A Lesson On Love From My Grandfather

by Kristen Mae
Originally Published: 
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My grandmother was short, chubby and meek. She had a squeaky voice like the little grandma in Looney Tunes, and her favorite things to do were watch soap operas, line up a thousand treats for her fat little dog and chain smoke. When you told her something interesting, instead of saying “Really?” she would say, “Oh?”

My memories of my grandmother contrast greatly with the stories my mother tells of a fresh-faced firecracker, who, during frigid Michigan winters, smuggled moonshine back and forth for her dad under a long trench coat, since nobody would suspect a 12-year-old girl of committing such a crime. She even met Al Capone and shook his hand.

As a teenager, she played guitar and sang in bars to bring in extra money for her family. Later, when family gathered at her and my grandfather’s Miami home, everyone would sit poolside and listen to my grandparents sing while my grandmother played guitar.

She was not one to put up with anybody’s crap. Once, her much-taller-than-she-was adult son said some crude thing to her, and she knocked him right on his ass and reminded him who his mama was. But she was different with my grandfather. When he spoke to her harshly, she took it with a changeless, placid expression. I always wondered why she didn’t tell him to go to hell. My grandfather was a rough sort, an opinionated type who frustrated easily, drank too much and wanted his hot dinner on the table every night at 6. He wasn’t all bad, though. I have fond memories of him teaching my sister and I the old “Where’d my finger go?!” trick and of him popping his dentures out to make us squeal with laughter.

My grandmother quit smoking in her 60s—too late, since she still developed lung cancer 10 years later. My grandfather, after decades of treating her roughly and now faced with losing her, suddenly realized how much my grandmother meant to him. He wanted to care for her, but since he’d never really cared for anyone before, he was unpracticed as to how to do it.

As my grandmother battled her illness, the telephone became one of her few remaining enjoyments. Since my grandfather was gone much of the time and not much of a communicator even when present, my grandmother used the phone to feel connected to her loved ones—to humanity, to life—even as death pulled her further and further from all of it. The phone was, quite literally, her lifeline. But as the radiation and chemotherapy poisoned her, my grandmother became too weak to hold the phone up to her ear. She became depressed and inconsolable.

Then, something astonishing happened. My rough and tough grandfather, of his own volition, bought my grandmother a gift: a portable headset so that she could still talk on the phone without having to hold it up. He was so proud of himself for having done something so thoughtful. He’d stepped way over the boundaries of what was normal and comfortable for him.

Sadly, my grandmother’s health rapidly declined. She became too ill even to talk on the phone, and the new headset was never opened. She died before she got a chance to try it out.

In spite of always having thought of my grandfather as a gruff, unemotional sort, watching him waste away in the months following my grandmother’s death was the most heartbreaking testament to love that I have ever witnessed.

My grandfather was certainly not one to offer up sage words of wisdom, but I nevertheless learned from him the importance of expressing love and gratitude in the now. Sometimes “now” is over before you expect it to be. Sometimes “later” and “tomorrow” simply do not exist.

Because of my grandfather’s heartbreak, I feel a deep sense of obligation to tell my loved ones what they mean to me now. Perhaps it’s a morbid thing to ask yourself, “If this were the last time you saw a person, would they know what they meant to you?” But I don’t care—I’ll ask it anyway. If I love you, I’ll smash my adoration in your face. I’ll make the both of us blushed and uncomfortable if I have to.

I don’t ever want to be left crying over an unopened package of headphones.

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