“Nothing is inherently and invincibly young except spirit.”
— George Santayana
I was still quite young when my great-grandfather made a statement that has stayed with me all these years. We were near the grape arbor where my sisters and I loved to play, my mother sitting under a shade tree with great-grandpa Charlie. He was about to celebrate a birthday, and I asked him what he was wishing for.
Instead of his usual jolly demeanor, he seemed quite sad. “I wish for certain people. Today I still feel young at heart, but much of the time I feel old and lonely.”
Later that day, feeling somewhat offended, I asked my dad what he thought his grandfather was sad about. He, after all, had all of us! The people Charlie had grown up and grown old with were all gone, my father explained to me. “We can bring him lots of joy, but we can’t relive old times with him. He misses those old friendships and sharing stories with so many good people.”
We celebrated Grandpa Charlie’s 84th birthday that July, and it was a joyful day, filled with silly gifts and lots of stories told by people who adored him. I remember him asking me to help him unwrap some presents and to see if I could count all the candles on his cake.
“You can’t count that high. Nobody can count that high!” he said with a laugh.
One month later, he was admitted to the hospital for cataract surgery, which was considered serious surgery at that time. He didn’t follow the instructions of calling for a nurse before getting up on his own, and had fallen. When the nurse reached him, he was unresponsive in his recovery room. It was shocking news for a child to receive.
All these years later, I think of this jovial man nearly every single day. He made such a special, indelible imprint on me, and I realize a big part of that connection was because we needed one another. I was born as he worked through the crushing grief of his wife’s death. What can be better than a joyful infant to restore hope and purpose?
My birth order as a fourth daughter likely prompted me to look for my own unique connection, and I was drawn to Charlie’s sparkle and adoration of me. We were the best of buddies, and I remember how important I felt riding in his red Studebaker truck to the elevator or the hardware store, or to pick up my dad as he moved equipment from one farm to another.
We sang silly songs and delighted in playing tricks on my dad, becoming our own comedy team. I’m sure my dad wondered at times just what trick we might be cooking up next. Grandpa Charlie loved every minute of keeping my dad on his toes.
I now understand so much better how the march of time began to drain the sparkle from this happy-hearted man.
When those you had known best for a lifetime are gone, outnumbering those so very young that they can only look forward and not back, it changes life’s natural order. The aches and pains of an aging body further drain the ability to rise above the feelings of loss and loneliness.
My memories of this dear man remain special, rooted in those years before his delightful light began to dim. I now have little ones in my own life who bring me that youthful spirit that is immeasurable. All these years later, it warms my heart to know I played a part in giving that very gift to such a sweet soul.
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