Two years ago, my grandfather passed away. I rediscovered the below post, which I don’t remember writing, and found myself trying to re-learn the lessons he left.
Over the Thanksgiving break, I went back to California for a whole slew of events: a friend’s wedding, Thanksgiving, and my ten-year high school reunion.
I used to harbor a general dislike for my hometown, but in this trip I saw Southern California with new eyes. The city has grown more diverse, and my partner and I had an excellent time seeing family and friends.
The highlight, though, was Thanksgiving with my family. Between helping my aunt teach my mom’s family mahjong (a game I grew up playing with my friends in high school), and spending the evening looking through boxes of old photos with my dad’s side of the family, I was constantly immersed in the love of people who I knew, wherever I went, were a part of me.
In the past, I don’t think I was far enough removed to understand what it was to be away. When I first moved out to the island, my dad (who had lived in Mexico, away from home, for many years himself) warned me that moving away from what you thought was “home” is a painful, but important part of growing up.
I see now how right he was. Before, I was still wrestling with my own understanding of my place in the world, and I couldn’t appreciate the duality of a place being “home” and “not-home” all at once.
When you’re ready, though, going “home” has a way of resetting your equilibrium. It digs deep into your genetic makeup and lets you see the ridges and bubbles that formed in your bones when they were growing. The journey to and time spent there help you understand where you come from. It’s the only real way to understand where you are now.
So, my grandfather gave me another gift this winter and, in re-reading what I wrote a few years ago, reminded me to remember. When we seek new joy, we do so with the sacred wisdom gained by studying all the parts of you that are embedded deep down in old, weathered ways.
Memory is a funny thing.
My grandfather passed away last Sunday. It’s been pretty hard. After the all-too-soon death of my aunt this past April, ending 2013 with another passing is just a lot.
I haven’t known how to feel the past week.We were fortunate enough to know what was happening earlier in the week, so I was able to get on the phone with him and say goodbye while he was still really lucid. I’m really happy I got to hear him say my name one last time.
Still, while that is what makes me feel much better, it also ripped my heart in half. Like I wrote last April, I don’t handle grief with any consistency. One minute, I am ok– calm, even– and with the belief that things will inevitably be ok. The next, I am doubled-over, ugly-crying in pain and frustration and anger at the whole world. I had felt fine when I started writing this post, for example, but my grandmother called me while I was writing and I’ve spent the past 10 minutes sobbing, “pero, se extraño.”
“Yo sé, todos se extrañamos, pero voy a ser fuerte contigo.”
So there’s the woman who lost her husband, my abuela, comforting me. Love, it seems, is always fully of limitless strength and always surprising.
Anyway, while there is love and strength, with grief always comes all of its stages. The anger is the worst part (though, fortunately, the most fleeting). I don’t know what to do with it. I don’t know what exactly I’m angry at. I spent much of the past 6 years being incredibly angry at God, and I know that will probably get me nowhere. God is there for strength, love, tough questions, but when I want to rail at the unfairness of things, He has nothing but quiet patience and understanding– this is just the way things are, and His will or my confusion really aren’t the major players here.
Frankly, I was angry at the nature of life itself. By Wednesday of this past week, I was just mad at how fucking temporary it all is. At some point, everyone I love is going to leave. They’re either going to leave me or die. So why the fuck bother with anything?
Despite my faith, despite long nights of reading and prayer, despite a loving family and caring, understanding friends and coworkers, and PJ (who has been a saint in dealing with my pretty erratic mood swings that sometimes manifest as unnecessary anger at him before I start weeping, which is totally attractive), I hadn’t really shaken that question until today. If everything I love and enjoy is eventually going to end… this fucking sucks, I thought, and I’m mad I have to even be part of this charade. What’s even left? I angrily questioned God. If you are solitary, no one even knows you’re gone. If you had a lot of love, you just leave a lot of people really sad that you’re gone. WHAT IS THE POINT OF ALL OF THIS ANYWAY THEN?
Ya. I was in a place.
On the flight out here, I was randomly watching whatever short film Hawaiian Air puts on. I don’t remember what it was about, but as if God was answering my frustrations, this phrase stuck out (paraphrased):
There are some times when we go to a place and, we don’t know why, but it speaks to us. We know yes, this feels good. We don’t have to know why. When this happens, we call it “ancestral memory.” When you feel it, you know somewhere, one of your grandparents is telling you this is what you need.
She didn’t say “aunt” or “uncle” or anything else. As if meant for me, the quote hung there, letting me marvel at it for a second.
I don’t necessarily have a lot of specific memories of my grandfather. I mean, I DO, but everything in my family’s history is so weaved together it’s hard to tell what are my memories and what has been embellished with the shared stories of my parents, brother, aunts, uncles, and cousins. I know my grandfather made me laugh a lot. I remember, once, when he sat me down at my aunt’s dining room table and gave me a book of Mexican folklore and spoke to me about history. I don’t remember the specifics, but I remember the feeling of warmth and sanctity, of thinking this is an important moment for me to remember.
When I heard that quote, and in looking up photos when I got home, I realized that what I knew deep in my heart, in my DNA, in my ancestral memory, in my na’au, is that my grandfather loved me. He loved all of us, a lot. Even if the colors are faded in those experiences with him, the feeling of love, caring, joy– that always remains deeply embedded in us.
Appropriate, then, that this week is Gaudete Sunday, a day of seeking joy in our lives. It seems like it might be hard to find joy in this weekend, and it might– in the secular sense. Fr. Martin, S.J. though, recently published a great reminder about the Christian idea of joy:
Joy has an object and that object is God. The ultimate response to the good news is joy, one that is lasting and can endure even in the midst of difficulties.
While my grandfather is no longer with us, the lasting effect of his existence– the creation of my large, extended family, his thirst for knowledge, his quiet thoughtfulness, the fact that he is always present in my childhood memories when I think about “family,” and “love,”– that is the type of joy that lasts beyond the sadness of losing him. THAT is what we give to others by being here, despite our temporary existence in this form. The human connection to share love with others is transforming for those who give and those who receive.
So, perhaps that is my grandfather’s most recent gift to me. In his passing, he forced me to face the anger I’ve held onto all year and choose to let it go. He forced me to rip my heart open and grieve before using that pain as a reminder of how strong we all are. Now, he watches, and gives his wistful half-smile reminding me: Mija, no te preocupes. Nothing ends. There is always love.
Te extraño mucho, abuelo, y te amo siempre.