Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Three Words

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.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Again, Losers

Tonight was the ninth time the Minnesota Vikings have played in an NFC Championship football game.  I have been alive for all nine of those games, though the first four occurred before I was old enough to understand what a football was, let alone know what the heck "Skol!" meant.....hang on, I still don't know what the heck "Skol!" means.  So, disregarding the four championships played in the 70's, tonight's game became the fifth winner-goes-to-the-Super Bowl contest I've watched the Vikings play in.  And once again, the purple were pummeled.

For the last couple of weeks I've heard and read various Minnesota sports media "experts" detail how this Vikings team was different than all the others.  How this team was built to succeed in the playoffs.  This team didn't have the weaknesses those "other teams" had.  This team had more to play for than the Vikings teams who weren't playing for a chance to be in the Super Bowl at their home stadium.  And on.  And on.  And on.  In the end, here's the one big takeaway from tonight's game, this team, and this professional football franchise:  When it comes to the Vikings, there is never anything different.

In '87, the first gut-wrenching Vikings loss I have memory of, they lost to Washington when Darrin Nelson decided to pad his defensive stats by batting down a sure touchdown pass to Anthony Carter as time expired in a 17-10 loss.  Unfortunately Nelson was the Vikings' running back, and his deflection was actually an attempt to catch a pass that was intended for his teammate Carter.  At that time it had been barely a decade since the Vikes had been to a Super Bowl.  I was in my early teens, and while I was crushed by the loss I anticipated it would be only a matter of time before The Purple did make it back to the biggest game.

The "matter of time" has become three more decades.  Along the way I've seen Gary Anderson miss his only field goal of the season in '98 to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory against Atlanta in that season's NFC Championship.  In 2000 it was the 41-0 shellacking at Giants' stadium - now known as the 41-donut game - in which nothing heartbreaking occurred for once.....but geez, 41-0!  The '09 Championship game made up for 2000's lack of heartbreak with (take your pick of which one hurt the most) Adrian Peterson's fumbles, Brett Favre's interception, and the 12-men-in-the-huddle penalty.  In a game lost in overtime.  To the team that easily won the Super Bowl.

And then there was tonight.  Team-Without-A-Weakness jumped to a quick 7-0 lead.  The opposition, Philadelphia, entered the game as the underdog with a backup quarterback.  A tough defense but a questionable offense.  Again, this was the year things would be different for the Minnesota Vikings.  It certainly was different: no overtime, no missed field goals, no shutout, and no dropped pass at the end.  Instead, this loss was a beatdown, similar to the 41-donut game but hey - we scored!  Once.  And then watched Philly hang 38 straight points on the vaunted Purple defense.  And once again Vikings fans everywhere turn their attention away from the Super Bowl and towards next season.

But as fans look ahead to next year, they would do well to remember - next year will be no different.  You young Vikings fans must start to understand this RIGHT NOW!  The narrative of life as a Vikings fan does. not. change.  Ever.  The snippets of defeat I've mentioned here are just the tip of the sinkhole that is Vikings' history.  The Walsh shanked field goal.  The Arizona touchdown.  The Pearson push-off.  The Steckel season.  The pain and heartache and embarrassment run deep.

Which is why tonight's loss has bothered me the least of all the losses.  I've stopped caring.  I've learned my lesson and stopped building up hope, stopped thinking about "what ifs", and stopped hemorrhaging purple blood every time something bad happens to the Minnesota Vikings.  Different players, different coaches, different stadiums - same results.  It took many, many years, and far too many defeats, but I've learned my lesson.  The day may indeed come when the Vikings reach the Super Bowl, but I've stopped wasting my life thinking it will.

Do yourself a favor, all you Skol chanters, and pour your passion into something different.  'Cause different is something the Vikings never are.