Two of the items on my post-vaccine bucket list were “hug my grandpa” and “take my grandpa to church.” In April, the same week that I got my second Moderna shot, he fractured his hip and was hospitalized. He never fully recovered and passed away the last week in May, just a few days shy of his 90th birthday.
I am inclined to memorialize my grandfather at his best: to reflect fondly on my childhood memories of all-day trips to the Omaha zoo, sneaking off to get McDonald’s ice cream cones, eating entire boxes of Ritz crackers in one sitting, fitting both of my tiny feet into his enormous shoes, piggyback rides, and checkers games…
But that version of my grandpa died a long time ago, and I’ve been mourning him for years. The grandpa I knew for the past several years was a shell of his former self, hollowed out by dementia, PTSD, grief, and loss. I think I spent so much time missing the man he was, that I didn’t appreciate the parts of him that were still with us.
My grandpa, even in his shadow self, was a good man, a loving man. He cared about his family. He loved unconditionally. He did his best to stay connected to a world that was slipping away at an ever-increasing rate. On occasion, the stars and circumstances would align, and we’d get a glimpse of his former self. In our relationship, music sometimes served as that magical talisman that gave his old self a path back to our world . . .
~A few bars of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” sparked a conversation about his wild days busting a move at the local juke joint.
~An Elvis song on the radio led to a conversation about his time in the Korean War, and his father’s wartime experiences.
~A hymn at church would remind him of my late grandmother and he lovingly imitated her warbly, slightly off-key singing voice.
Since I am a musician, it may seem fitting that music served as a connector in our relationship, but in an ironic twist of fate, my obsession with music negatively impacted our bond. In the pre-COVID world, as I began to book more gigs, play more late-night Saturday shows, and schedule more Sunday rehearsals, I dedicated less time and energy to take my grandpa to church on Sundays. Attending church once every other week dwindled down to once a month, and then our attendance became so sporadic, members of our small Baptist church often mistook us for first-time visitors.
Church was my grandpa’s safe space. Every time I’d spoken to him on the phone for the past 4 years, he’d say, “If you’re going to church on Sunday, take me with you.” His requests continued all throughout 2020 and it was hard to explain over and over again why COVID-19 made that request impossible to fulfill.
Deep reflection during the past year made me realize that, once it was safe to do so, I needed to stop being selfish and take time to give my grandpa the one thing he asked for: a few hours a week in a safe, familiar sanctuary for the body, mind, and spirit.
Fate had different plans, but I take comfort knowing he is at peace in the house of the Lord forever.