August 11th, 2017
It’s 7:00am, a brilliant and sunny friday morning, and I’m winding my way through the hills of the Pennsylvania turnpike. I’m on my way home. Praying I make it in time to say goodbye to my grandfather, a man who has played such an integral role through so many years of my life.
And I think of all the things I want to say to him. The things you never think to say to someone until you are afraid of losing them: ironically, they are all the things that matter, that you might not even have thought of until the threat of loss is there. But I’m suddenly thinking of them now: suddenly aware for the first time of all I have truly received from this man. If you had asked me before, I could have pointed to his songs and stories, to his teasing and his serious attention; to the fact that he was a “hands on” grandfather just as he was everything else, teaching and helping and playing and leading right along with you in whatever you were doing. But today, it is something deeper that I recognize for the first time beneath all of these external activities: it is his way of being, his stance before reality, that is suddenly visible to me. I recognize, beneath everything else, that my grandfather was always marked by a deep spirit of wonder and gratitude in front of life. And the more I think about this, the more apparent it becomes to me: the fact that it has always come more naturally to me than to a lot of other people to recognize the gift dimension to everything is something that I have received from him, and from my father largely because of him.
Perhaps the fact that I can see this for the first time has a lot to do with the fact that I have learned a lot more about my grandfather’s life in these last few years than I ever knew before. I took a trip just this past fall, for the funeral mass of his sister, in the little Pennsylvania town where he grew up. And all of the missing pieces of my grandfather’s history took on flesh in front of me. My grandfather was born in a tiny, dirty mining town in rural Pennsylvania, the sixth of ten children. His father operated heavy machinery for the local coal mines, and spent a lot of time traveling from mine to mine, more often away than he was present, which, given the fact that he was also an alcoholic, was not always the worst thing. Their house sat next to a tavern, right across a narrow, curving road from two sets of railway lines, where all the coal trains came through. They didn’t have a yard: just a small, dirty patch of ground covered constantly by the dust from the coal trains. His mother died of a brain aneurism when he was 11 years old, soon after giving birth to the tenth child. My grandfather and most of his siblings were sent to an orphanage run by Catholic nuns, since his father was unable to be present to them. In spite of everything, this was perhaps the greatest miracle in his life: the relationship he developed with one of the nuns truly saved his life. Mother Georgina became a second mother to him, and left an indelible impression on the young boy, forming him into the man that we would come to know. He even brought my grandmother to meet her and gain her approval before their engagement, and would bring his children from Ohio back to Pennsylvania to visit her.
He never spoke of any of these things. I know all of this only through my own research and asking questions of anyone who would talk to me of it. He didn’t share these experiences and hardships with us in words: he shared rather himself, the man who had been indelibly marked and shaped by these experiences, so that we daily reaped the fruits of his life. But it is only in knowing these things, that I recognize how the man that he is is the fruit of this life. Thus, the man who hadn’t really known the meaning of family growing up took his own more seriously than anyone else I know. I knew from a young age without having to be told that he would have done anything for any one of us. He looked on each life event, each birth of a child, each wedding, each graduation and Christmas and Easter with wonder and gratitude, as if it were the first and last time he had with us. Papa treated every encounter, every family gathering, as if it might be the last time he saw you. Or maybe even more accurately, as if he were surprised, all over again, at your being there: at the miracle of your life. I’ve begun to realize that the weight and gratitude with which he looked on each one of us carried within a deep awareness of the miracle that life is; the miracle of each Christmas, each baseball game, each weekend cup of tea. I can say with deep reverence that my grandfather was one of the people in my life that instilled in me, without ever trying, the profound awareness that our lives are given to us; that every person in our lives is a profound and undeserved gift, not something we could have ever earned or given ourselves. He knew what it meant to be without, and therefore he knew on a level that most of us never will, the fragile miracle that life and love actually are.
The man who had grown up so poor knew the value of everything, and took nothing for granted. Whether it was the care he took with his yard and gardens or the time he took to teach his children and grandchildren how to make or repair anything under the sun, he took a deep and simple pleasure in making things good and beautiful with his hands. And the man whose only memory of his mother was her singing at the sink while doing dishes, taught his children and grandchildren the value of music. He loved music, and he loved to sing. He sang in the Church choir, and for every special occasion. We were always singing, every family gathering, no matter the time of year: old classics, Irish ballads and American folk songs he must have grown up learning. He taught them all to us, as children, to the rhythm of the backyard swing, or in the circle around the fire every Christmas. And he told us stories: one of the first minds and voices that shaped my imagination and taught me to see the impossible in everyday things, to believe that dragons and princes and princesses were as real as grizzly bears and soda fountain machines. The man who had himself barely had a childhood really gave ours to us: he encouraged our imaginations to look at all of reality with wonder, as a miracle, whether it was how a plant grew, how a tractor was made, or how words could be used to create beautiful things.
