When asked to imagine what I would do if I were “emperor of the world,” my first instinct is to say “abdicate.” I’ve never been in charge of a space that’s more than 850 sq. ft, so I feel like the stress of commanding the infinite cosmos might cause me to bald prematurely (and I’m not crazy about that idea). However, before I forfeit supreme dominion, there is one policy I should like to enact with the utmost, undemocratic despotism: that every member of creation have a close relationship with at least one of their grandparents.
I have lived an amazingly privileged life, not by dint of money, but the incredible people who have comprised my innermost circle: a mother who bucked tradition and suffered social scorn to marry the man she loved; a father who fought racist policy from within “the system;” a grandmother who battled breast cancer with unyielding courage; and a grandfather who was “grandpa” to dozens of school children who didn’t have their own. It has been my fortune to enjoy deep, transformative relationships with each of these people; but none has been more influential than that with my grandfather, known to most as “Kenny.”
Since birth, my grandfather was a built-in best friend. In fact, I can’t remember a time that he wasn’t. Some of my earliest memories revolve around our adventures going fishing, trekking through forest trails, and playing pretend in the swimming pool. While he never would have admitted it, Grandpa was a master at improv. As a playmate, he would indulge my imagination’s every caprice, playing the menacing villain in one breath and a tropical siren in the next. I don’t think even Olivier had that kind of range!
It was more than just my grandpa’s playfulness that enamored me, but his serenity and remarkable patience. He could be stern when necessary, but he never raised his voice, lashed out in anger, or ostensibly lost his temper. When considering the adversity he faced – an abusive and philandering father, an impoverished childhood, the loss of his elder brother in WWII, and a bout with his own demons when his daughter married a man of color – the miracle of his bodhisattva-like mien is thrown in full perspective. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to realize it was this experience overcoming trauma that made him a source of peace and invaluable counsel in dealing with my own severe childhood anxieties.
Metastatic breast cancer claimed the life of my grandmother when I was fourteen. Shortly thereafter, my family learned that Grandpa had suffered from Alzheimer’s for nearly a decade, since I was about five-years-old. The dread dementia had claimed the life of his mother and it was his mortal fear he would die unable to recognize his own children. As a result, my grandmother concealed the diagnosis from him and the rest of the family. Her death severely exacerbated his condition, leading to steady decline. During high school, I had both the difficult and incredibly meaningful job of helping to care for my grandfather. Even as his memory faded, we made fond memories together, listening to old country western bands, walking his beloved schnauzer Sadie, and freezing our brains with an obscene quantity of Wendy’s Frosties.
During the final years, dementia ravaged every vestige of the man I knew as Grandpa. It dulled the twinkle of his smile and wracked his cheeky cleverness with violent confusion. He passed only a few weeks before his 81st birthday. While most everyone else was stranger to him, he still remembered my mother and her brother.
My grandfather definitively shaped who I am. He nourished my sense of fun, imagination, and creativity, all of which have become foundation of my career. With the wild tales of his adventures thumbing his was across the country and making mischief in the Army, he taught me how to weave a story. Through his calm example, he showed me how to slow down and take a breath when navigating a crisis. Most importantly though, he most powerfully exemplified unconditional love. To my Grandpa, there was no mountain he wouldn’t climb or river he wouldn’t ford to show care and compassion to whomever needed it. From him I learned that you only have one life to love, so love all the way.
In a modern world where tradition is spat upon and old people are relegated and even vilified as luddites and bigots, it is important to remember that those who came before us are treasure troves of knowledge and experience. We forget that while they’ve been around for more yesterdays, they have also been around for more tomorrows. Humans may change, but human nature is constant. None know it better than those who wear it like comfortable, old tennis sneakers. And just because they’ve logged many miles in their shoes, doesn’t mean they aren’t willing to try on new ones. If there’s one thing I cherish most about my relationship with my grandpa, it’s that we were each able to teach each other something about living and loving, politics and decorum be damned. I firmly believe the possibility of this mutually beneficial exchange exists between all people of all ages and lands.
So, by the might of my hypothetical dictatorship, I decree that all people shall have a grandparent with whom they can laugh, share adventures, bear their souls, and gormandize gallons upon gallons of ice cream. If your heart is not amply warmed, your life not sufficiently enriched, and your mind not adequately edified, I sentence you to fifty years in a pit of puppies. Now, with my legacy secured, I will pull an Edward III and give up the throne for the good of a woman I love: Mother Earth.