But then it was time to go. My grandmother said goodbye and left the room. One by one, my aunts and cousins did the same.
I was the last to leave my granddaddy. I would have spent the night there if they’d let me. I just…I didn’t want it to be over. Part of me felt like I could keep it from being over as long as I stayed in that room.
My mother wept softly in the car as we drove away. “I never thought this day would come,” she said.
Her words were piercing, giving voice to my own thoughts and delusions about death. We know it’s inevitable, but we don’t really believe it.
I’m not sure we ever really believe it. Even after it happens, it can’t be true. He can’t really be gone. He’s just in the other room, taking a nap.
John 14:1-4 “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.”
(Betsy Swenson can be reached at email@example.com.)