In June of 2018, I receive an email from someone named Leonard.
I don’t know about you, but I think it will look beautiful. -Grandpa
I don’t know anyone named Leonard and this certainly didn’t sound like something my grandfather would say, the stoic man that he was.
I responded: I think you have the wrong email address…but I’m sure it will look beautiful too!
A few months later, that stoic grandfather of mine died. It had been years since I had seen him as I had been off around the globe, discovering a new version of myself.
His passing was expected. He was in his 90’s and his health was rapidly failing. When I got the text message from my dad about it (I was living in Costa Rica at the time), I didn’t feel much.
“Well, that’s that,” I thought.
After all, we were extremely different and never quite connected in a way that felt particularly meaningful to me. He was a successful attorney and I was a confused child who grew up into a free-spirited woman. (I can’t imagine what he must have thought after he heard the news that I quit my 6-figure job when I couldn’t deal with the pressure and conformity that such a position required of me.)
Our phone calls, like our in-person interactions, had been short and to the point. Dare I say that he intimidated me with his directness.
“Melanie. Do you need money?”
“No, Grandpa, I’m OK, thanks.”
“OK. Here, talk to Grandma.”
I knew that he loved me, but I don’t think I quite knew how to love him back in a way that made sense to me…that is, until his memorial service.
Gathered with my entire extended family for the first time in fifteen years, we had congregated in Wilmette, Illinois, at the house that he had shared with my Grandmother. In this large condo, overlooking the calm waters of Lake Michigan and with copious amounts of Chinese food on the table, a slide show with pictures of Grandpa quietly played against a bare white wall. I recall being entranced by the photos: Grandpa as a spry young man wearing his army uniform, standing next to an airplane and smiling; Grandpa and Grandma as young adults, wearing fancy clothing against a backdrop of a small European town; Grandpa laughing at one of his young children’s shenanigans outside of their home in Highland Park; Grandpa sitting in a chair with a 3-year-old me, as I try desperately to reach my little arms around his big chest. Without warning, tears began to stream down my face. I felt a longing for him that I didn’t know I had inside of me.
The following day, during the more formal memorial service, Grandpa’s friends and colleagues of shared various stories about this incredible man. People talked about his dedication to justice, his unwavering belief that every single person deserved to be treated with dignity and, most of all, his love and commitment to my grandmother. I listened as I got to know another side of my grandfather; one that I deeply and profoundly respected and wished I had known when he was alive.
Sometime later, another email from Leonard came in:
I don’t like to bother you with a phone call. I’m sure you get plenty of them. I just want to tell you that I saw a picture of my grandson. He looks beautiful (which I expected) and strong. I don’t have to tell you how upset we were at first, but no more. We can’t wait to see the three of you. -Grandpa
It made me sad to see that Leonard and his granddaughter had clearly had a rough go of it, but I also thought it was beautiful that he was still trying to mend the relationship. I hoped that they could have an opportunity to deepen their connection, something I would never get to do with my own grandfather.
Me: Hi, I think you still have the wrong email address. (Congratulations on your grandson! I hope you get to meet him soon.)
I do think that my grandfather would be proud of the woman I have become; still a free spirit but with a few more wrinkles, a bit more wisdom and lot more serenity. I now look in the mirror and like what I see, as opposed to most of my life. I had spent years trying to fit into a cultural norm that wasn’t for me. It wasn’t until I got divorced, quit my corporate job and moved to Costa Rica to become a yoga teacher that I finally got a bit closer to who I authentically am. In this, I have also been able to let down barriers that have kept me from feeling deep connection for other human beings, including my own grandfather. I was both happy and sad to finally feel that connection during his memorial service. Several months later, he still pops into my mind at random times and, just maybe, in other unexpected ways as well.
Perhaps opportunity for connection are not lost when someone dies. Perhaps, instead, it is an invitation to start fresh, with a bit less uncertainty and bit more vulnerability.
Wouldn’t you know it, just yesterday I received one more email from Leonard.
I am glad to see that your face is back to that beautiful appearance. -Grandpa
Thanks, Grandpa…me too.