A woman sat next to me on the red-eye from San Diego last night. She was writing the eulogy for her husband, who had died from a sudden heart attack in his sleep, three nights earlier.
“We were married 49 years. This was our first real vacation ever,” she said, “I’m glad that we had the chance to do that together.” Her husband was a direct descendant of a long line of famous scholars going back over five hundred years. Despite this illustrious heritage, with its requisite Wikipedia entries (and no doubt, its looming pressures of expected achievement) he was a profoundly humble man who lived a modest life dedicated to community service and selfless acts of loving-kindness. This much I was able to glean not only from the biographical facts and this woman’s verbal descriptions, but also from what I saw reflected in her own modest, unassuming manner.
As I sat quietly and listened to her stories and memories it occurred to me that, in the face of her many life struggles and all this recent turmoil, this freshly minted widow was a paragon of dignity. Her dignity reminded me of my grandfather. He died just last week, and I was coincidentally on that flight, sitting next to this woman, on my way to visit my parents and extended family in order to mourn his passing. In a few hours I would be sitting and hearing and sharing in their stories and memories, as well.
There are moments in life where (unfortunately) you feel like the universe revolves around you, and other people and events are sent as messengers to help you out of your stationary, central position. Then there are other times where you feel like you are one of those mercurial messengers, tossed around by the wind, fulfilling the universe’s will on behalf of others. For me, this was definitely one of those latter moments, right down to the predictable air turbulence as the airplane crossed over the Rocky Mountains.
Some people are able to face turbulent times with sense of firm calmness, and these people come in different configurations and dispositions. It’s not just those people with a subdued nature who maintain a calm demeanor under stress. My grandfather had plenty of fire in his blood — he was by all accounts a dignified gentleman with a deep sense of decorum, but he also had strong opinions and passions. In the face of chaos and uncertainty, he stood firm. He was like that metaphor of the unbending cedar tree — except no wind could uproot him. We in the family always said he’d outlive us all, right up to the very end, when he died early in his 98th year.
I did a search on my grandfather’s name on Google and actually came up with 3 or 4 results — some archived documents from the 1950s and 60s mostly — nevertheless impressive for a man who predated television. But the real impact of my grandfather — the legacy evoked by his name — is felt personally by all the members of my extended family. During the last four years of his life, he was constrained to a hospital bed and wheelchair. His condition made it difficult for him to acknowledge the daily visits from his devoted wife, and his children and grandchildren. Yet once after my brother sang one of his favorite songs to him in the hospital room he managed to say “thank you.” He will be missed and be remembered “fondly,” as he would have put it, “a fine grandfather,” a Toastmaster who always knew what was the good and proper thing to say and said it well, and when there was nothing left to say, said nothing.