A false alarm puts a family relationship into perspective.
Today my bubbi called me while I was eating lunch. I immediately asked if I could call her back in a few hours once class and work were done–she said that would be fine, but it had to be before eight that night because she had to attend a funeral. Before I could ask the obvious question, she said she had a favor to ask me later for when I called back and then hung up. It wasn’t until then that I made the connection. I recently found out this past winter that my grandfather on my dad’s side was very ill and likely would not survive the year. His lungs were failing him and he was too old and had maintained too unhealthy of a lifestyle to merit a transplant from a donor. My grandmother hung up the phone and my stomach dropped.
Of all my grandparents, my dad’s father has been the most distant – not for lack of trying, he just never seemed to know how to act around the rest of the family, especially the kids. He was always loving, but in that uneven kind of way where he can only make sarcastic, uncomfortable remarks at a Thanksgiving get-together,or ask how school was and then have nothing else to talk about. Some of my earliest memories involve meeting my dad’s parents for the first time and being terrified that they’d be literal monsters.
He quickly showed that he was just as human as the few other humans I knew intimately at the time of being three or so, but beyond that, our main interactions were few and far between. As his marriage fell apart with my grandmother due to infidelity, we grew more and more distant until we maybe spoke once a year around the holidays, and maybe saw one another every five years–three if we were lucky.
My grandmother hung up the phone and my stomach sank. I had only been told about his failing condition less than a month or two ago, and it hadn’t quite sunk in yet. I knew in the back of my mind I should call him and talk while I still had the chance, but I had been so busy with school and other things that it had always been pushed out of mind. My grandfather (Pop-Pop, as we call him) always seemed socially uneasy but intelligently sharp. I was never old enough to discuss matters with him that interested him, and it was only this past summer that he and I had a real conversation about something other than typical “how’s school/how’s work” small talk.
My whole life I had trouble seeing myself in him – my mother’s father died when I was young (who was also distant due to infidelity within the marriage) and her loving stepfather bears no blood relation with me; I could never quite see myself in Pop-Pop, but when they sat together I could see my father in him, and I could see myself in my father, so I knew that somewhere, this distant man was my own and I was his. As soon as my grandmother hung up the phone my first impulse was to call him. Regret and shame immediately followed.
I gave my dad a message to call me when he was off work so I could talk to him – I felt I should call him and make sure he was okay before I called my grandmother back. For about an hour I struggled with the prospect of talking to my father about the subject, who I knew had a complicated relationship with his own father. When I finally got in touch, I asked him how he was holding up. He asked why would I ask such a thing. Feeling a familiar sense of dread, I explained what his mother had told me over the phone. He gave an uncomfortable laugh and explained that his father was in fact still alive and that I shouldn’t worry – Bubbi had just been too careless with her choice in wording. After muttering several strings of expletives, I assured my dad that I was alright and that I’d talk to him later.
My immediate reaction was to call Pop-Pop, and then Bubbi, and then both of my mother’s parents. Pop-Pop is still sick, and I will have to confront this again likely in the coming year, but I can’t help but feel that horrible sense of pain I felt during that hour ended up being valuable–it reminded me how important it is for me to have a relationship with my grandparents, or my family as a whole, while I still can. I felt a deep shame that for my entire life, I had expected my grandfather, as the adult and role model, to reach out to me and show me the same affection I had come to expect from my other relatives. It only dawned on me today that perhaps it was my responsibility to make sure he also felt loved by his grandchildren, and I feel a deep shame that I only now came to realize this so late. Emotionally, I pretty much was everywhere at once in the span of an hour or two, and honestly I’m still feeling pretty funky.
Call your grandparents, or any family member, and remind them that you love them while you still can. I can think of no greater shame than realizing it may be too late to say “I love you” to someone who may desperately need to hear it. As awful as that emotional roller coaster was, I am thankful that I was reminded of how fragile and important that connection is.
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