Today would have been my grandpa's ninetieth birthday. March 13 was always a joyous day around our house — few people were more joyous, fun loving and mischievous than my grandpa. Even, Friday the Thirteenth was a lucky day — if anything, that fit with his impish nature.
He taught me much of the art of good natured troublemaking. He taught me a lot more too. He was the quintessential problem solver, never willing to concede defeat, and in all but death, never really defeated. Without even being able to finish high school, he was still easily one of the smartest people I have ever known. He was fiercely loyal and would have given his life to save any of us in his family without a hesitation. He loved my grandma ardently, to the extent that her ailing, more than even the cancer he suffered, was what pulled him apart — perhaps the most beautiful, though heartrending, example of marriage I have witnessed.
He also knew how to slice and present meats like nobody's business.
He in so many ways is the person I wish I was and continue to aspire to be. I still miss him dearly eight and a half years after he died. This is the sort of wound that never full heals, but merely is worked around.
In October 2004, I was given an assignment to write a journal for a literature class on the Death of Ivan Ilych and the parallels with my grandpa's story were strong enough I had to write about him. Click “Read More” if you are interested in it.
Requiem æternam dona ei, Domine.
The Death of Ivan Ilych is especially touching for those who have witnessed the prolonged suffering and death of a family member. Ilych increasingly becomes aware of his own mortality and how it is going to rob him of his “perfect” life.
It reminds me a lot of my grandfather. My grandfather was always a fixer of things and just a great person to be around. Few people that knew him did not love to be around him, and often people who had just met him would willingly spend long periods of time talking to him. He savored talking to people and would equally enjoy talking and spending time with both family and strangers who would lend an ear and time. He had a fascination with a great many things and lived what one could consider a really picturesque life, heading toward his eighties as a happy person enjoying his time in retirement.
It was a fire just about four years prior to his death that destroyed his picturesque existence. He became one that often had angry outbursts – like Ivan Ilych – and things seemed to fall apart around him. While my grandmother did not reciprocate with anger, the fire brought to the surface the beginnings of dementia that had not been apparent previously – thus, like Ilych, my grandfather was not only suffering because of his own problems, but also because of my grandmother’s problems.
The thing we did not know at the time was that the anger was actually being brought out as a side effect of the rare cancer that was developing inside of him. Like Ilych, symptoms – such as weakness and tiredness — started to become more apparent, and different doctors tried different solutions with different diagnoses for a good deal of time, until the real villain became apparent. Despite being told he had no hope, my grandfather refused to listen and continue to fight – just hoping to beat the unbeatable enemy within.
The worst symptoms came out about a year before his death and as they slowly ripped away parts of him, leaving less and less of the person we knew and loved and more of the angry person caused by the side effects of the disease to the brain, it reached the point where we – like Ilych’s family – desired less and less to be around my grandfather lest there be another violent outburst. It was a most cruel end to a most wonderful person.
In one of his more lucid moments, however, my grandfather related something very hopeful to my mother. He said his favorite season was always the fall, because fall represented a beginning. Consider this for a moment. After the spring, summer and bright early autumn colors of life, we reach what – at first – appears to be the beginning of the end. Yet it is only through the ending of life as we know it that we can really begin. Without the ending that is autumn, there can be no springtime of resurrection. As my grandfather himself worked through the fact that he was in the fall of his life, he eventually gained a new hope and peace recognizing he was heading forward to the springtime.
It is not being dead that needs to be feared, but the process of dying. Hope springs again, for we know the promise of the Father through the work of his son. Once we can get beyond the shedding of our leaves in a final burst of color, we make way for the innocence and wonder of spring.