It’s been a year now but I have little doubt that the moment left an indelible mark on my mind, like a short video that sits on my I-Cloud. I know it isn’t going anywhere, but I only like to view it sparingly. I was sitting in one of those plastic chairs, the kind hospitals provide for visitors just to make sure they don’t get too comfortable. Across from me sat a priest. Next to me my grandfather. And adjacent was my grandmother. The priest had come to deliver my grandfather his last rites. But that wasn’t the part that made this moment life-changing. It wasn’t the finality of this idea that my grandfather was experiencing one of his last moments that made my guts wrench.
I can’t yet tell you what it was exactly. I can’t because the moment was much too intimate: too raw, too private, too real. But what I can tell you is that I hadn’t realized until that very moment just how much life a mind can still have when the body has so little left. In fact, what happened in my grandfather’s mind at that very moment was so profound that long after his own death, this piece of his mind still lives on vivaciously within my own. What I saw in that moment was humanity. Humanity stripped of modernity: cleansed of its trivialities, washed from life’s imprints. It was cold and frightening, yet refreshing and inspiring. It was complex, but still, so simple.
I hope, Eva, that you will have an experience like this. One that touches your core so directly that it brings you to a place that is painfully uncomfortable. To a place that you can’t break free from until you face it head on. I hope that when this happens you recognize it. I hope you allow it to eat away at your heart, your mind and your soul until so little is left of you that you have no choice but to rebuild every part of who you are until they are bigger and better versions of what they once were.
My grandfather died just five days later. He died without his name imprinted on a college degree. Without a complex understanding of economics, politics or culture. He died without a large estate, or even an extra bedroom to host friends or family at his home. Still, without any of this, he sat on his Costco lay-z-boy in his humble living room like a middle American version of the Dalai Lama. People flocked to him. From his Harvard-educated cardiologist best friend, to his Latino right-hand man that never left his side despite not sharing any linguistic commonalities, we were all drawn to him. I am not even sure any of us were cognizant of the magnetism, or at the very least we were unaware of what caused it. But as I held his cold hand on that hot August morning, it hit me.
Family, Eva, is not always who you share blood with. In fact, it often isn’t. Despite raising seven children, 13 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, my grandfather’s family was so much larger than that. More than 500 of his family members came to pay their respects last August, and his hospital room was never for a moment empty of love, respect and compassion. He connected his large family to love. He drew them towards a simple morality and expanded their networks, their security and their ability to accept, forgive and nurture.
It was in this moment that I have alluded to that my grandfather finally convinced me that there is, indeed, a greater being. As I saw his own faith wobble, he gripped my hand harder with each tear. And I wanted so badly to show him what I was seeing in that moment. What I saw just a few days later as I squeezed into the hoard to find my own place next to his death bed. What I felt as I was surrounded by the hundreds in genuine mourning. What I sensed when I looked into the eyes of this amazingly large family he created for all of us. I wanted to show him that this greater being was not God, but himself. To this day we are brought together by his simplistic wisdom and his selfless love. This gift he gave us stretched far beyond the confines of his immediate family and into the hearts and minds of everyone he touched.
Though you may never remember him, the work he left behind touches your life every day. You see it at the coffee shop, at the doctor, and even at Costco. And you will come to know him through his brother who works the hot dog stand on the side of the road. You will see him in the eyes of his daughter who works behind the register at Rite Aid. And you will never feel lonely or lost, because your mother will show you, as her grandfather taught her, how to open your heart to anyone willing to walk into it.