My father found old videos that we had not seen in years and so this Christmas, the family sat together and watched. Most of the videos were much focused on my children as babies and small children. It was amazing and amusing to see them grow into vibrant personalities before our eyes. We laughed until tears ran down our faces to see and hear the kids as they did what kids will do to wrap us around their fingers with their innocence, mischief, and charm.
We kept watching the videos, hours of video, on and off all weekend. All squeezed together in the limited seating in the "sun room", we must have been a sight. Too bad no one thought to take a video of us as we watched, laughing and talking together about the funniest and most endearing memories. Grandma, now 94, had a position of honor in the blue chair. Opposite her, Dad sat in his great big armchair. He directed the activities as my mother, husband, sister, and I sat either on the couch or on the floor with three children either snuggled on laps or draped, lanky-legged, across the floor.
Then, in the midst of all the laughter and conversation of how funny our clothes and hair were or "how young we looked!" there were images of my grandfather in the months before his death. I'd forgotten just how old he had become and how tired and distant. In these home movies, he appeared so unlike the man in my memories who rode his bicycle to work into his eighties and always insisted upon eating with us at the kids' table. Although the video shows my mother and grandmother always nearby speaking softly to him and laying gentle hands on his head and back, he hardly seemed to recognize them. He looked frail and hollowed out somehow. His face had become pinched and and his eyes were troubled. It almost hurt to see him that way once again. After he died, Time gave me the gift of older, sweeter memories as a balm for the pain of his passing. I had not cared to remember him in the last years as we watched him withdraw from the world by inches.
My grandfather, who had a speech impediment and was a shy man, never talked much. Once, after the traumatic surgery that plunged him into dementia, he struggled to write his feelings. He gave the note to my grandmother to be shared with all of us. It read, "You are my family. You are my life." But we knew that already. No one who saw his gentle smile and the sparkle in his eyes could doubt it. How terrible it was to find an empty stare or a painful, confused expression on his face as he leaned in closer to death.
As we watched the video, I again felt the sadness of those times of his growing distance. I almost wished we could skip that part and move on to happier images. But the the video continued. We saw my mother lay my son, his great-grandson, on Grandpa's lap. And there it was. He looked down at the baby in his lap and smiled, that old smile he saved for us, his children and grandchildren. Even if just for a moment, he was Grandpa again with that sparkle in his eye and softness of expression that meant that when he looked at us, he saw miracles.
In the following few months before his death, the relationship between my baby and my grandpa was one of the few things that I could hold onto as evidence that Grandpa, though much changed, was still with me. My son learned to walk by holding onto his great-grandfather's walker as Grandpa moved slowly through the house. They were buddies. I don't know if Grandpa ever quite solidified his understanding of just who that kid was. He was, after all, sometimes unsure if I was his mother, wife, daughter, or granddaughter. He called my son, "The Boy". But that was good enough for me because he always said it with care. The name was less important than the knowledge that "The Boy" belonged to Grandpa as a member of his beloved circle. I remember my little boy saying good-bye to him the night before died. My heart is full of feeling when I think that some of the last words my grandfather would hear were some of the first my child would speak.
Grandpa would never know the character my son would become and my son would never know the character his great-grandfather had been, but as I watched the two gaze at each other in those videos, I knew their love for each other was quite independent of the trivialities of time, psychology, and intellect I so often confuse with spirit. Grandpa could have told me that. He did tell me that every time he looked at me with that twinkle in his eye that meant he loved me unconditionally...even when he could not remember who I was. It didn't matter how clever or pretty or successful I was. It didn't matter to him if I was snarly or sweet. I was his grandchild, his joy, and he loved me with the fullness of his heart to the very end.
We are not what we do. We are not what we know. We are not what we remember. We are not our names or our carefully constructed (and so easily forgotten) identities. That's all just human stuff and cannot endure. That thought scares me. It scares me so much I feel paralyzed with the fear. I think who I am has something to do with things I can control. I think that if I try hard enough and study long enough, I'll figure it all out. And I fear that if I'm not vigilant, I'll forget and All will be lost.
But the All can't be lost. I'm already in it and it won't ever let me go.
I'm not trying to deny the pain and evil that is in the world. I'm not trying to paint a picture in which all of us has just what we need. It is all too clear that such is not the case. I just know that when I go deeper than my ambitions and self-control, deeper than my insecurities and self-denial, deeper even than despair, I always find something else..something deep and wild and fierce. Love. Such an overused word, but I know no other words that equal it. I wish I could show you instead in that instant I saw it and understood. It was on that video in that fleeting moment my grandfather turned away from the painful confusion in which he lived, gazed into my baby's eyes and loved him with all he had. One life beginning. One life ending. Both of them well-loved. I'm glad I was there to see it.