The last time I ever saw my grandfather was June 21, 2015. On that day, Father’s Day, he and I sat in his bedroom, which overlooked the lush, if overgrown, front lawn. My dad, driving a brand new tractor he had bought for my grandparents to reduce the time it took to cut the grass, rode up and down the lawn as my grandfather and I watched. Between bites of my grandmother’s signature lasagna, he and I discussed my upcoming freshman year at Georgetown. I told him all of my far-fetched, overly-ambitious plans: managing for the basketball team, joining Blue and Gray, and eventually going to law school to become a sports agent.
As we ate and talked, I was reminded of the countless meals we had eaten together at various hospital and rehabilitation facilities over the last eight years. In 2008, on the day my sister graduated from high school, he suffered a severe stroke as we left the gymnasium. His right side was paralyzed, and a full recovery was improbable.
That summer, my brother, mom, grandmother, and I spent every day at Shady Grove Hospital rehabilitation centers, eating at least one meal per day with my wheelchair-bound grandfather. I remember the cafeteria assistants bringing the drink cart around and watching him debate aloud what juice he would have that day. No matter if the meal was spaghetti, meatloaf, or chicken pot pie, he almost always chose cranberry — the most vile of juices, in my 17 year-old self’s opinion. My brother and I quietly ate our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches while my grandfather cracked jokes, making us smile and laugh. We welcomed any distracting gesture.
Nothing was going to stop him from realizing his goal of regaining mobility — no amount of soreness, no difficult therapy, no level of emotional unease. He was steadfast in his pursuit, and I was amazed at the pace of his recovery. In what felt like days — in reality, months — he was able to get himself out of chairs with little assistance and walk with a cane. Not long after, he was walking without his cane, albeit slowly, but it was far more than any of us had ever expected.
Throughout his arduous journey, he remained steadfast in his devotion to God. He was convinced that he would be naturally healed by the Lord, and that he could take on anything that came his way. As the problems began adding up, he was certainly discouraged, but, so far as I know, he was always committed to the idea of an omnipotent, merciful God.
He lived with my family immediately following his release. I distinctly remember coming home from school each day to find him napping on the couch, which forced me to open the creaky microwave painfully slowly so that I could cook my Hot Pockets without disturbing his rest. I enjoyed this time, and will forever remember the smile he had on his face at the breakfast table every morning.
Not long after moving back to his own home, a series of falls forced him to return to rehab. Again, he worked incredibly hard to regain mobility, but was never able to return to his initial post-stroke levels of independence. After a host of minor ailments, he suffered a heart attack in November 2014. I remember every detail of the night we found out; the phone call, my dad sprinting to his truck, my incessant tears. He survived and was well enough to celebrate Christmas with us in the rehab facility before eventually returning home once more.
Six months later, on June 24, 2015, he passed away. There would be no more cranberry juice, no more joking, no more hugging, and no more running upstairs to see him when we visited his house.
After seeing him work so strenuously for his own health just to be repeatedly knocked down, I became staunchly atheist. While he died steadfast in faith, I hated whatever god he was asking for help. I hated the very idea of an all-powerful, all-good deity. If that truly existed, how could my grandfather — the man most deserving of a peaceful and enjoyable retirement — be reduced to requiring constant trips to the hospital? I wasn’t mad at my grandfather for believing in the power of a god; in fact, I admired the strength of his unabating love. I was, however, absolutely furious with the deity he prayed to.
His death intensified this antagonism. Not only did I not believe in this conception of God, but I was sure that there is no afterlife of any kind — no heaven, no hell, nothing but darkness. Consistent with my typical line of thinking, which deals in absolutes, I believed he was permanently gone and that there was no chance I would ever connect with him again.
I have harbored these feelings for more than two years, and it has rendered me vulnerable to even the slightest mention of my grandfather. The smallest thought of him can throw my entire day off, as I tumble into existential crisis. I have carefully monitored myself from the moment he passed, ensuring that I never fully opened myself up to any one person. I have feared this same level of pain will one day revisit me. I once thought I couldn’t live without my grandfather.
I miss him dearly, but I can’t live with this paralyzing hatred any longer.
He completely embraced love every moment he was alive. For me to embrace the opposite is unproductive and disappointing. So, I am letting my former mindset go in the hopes of once again connecting with him.
This is not to say that I suddenly believe in an omnipotent and benevolent God, or any other rendering of God. I don’t need to; I simply need to overcome my unbounded hate for that which was so important to my grandfather. I can appreciate this God for providing him with a constant source of comfort outside of his family throughout his journey.
Thinking back to my final hour with my grandfather, the clearest memory I have is him crying as we watched my dad mow the lawn. He told me how beautiful the lawn looked and how much he loved his home, his son, my brother, my grandmother, my mother, and me. He was overcome with emotion in the moment — to him, perhaps, it was a final sign from God. This is the type of love that defined his relationship with God and with me. By bridging the gap between his God and myself, I hope that I can properly remember my grandfather for whom he was: the strongest and most kind-hearted man I will ever meet.
I love you, Grampy, and, although it will take time, I hope to eventually embody the strength and love you represented.