By Stef Coleman
My daughter shrieks and I look out the window. Her grandfather has her lifted over the pool and she’s beaming, her face split by the widest grin, the kind only a kid can manage. He throws her high, high in the air and she splashes into the pool with another shriek. She doggy-paddles, giggling as he rotates his left shoulder and winces. Then he throws her again. She thinks the world of him, confident he’ll be around forever, but I see the thinning gray hair and the sore muscles, and my heart clutches.
Every Moment Had Meaning
Two decades earlier, I was the little girl with her grandfather. When I slept at my grandparents’ house, each morning I’d throw the covers off to race out of the bedroom to be the first at Papa’s side. I’d skid on white tile into the kitchen where my dad’s dad, Papa, read the newspaper. It’d crinkle as he set it down.
“In a hurry?” His deep voice was scratchy with age and what I’d learn was decades of cigar smoking in the military, but to 8-year-old me, it was his voice.
“Am I first?” I asked breathlessly.
In response he held out his hand and I shook it heartily. I pulled back and pocketed my new $5 bill. He’d pour a bowl of sugary cereal with a generous helping of chocolate syrup, because that’s what grandfathers are for. Well, that and $5 each morning.
Papa couldn’t move well toward the end of my time in elementary school and he was sick constantly. First small colds then larger ones then emphysema then heart conditions and finally lung cancer. Going to their house in Florida meant a lot of watching movies and eating spaghetti. We were static but happy to be static.
If my sister and I were good we’d get ice cream—chocolate or vanilla, with chocolate syrup or without. I followed Papa’s example of chocolate ice cream warmed up in the microwave until it was a cool, delicious soup. Drizzle chocolate syrup over it, and I’d pour that sucker directly into my mouth, something I wasn’t allowed to do at home.
Papa’s chocolate ice cream was a ritual. Movies together a treasure. His spaghetti sauce homemade. His lasagna delicious. He made sure every moment had meaning.
“Don’t do in 10 what 20 will make perfect,” he’d tell me.
I held onto it like a gem. He died from a heart attack before I was in seventh grade. My grandmother didn’t want to have a funeral, and that gnawed like a toothache for years. He was mine, and I didn’t get to say goodbye.
Good But Hard Advice
Another city, another morning, another beloved grandfather. I was 10. I woke to the sound of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes rattling into bowls. One bowl for each of us—my mom’s mom Dede, my grandfather Daddy Jim, my sister, and me. We’d watch the Braves play on TV because it was a summer Saturday in the 1990s and the Braves were smoking hot. At home we’d normally watch some cartoons, play outside until we were bored, then sleep. But here we watched the mathematical precision of baseball on their tube TV while my grandparents pretended we were older and wiser than we were. We popped Cokes like pros and guzzled them down, the bubbles making us giggle and cough.
“Want to go for a walk?” Daddy Jim asked.
I jumped up, my sister stayed; she was Dede’s girl. But I was Daddy Jim’s through and through. We walked around their neatly organized retirement community. Georgia’s sweaty humidity sopped my T-shirt instantly. I skipped beside his lumbering steps, more steady since the double-knee replacement surgery last year.
“What are you reading?” he asked.
A burst of pride surged through me. That was an adult question. “Lord of the Rings,” I said, conscious of how much he loved that series.
A smile crinkled Daddy Jim’s eyes and mouth. “Good taste.” We walked in silence until he pointed out a woodpecker then a swallow. “How have you helped your parents this week?”
A harder question. Still an adult question, but more difficult because I hadn’t. Not really. I’d done the bare minimum. It wasn’t like I was a bad kid; I listened (most of the time), obeyed (most of the time), and could be counted on to volunteer to help (if there wasn’t a good book waiting for me).
“Selfishness isn’t love,” he said as he pulled the screen door open. “Love serves, even when Frodo and company are waiting.”
His advice was good, if hard, because that’s what grandfathers are for. Later we’d go to the park and swing so high our feet brushed the clouds.
After I graduated college, Daddy Jim was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. We were shocked then dismayed. It progressed quickly, ravaging his mind until it was pitted with memory loss. He struggled to find names, and we struggled to hide how we ached for him. It was a cruel disease. It stole his mind while his body lived on. Finally he gave up and grew frail and weak in body to match his mind. When he died I was living in Germany. This time I jettisoned everything and flew home for the funeral to deliver my eulogy.
Two more different men there couldn’t have been—the career military man and the lifelong preacher—but they both loved me. Having two such grandfathers was a double blessing, an extra heaping of love when most people are only doled out one. Or none. My husband didn’t know his grandfathers, and when I talk about the impact of mine, he can only smile and nod. He wants to understand, but there was no one to teach him how to cast a good fishing line or to take his time on everyday tasks or who’d spend lazy Saturdays together and treat him like an adult with questions about reading and selfishness. It’s a gap in his life while mine overflowed.
Papa and Daddy Jim’s lives follow me. They’re the voices that whisper to put down the book and pick up a moving box for a friend. When I’m tempted to do something quickly instead of perfectly, I hear them. Every time I have chocolate ice cream, I’m tempted to microwave it into soup, and when I watch baseball I want a Coke. I hope their memory will cover my whole life.
Now I have a 5-year-old daughter. She’s a bouncing ball of life. And she has two grandfathers who dote on her and love her. It’s a joy to watch her sunbeam personality soak in their rays. When I watch them my heart overflows. This joy can overwhelm me, but I see the shadow side, the loss on the horizon. It might be another decade or even two, but it’ll come. I can only hope they’ve had enough time for their impact to be lifelong. They have their own lessons, the things that will fill her life in love and wisdom while she lights theirs in joy. Their depth and truth will change her, and I get the privilege of watching it happen. For I know that when they’re slipping her chocolate or tossing her in the pool, they’re teaching her much more than that.
They’re teaching her how to live.
Stef Coleman has a Masters of Divinity from Emmanuel Christian Seminary and works as Small Groups Director of Community Christian Church in Chicago, Illinois.