At some point, my grandfather decided to not read most of my blog posts because they are “too sad.” Which is a fair point, I suppose. However, this post is about him, so he’ll probably read it. Sorry Gramps, cause some of it is sad. I can’t help myself.
In fact, let’s just jump right into the sad stuff: my grandfather is dying of prostate cancer. Quicker than most people do. More quickly than any of us had anticipated. Which sucks, on all kinds of levels.
I have been making a point to spend as much time as possible with grandpa right now, which naturally has me reflecting on the process of living and dying, and of what we leave behind. While visiting my family this weekend, I had a brief conversation with my youngest brother on the nature of family and blood-ties; essentially whether or not “blood” defines family. Neither of us think that it does. Regardless, the people that are tied to you by blood, for better or for worse, often have the most access to you during your formative years. So whether or not blood defines family, it certainly leaves its stamp on you.
My grandfather is a complicated and broken man. I have a deep and mixed love for him. But there is no doubt that he has shaped many of the ways I grew up to see and be in the world. From before I can even remember, grandpa shared his love of history with me. His passion for history led to many great adventures for all of us. I spent many childhood days walking in the ruts of Oregon Trail wagons, seeing the stops that Lewis and Clark made, and putting my hands on historical sites long grown over. Grandpa shared both an awe and an enthusiasm for the past, but the kind that was not too overly reverent. Grandpa led us to old places where we got to climb train trestles together and walk atop abandoned walls. We got history under our fingernails and rubbed into our skin.
Brief story in that vein: my brothers and I spent a lot of our growing up years at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. First following my grandpa around as a volunteer, and later on our own as volunteers. But also running through the buildings and behind closed doors and climbing on all the things we could. There are some iconic cannons set-up in front of one of the buildings in the fort, which we used to climb on from time to time. It was my middle brother, Mitchell, though, who fell off one day, earning some rather bloody wounds and prompting the establishment of a sign that read: “Do not climb on the cannons.” We were so proud of that.
Grandpa made the world exciting. History was about stories and people, about getting involved and dressed up. History was about experience. Life too was about experience. As kids, grandpa used to take my siblings and me on “Adventure Trips,” where we would drive fast around hairpin turns in curvy roads, and we would find the “top of the world” together.
My grandfather has an insatiable wonder for the world around him. For the creativity of other people, for the beauty and power of nature, for the wonder of creation and science, of invention and art. Grandpa taught me that there is no end to the amazing things in this world we live in -and that we are often at our best when we are out there either creating or discovering them.
Beyond history, grandpa has a deep love of learning in general. Words are a particular favorite of his, which has had its influence on many of his children and grandchildren. We like to do fun things in our free time, like quiz each other on parts of speech or the etymology of words. Over the weekend we had an entire, two-part conversation on syllables. Yeah, we are that awesome folks.
There are so many good things I could attribute to my grandfather: my sense of wonder at things, my decision to major in history in college, a variety of skills I learned from him directly (how to build websites in the 1990s, before most anyone could do that, or how to use power tools and saws and mostly not chop your fingers off). Grandpa taught me how to swim, he filmed my track meets; he encouraged my art making and every other creative endeavor -he promoted my interest in just about anything.
Like any person, there are also difficult things about grandpa. Hard things, damaged things, sad things. Sometimes I see my grandfather as his little boy self who did not get the love he needed. Who was never told he is wonderful, just for being him, who was never told that “good enough” is sometimes good enough, who was probably not hugged as often as he should have been. I see that in the grown man who did not know how to teach those things to his kids, and who still does not know how to allow those things for himself. Grandpa, I want you to know these things now. You are wonderful, just for being you, even if you did nothing else but be.
People are sometimes hard to love. Some people have especial moments of being particularly hard to love, specifically when they are people close to us. As humans, we are not always super stellar at loving. We are especially not great at loving when we are hurt. One of my favorite authors, Henri Nouwen, has this exceptional quote that goes: “Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. The hard truth is that all people love poorly. We need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour increasingly. That is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family.”
Grandpa, for you I see your understanding of love so very tied to your understanding of forgiveness. I love the above quote because it drives home the fact that forgiveness and love are so often synonymous for all of us. Even if you are as bad as you imagine you are, as broken and full of past and current mistakes, you are still forgivable and lovable.
I myself am a selfish and self-centered, angry little human, and yet I am capable of forgiving: forgiving you, forgiving other people, and working slowly on forgiving myself. I am not particularly talented at forgiving even so. How much more-so is a God who specifically created you? Who delighted and delights in all the fantastic interworkings of your brain? Who sees you as creative and wonderful and sometimes too smart for your own good. Who sees all your good and pays so much less attention to your bad than you do. How much more so.
I see many instances of grace in your life, just from an observer’s perspective. I see it in the room your children have gladly made for you in their lives -space that was not obligatory nor always deserved, but somehow lovingly given. I see it in the great gifts of creativity and intellect you have been given, in your innate desire to share that with others. I see God’s loving handiwork in the childlike joy you find in creation and discovery. I see grace in the depth of all the years you have been given, though they may feel too few.
Grandpa, for me, the only way that I can reconcile my existence in this world, my past and my present, the hurts and hurtings of others, and all the great beauty and great ugliness in the world, is in the dynamic of a very loving God and an extremely gracious savior. There are many things I want you to die believing. That you are loved. That you were purposed and beloved. And not just by us human-folk. I want you to see that forgiveness is bigger and wider than you can understand. That you hold so much more tightly to your mistakes and shortcomings than anyone else does. That even the worst things we have thought to do are forgivable. That in this life we are offered the beautiful gift of redemption. That our broken pieces do not have to remain jagged fragments.
Even in your brokenness, you have given me so much.