These are the things I wish I could say to him: this is what I want to thank him for; for instilling in us this wonder and gratitude in front of life that taught me to look on everything with hope and expectation, to see into the depths of things, and to see beyond them to what they stood for. I realize that my grandfather had an artist’s and a poet’s heart. Even if the only thing he ever wrote was our bedtime stories, and the only instrument he ever used was his voice, and the things that he shaped with his hands were houses and cars and household items rather than famous works of art. I want to thank him for being the kind of father that made my father the man that he is. I want to thank him for daily making that choice not to be crippled by bitterness in the face of the sufferings and losses and pains he was dealt, but rather, for leaning more deeply into the good and beautiful things in life, and claiming them for his children.
August 12th, 2017
The next day, I’m sitting in Papa’s room at the nursing home. He is awake and alert, and acknowledged me. He is smiling and laughing and making faces at his little great-granddaughter, who is holding tight to his hand, and singing and squealing and cackling right back at him, trying to shove his finger in her mouth. A moment I could catch in a frame and hold onto forever, so full, so heavy is it with life, and love, and truth. I do not know how many more days we will have with him, but somehow, I cannot bring myself to say all of the serious things I was thinking of on the way here in the car. It almost feels like it would cheapen the present, to try to put words to a gratitude that cannot be contained in words. It feels as if this weary, worn old man watching John Wayne with me from the bed is receiving more from just being surrounded by those he has loved most than he would from my poor attempt to thank him for years and years of life. And so, when it comes down to it, I find I can only say, “I love you, Papa. I’ll be here for a few days, so I’ll see you again.”
August 19th, 2017
Today, we buried my grandfather. It is still unreal to me, that the man who was such an integral part of so many years of my life should suddenly be gone. I’ve been reflecting deeply on the meaning and impact of a life- particularly, of his life. And the fact that so much of who I am, of the way in which I see and understand the world is integrally tied up with, affected by, shaped by the lives and experiences of those we have come from. And that this awareness, too, is something I have largely inherited from him.
So many, many people came filing through, for two days, sharing with tear stained faces endless stories of how their lives were touched by this man. Long before I was even born, he was changing them. One of the many men whom he had coached as a boy, with his own sons, came through the line. “Your dad was the one adult who looked at me and spoke to me as a man before I was a man”, putting words to a reality reiterated by every one of them throughout the day, coming back after 20 or 30 years to pay respect to a man who was more a father to many of them than their own. The children and grandchildren of his siblings from Pennsylvania, now all over the country, flew back into Cleveland to honor the uncle who was just as present to them as their own parents. I hear the story from my grandmother, of the time when Papa went all over the state of California in search of his brother who had joined the army and hadn’t stayed in touch with the family after the tragedy of his mother. They hadn’t heard anything from him for years, but somehow knew he had ended up in California. When he finally found the address, my grandfather showed up on the doorstep with his wife and baby, and announced, “Tom? I’m your brother, Fred.” They were welcomed in for tea. Several months later, on his own doorstep in Cleveland, Ohio, my grandfather found the same brother Tom with his own wife and kids. He was being sent overseas again, and wanted to know if Fred would look after his wife and children until they could join him. Of course he would. My grandparents, with a baby and another on the way, housed Tom’s family in their tiny two-bedroom apartment for the better part of a year.
As I listen to the stories, I realize that my life is only a tiny piece of his story, and all of the stories that are woven into his. That my grandfather was able to touch and change countless lives, because a little nun named Mother Georgina once took a young, grieving boy under her wing, and loved him. Loss taught my grandfather the value of love, and Mother Georgina taught him how to give it. I will never know how much she also taught him about how to love the good and beautiful things of life, and how much of that just came naturally to him, a part of his soul. But I do know that his deep love of life has impressed itself upon my soul, just as deeply as the reverberations of his generosity and fidelity filled the funeral home these last two days, in the lives of hundreds of people that came to thank him. A testimony that beauty and goodness, life and love can truly be born out of grief and loss, pain and ugliness.
Standing here around his grave, my cousin sings “How Great Thou Art”, with the voice she inherited from Papa, and my siblings and cousins and I play “Amazing Grace” on the Irish whistles, giving back to the man who first gave us music and an awareness of Grace this song I will forever remember him singing. And as I stand here in front of his grave, committing this man that gave life to us all back to the earth from which he came, I can’t help but be incredibly aware of the fact that even in the midst of the loss, there is so much of him, of his life, that will never go away: it is carved deeply into each of our lives, woven into the fabric of who we are, such that we cannot help but continue to live out in our own lives the fruit that he bore in his. It is what we are made of. I will forever be a different person because of this man. Not only because the physical stuff of my life literally was given me by him, but also because his way of seeing reality has been carved deep into my soul, and has formed a foundation out of which my life continues to unfold. For this, I can only be profoundly grateful, and pray that I never lose the eyes through which he taught me to see and receive all of life in gratitude and wonder.