Three words. After 97 years and 11 months on this earth my final living grandparent transitioned from living to memory in the space of three words. Seventeen letters. One simple text.
The news wasn't shocking - common sense dictates we brace ourselves for that message whenever a soul slides past it's eightieth year. This soul, however, had been so strong for so many of those post-eighty years it was wondered if this message would ever be needed. But circumstances changed within the last twelve months. Her body began to tire. Her mind, that observant and thoughtful mind, suffered a stroke. The sharpest, most eloquent speaker in the family was reduced to confusion and frustration in even the smallest conversations. Two nights ago she became unresponsive and wasn't expected to see another sunrise; those three words began floating through many minds prior to today in preparation for what was known to be near.
And so, with those three words spoken, all of my grandparents are gone. Being the oldest child of two oldest children has mathematically given me an advantage most folks don't have with regards to grandparents - 45 years of having at least one of them in my life. I lost my first, my paternal grandmother, when I was ten. Didn't bury another, my mom's dad, until I was 34. My dad's dad left us six years ago, and now the mom of my mom, reaching the highest age of them all, has settled into one final sleep from which she will never return.
If we assign the people in our lives to different layers, both generationally and intimately, grandparents hold a very unique position: far away from us in age, often extremely close in our relationships with them. Too soon these people we feel so strongly for leave us, too soon we lose an entire layer of the people who fill our lives with, well, life. I have been lucky; my grandparent layer has been in play far longer than most. For 45 years I could see life beyond my parents, know there was time aplenty for us all since grandmas and grandpas were still around. I had grandparents alive for my graduations, my wedding, for the births of my children. Forty-five times I received a birthday card from a grandparent; forty-five Christmases included "grandma" on the shopping list.
But that layer vanished with three words, words accompanied by, ugh, emotions. Life's milestones are accompanied by standard feelings; a new baby brings joy. Birthdays - more joy. Relief and excitement take the stage at a graduation. Weddings and regret go hand in hand. But death....there's nothing standard about death. The emotions of death vary wildly, driven by the variables of timing and those layers. The timing of this grandparent's passing drew no emotion; she lived a strong life, a lengthy life, and her time had simply come. The emotion of this day comes from watching the last of her layer exit my life, leaving behind a deep longing and sense of mortality.
Grandparents are the bridge to our youth. Which relatives are more special to young kids than grampa and gramma? As we age and they age we start to lose that little kid giddiness that came with a trip to grandma's house, but we never lose the memories of those times. Not only did I get to spend many, many years with grandparents in my life, I spent most of my childhood years living in their neighborhood. Fishing trips, ball games, putting up hay, mowing their lawn, reading the morning paper, deer hunting, berry picking....there are hardly any memories from my pre-teen and teenage years that don't involve my grandparents. Even though it's been a very long time since I've made any such memories with a grandparent, when those three words popped onto my screen I felt more so that my childhood officially died than did a human.....and I longed, I ached, to have some of those days back, or to go back to those days and stuff in a few more grandparent adventures.
Finally, mortality. Having the grandparent layer intact is a pretty strong buffer against thoughts of losing one's parents. As the grandparents erode, so too does the "protection" against the deaths of parents. Now that all four of my grandparents are gone how do my sisters and I not face the reality that our parents are next? And after them........
Today was the final time I was a grandson. Tomorrow I walk out the door with an entire group of the most important people in my life gone. But I'll still be a dad, still be a son, and still have work to do with the days I have left to live. As I go forward through these days I will carry with me the gifts my grandparents have given me - a refusal to accept the verdict of others, the stubbornness to stick to my guns, the confidence to tell it like it is, and an eye to notice what others cannot. I had four uniquely special people as grandparents and I had dozens and dozens of years to spend with them. They may be gone, but the lifetime of memories they've given to me will be with me always.