Last week I discovered that my grandfather had given my family one final gift. My aunt has been settling his estate, and despite the many outflows that accumulated over the years, there was enough left in my grandfather’s estate to patch a few roofs, repair a few cars, and replace lost furniture (or a rug), kindnesses spread across the lives of my siblings and their families. My grandfather died just after August ended this year, in the drug-induced stupefaction that American hospice workers seem to favor (we didn’t get the call that he was terminally declining until they had already knocked him out with lorazepam and morphine). In the haziness of his last week or two, there were two overarching themes in his conversations with my aunt. He worried that he had not lived up to his family name (he was the son of a mid-twentieth-century church leader), and he worried about his namesake son, my father.
Hearing that those two worries crowded out all others broke my heart. My grandfather never amounted to much in his own eyes. He and his wife lost three children to premature death; he nurtured his wife through a frustrated decline over several years before she finally died. It never seemed to me that he felt that he could please her in those latter years. He was a professor but felt that being a professor of education was not sufficiently impressive (he had been a pilot until his wife forced him to take safer work). He was a humorist and hoped to be a novelist but felt uncertain that his work had merit.
Yet when we needed something he was always there. He performed the priesthood ordinances for me that my father could not. He gave me the patriarchal blessing that I used to guide my decisions about education and professional training. He took our family out to eat whenever he came to visit, perhaps the only times our family went to a restaurant for the several years of our deepest poverty. He supported our education, rooted for us in all our endeavors, and always wanted the best for us. However corny his puns or strange his love for palindromes, we never doubted that our grandfather cared about us.
Most importantly he served my father. Constantly, unfailingly, and without regard for his retirement savings, his comfort, or his convenience. My grandmother resented the amount of time and money my grandfather spent trying to save my father. Without my grandfather, though, my father would almost certainly have been homeless. I have tried to understand why I would be so sad at my grandfather’s passing–he was well past 80 and had felt ready to go for some time. I think I have realized that my grandfather was the last remnant of my father, that in his occasional paternal pinch-hitting and his consistent love for his son, he represented what was beautiful and gentle and admirable about my dad.
As I reflect on this monetary gift, this posthumous desire to ease the lives of his progeny, I remember the retired education professor who drove many hours in a boat-shaped Crown Victoria to tend to his failing son, the man who paid bills, cleaned up apartments, picked up pieces of anything and everything, and provided amiable companionship to his emotionally devastated and physically ravaged boy. I remember the man who loved to cradle my children in his lap and expressed absolute delight at their attention, the man who let my oldest drive his motorized wheelchair until she crashed into a dinner table at the rest home, then laughed.
I also remember his eulogy for my father two decades ago, hopeful, loving, and honest. Aware of his failings and his strengths, my grandfather blessed his son and his memory, then closed with Shakespeare’s farewell to the troubled Danish prince, “Good-night, sweet prince; And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” Sometimes that phrase, my grandfather’s voice trembling with an equal mixture of love and sadness, is how I remember my father most clearly.
I am writing this post because I want my grandfather to know that however little he valued his own gifts, he saved his son. He pursued the one lost sheep, and no matter how often he yearned for the adulation of the ninety and nine, my grandfather’s commitment to his son meant that there was at least one person in my father’s life who always loved him, unconditionally.
As my grandfather lay in death’s agony, I thought about Jonathan Stapley’s work on deathbed blessings in middle Mormonism, about my recent exposure to informal practices unofficially sanctioned by certain church leaders suggesting that “blessings of release” were still appropriate even if “sealing unto death” had been officially retired. I suggested to my uncle that we administer to my grandfather, and he and my aunt readily agreed. As I blessed my fitfully sleeping grandfather, I felt to bless him that God valued his sacrifice, that the Creator had trusted him to care for my father, and that he could return to the divine presence knowing that he had served faithfully, that however little the thronging crowds noticed his labors, God admired him, loved him, was proud to call him son.
My wife and I settled on a rug for our house, a fifteenth-century Egyptian design, more tribal than ornate, to replace a rug we lost a week before we got word of my grandfather’s gift. As I stare at the rug or run my bare foot over it, I think of my grandfather, his gentle hands and his sometimes troubled face, his careful and tender advice to me as I grew, his love of words and their habitats, and above all his love for his son and all the goodness that sprang from him. God bless you, Grandpa, for being the Savior on Mount Zion to your always yearning, often sad, ever troubled son. You were a good and faithful servant, and I honor you on this day of giving thanks.