Four years ago

I got up and went to work at my new job. It was only my second week there and I was still learning how to do everything, impatient to get the first few weeks finished so I could start feeling somewhat competent. I was still working the part-time retail job I’d had while in college and would be for the next week. So, at 4:00 I punched out and drove from the northern suburbs to the Mall of America to put in another 6 hour shift. Or so I thought.

I had only been at work for maybe an hour, when I was told the phone was for me. It was my sister, and she was crying. I thought at first that she had had a fight with her boyfriend or our parents or something. She told me our grandpa (our mom’s dad) had died. It took me a minute to even comprehend what she was saying, and I remember being confused, thinking, but he’s too young to die. My mom’s parents were the “younger” set of grandparents, barely in their seventies, and with no real health problems. I had always, always expected to lose my dad’s parents first.

I completely went into shock. I told my coworker what happened and that I had to leave. I know there were tears in my eyes but I didn’t actually start crying until I had just about reached the doors to the skyway, at which point, I lost it. I think it took about that long for it to really even start to sink in. I got in my car, somehow made it to my parents house, just in time to get in my brother’s car with my three sisters and drive to my grandparents house. It was the worst drive of my life. No one spoke, because there are no words. Just a raw, burning hole that can’t be comprehended.

My grandpa,you see, was active and healthy. He had been at our family cabin that morning repairing the roof. When he died, he was out hiking with one of his best friends, a priest. He suffered a massive heart attack. His friend, along with a girl who was at the park, attempted CPR but it was too late.

I don’t remember a lot about that night, but certain details still stick in my mind. I can remember exactly what I was wearing. I can remember getting to my grandma’s and feeling like I had been punched in the stomach all over again when I saw my mom and my grandma. I had never seen that look on either of their faces and I hope I never have to again. I remember my (extremely pregnant) aunt arriving, sobbing, absolutely devastated that my grandpa would never meet the baby–her first child–that was so close to arriving. It was two days before my grandma’s birthday.

My mom’s family is huge, and almost everyone made it to town that night. But what do you say? You want everyone near, but at the same time, the grief is magnified a thousand times back at you, and you want to run away from it. You know what everyone is feeling, but you can do nothing to eliminate it, and it hurts you to see the ones you love in such pain.

At some point, I ended up in my grandpa’s workroom in the basement, curled up under the desk like a child hiding from a nightmare. I couldn’t stop crying. I thought I would run out of tears but I didn’t. Somehow one by one, the 4 of my siblings who were there ended up in the room as well. We sat there, crying and talking and being together.

When we left that night, my eyes were so swollen I could barely see. I didn’t get a lot of sleep, up before 5 the next morning to go for a run. No music. Just run and run and try not to think but running itself always makes me think of my grandpa, even though we never had the chance to run together. I ran across the bridge toward downtown Saint Paul, which also made me think of him–he worked for MNDOT his entire career and worked on numerous bridges around the cities. At this point, I was going utterly numb.

We made it through the next few days, because that’s all you can do. You find a task, focus on completing it, and spend as much time as possible just being with everyone. At the funeral, over a thousand people attended and it had to be moved from my grandparent’s church just to hold everyone. I still couldn’t grasp that it was real. Couldn’t believe that it was truly over and done. At times, I still can’t.

As time has gone on, it no longer hurts every day, but still, it hurts. My grandpa was my hero. When my relationship with my dad was on rocky ground, I planned that my grandpa would walk me down the aisle at my wedding; it never occurred to me that he wouldn’t see it at all. He was a man of integrity. He loved people, and gave effortlessly. I know he wasn’t perfect, but to me, he was as close as any human can be. It is one of the greatest regrets of my life that he was never able to know the man I love with all my heart.

Somehow, though, life goes on. And there are still days, four years later, when grief hits like a sucker punch and I feel like I’m thrown back into time to the 22 year old reduced to a child under the desk. But mostly, I remember how loving he was. How humble he was. How genuine. And I try to be those things as well. Sometimes I wonder if my life would be different if he were still alive, because I can’t tell how much of the changes that began to happen in my life were because I changed as a result of his death. I’ll never know that. But I try to honor his memory by emulating the values he held. And to find joy in the memories and reminders of him (one of which I see every day when I look in the mirror–I’m the only one of my extended family to inherit his strawberry blond hair). I find pleasure in the things that he taught me to love, particularly nature. Maybe that’s why I love being in the woods or on the water so much–it makes me feel closer to him.

I miss you Grandpa, especially today. I wish I could ask you the things it didn’t occur to me to ask as a child. I wish I could hug you one more time or listen to you humming in the kitchen. I hope you would be proud of me. Thanks for teaching me what love and generosity and acceptance mean. Thank you for being someone that I can look up to. I will always miss you and love you.

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