** I wrote some of this piece several weeks ago, but was only able to make any sense of it in the past few days. Coincidentally, today would have been my grandparents 58th anniversary, so I dedicate this article to them**
My grandfather was married for 56 years, 6 months, 3 days, 22 hours and 10 minutes before he lost his wife to complications from Alzheimer’s disease in March of 2008, about a year and a half ago. It wasn’t until the last few years of this marriage that my grandfather, a religious, stern, and extremely old fashioned man, was forced to stray from the conventional restraints of the concept of marriage of his time. During most of those 54 years, my grandmother had cooked every meal, cleaned every nook of the house, and tended to both her children and grandchildren with unconditional love.
I am not saying that my grandfather didn’t uphold his end of the bargain – in different times, from a different value system, there were simply different roles for husbands and wives. If anything, I am allocating to him even more credit – because there is something to be said about a man who has had to change everything about his previous way of life at the age of 86 in order to extend and preserve any semblance of happiness possible during the last few years of his spouse’s life.
The cruel subtext here, of course, is that the role reversal taught my grandfather a level of appreciation for a human being that perhaps could never have been channeled had the tragedy not occurred. As my grandmother got worse and her mind began to age in reverse, my grandfather would often express his love by holding her, kissing her, or hugging her in public – physical signs of affection that I had never before witnessed from him. In these final years, I believe that my grandfather extended himself in an entirely new way and thus learned to fall in love with my grandmother all over again.
Needless to say, my grandfather has been a total wreck. In the year and a half since my grandmother’s passing, he has seemed angry, tired, troubled and downright depressed. Many people say that when an older person loses their spouse, he or she loses much of their purpose to continue living, and the effects – though often entirely emotional at first, actually turn into physical ailments and can often subvert the survivor’s will to live. It hurts me to say it, but I would not be surprised to assume that this is exactly what is happening to my grandfather. These days, I see from him more tears than smiles, more questions than answers, and more despair than happiness. A man from whom I once sought answers now seems more lost and overwhelmed by the complexities of life than I ever imagined he could.
What would you do? If every time you saw your grandfather he only spoke of what one more second shared with his wife would mean to him? If every time you spoke to your grandfather, no matter what the original topic of conversation, it eventually lead back to the same concept – that he was lost with out his love? I am genuinely asking these questions because, of course, there are no answers. At twenty-three years old I cannot look into my grandfather’s eyes and expect to offer any form of comfort in any childish words of advice I attempt to give. “Try to live in the moment,” I say. “You have lots of family who still loves you.” But in reality, what can we really offer, short of temporary and fleeting companionship? Even my grandfather has told me that my family cannot be consumed by his grief, because ultimately, it is his grief, and we need to enjoy the world we live in while we still can.
That is why on the rare occasion that he does smile, not only do I attempt to document it, but I try to repeat it, over and over to help him live in the moment as much as he possibly can.
If you are wondering as to what the musical reference in this article is, here you go: Last night my brother turned 26, and after dinner, some more extended family came over my house for dessert. Eventually I realized that my grandfather’s entire immediate family was in my living room at that very moment. His son, daughter, and both of their children – myself, my brother and my sister, and my two cousins from France, contently sitting around the coffee table enjoying fruit tarts and birthday cake.
After several drinks, my brother picked up the guitar as we so often do, and we began to sing songs from the 60’s – a time which acts as a median between two generations from my experiences. But this time, something was different – an out-of-tune voice accompanied the rest of ours and to my jubilation, there was my grandfather, smile on his face, singing along out loud to my favorite Beatles song, “In My Life.” We all took turns stealing glances at my grandfather and matching his smiles as we played Simon and Garfunkle, Peter Paul & Mary, and more Beatles songs. For every song, our grandfather was right there singing along, only slightly off-pitch.
As we sang, I wondered if I would ever make it to 89 – or if I would even want to. I thought about everything my grandfather has seen and experienced: his escape from Communist Russia, his time in Berlin during World War II, his years in Canada after the war, his life in New York as a bridge architect, raising a family for 55 years with his wife. I thought about last winter when we visited her grave in the snow, and my grandfather’s tears seemingly froze as they fell from his face. I thought about the sheer extent of everything that life threw at my grandfather – and here he was, in my living room, enjoying himself, just trying to carry a tune.
Could this be a lesson in music? Or maybe it’s a lesson in aging? Maybe it’s a lesson in family, or just a lesson in happiness? Should I just hope that I’m still singing at 89, however out of tune it may be? Maybe there is nothing to take away from this at all. Perhaps, this story has only earned a quaint, almost trivial observation: the bittersweet paradox of life is that no matter how difficult a path life paves for you, joy can exist in any single moment, however fleeting it may be.