Last Memorial Day weekend, 19 of my Jewish relatives gathered in Florida to celebrate two major life cycle events: my grandma’s 80th birthday and my grandparents’ 61st wedding anniversary. We went to Friday night services. We ate Chinese food. We played the longest, most competitive game of Uno ever (I won, of course). We ate cake. Those of us from the Midwest did our best to catch up with the perfect tans of our Floridian cousins. We sat in the hot tub.
And I experienced a mess of emotions: happiness, sadness, guilt, calmness, anxiety… the list could go on.
Surprising my grandma by showing up to her synagogue for Friday night services was great fun, but something felt out of place. The fancy birthday dinner we had for my grandma and her closest friends was a wonderful celebration, but we couldn’t help but notice my grandpa’s absence. For the first time, he wasn’t well enough to leave the nursing home to attend the celebrations.
The only time we were all together was when we crowded into his small room at the nursing home with a happy anniversary cake, but it didn’t feel so much like a party. On the surface, the weekend was about celebrating major events but, for me, it was also about facing the reality of watching the people we love grow older.
I tend to brush off thoughts of death and loss because they make me feel uncomfortable, but that hour in my grandpa’s room brought the subjects to the forefront of my mind in a way I hadn’t prepared for. I thought maybe it was time to finally sit down and think about them.
I realized then that I don’t know what I think about death and dying, or even how to think about those topics in a constructive way. It is so much easier to simply change the subject—in a conversation with others or just in your head. On the last night of the weekend, while hanging out in the hot tub, my cousins and I quickly transitioned from talking about how depressing our nursing home visit was to the many happy memories we have of our grandparents.
Some of us remembered visiting their home in Racine—where we tried not to get caught in the forbidden living room, ran past the super scary clown painting, watched The Wizard of Oz way too many times and ate the extra pumpkin pie that Grandpa snuck us every Thanksgiving. We remembered who got what color dress from our grandparents’ trip to Hawaii (I got purple), the way that Grandpa said, “Good morning!” to everyone no matter what time of day it was and how cool it was to say that our grandpa worked at a candy shop five minutes away from Sea World.
I had (and still have) mixed emotions reminiscing about someone who is still with us—especially because my grandpa’s exuberance and playfulness shone through during our visit with him. Despite having trouble moving around and communicating clearly, he immediately told my brother to “Sit down!” when we arrived, greeted one cousin with a “Good morning!” (it was the afternoon), and even joked around, answering “too long” when asked if he knew how long he had been married.
I wish I could wrap up all these thoughts with a shiny pink bow, a little humor and some pearls of wisdom. But this is just the beginning of a long process and I have much to figure out about what I think on death and dying. While I am more open to these thoughts than I used to be, I know figuring it out won’t be a quick or linear process. I’m sure I will continue to have mixed emotions and moments when I want to change the subject.
That weekend in Florida reinforced how important family can be in that process and just how much an individual can live on through the people who love him. I know that parts of our grandpa’s personality and optimism will live on within all of us cousins and all I can say for now is: Good morning, friend.