Life Advice from My Dying Grandfather

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As my 93 year-old grandfather withers away in a group home, he does not hear from me.

Orderlies change his diapers.  Horror washes over his face as my father leaves his room, not to visit again for a month.  But I don’t pick up a pen or a telephone because I’m too caught up in my own bullshit, and what do you say to someone who just wants to die? 

Did you know you are not just one person?  You are several.  Just because you can’t see that little kid or college student in the mirror anymore, doesn’t mean they’re not still in there.  And like you or I, my grandpa once had smooth skin and the world at his fingertips.  Inside my grandpa’s body is an assemblage of different people drowning in the hull of a sinking ship.

In January, past russet desert mountains and the arms of Joshua Trees reaching for the sky, I drove the 5 hours to Sin City to say good-bye to my father’s father.  When I saw him, I said next to nothing.  Only eight words came out.  One question:

“What is the most important thing in life?”

Slouched in his wheelchair, he winked at me.  “Family,” he replied.  I thought about it.

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My sisters and I.

Family is always there.  But, what if the demands of daily living stem the flow of life-giving phone calls and text messages?  What if you have to buy a ticket a plane ticket or drive 2 hours to even see your family?  Or, worse: what if the members of your family leave something to be desired?  Do you substitute that connection with friends?  With some of my friends, our faces stay pretty much the same, but we are not the people we once were.  Boyfriends?  Boyfriends float easily into my reality, like a welcome breeze.  But their exits are tortuous and heavy – like dragging a piece of furniture over cement.  Hopefully not too many more new relationships will be destroyed by the wrecking ball of love turned sour, but I can’t count on that.

I liked my grandfather’s answer, and I agree that the people in our lives are important.  But, I don’t know that the question, “What is most important in life?” can be answered in a sentence.  And I do feel, that as time marches on, our problems often remain the same.  I don’t think I’m the only one with patterns – with recurring issues in my life.  And I think there are answers.

Bright confetti gathers in the gray gutters along University Avenue, and hoots and hollers hang in the air.  I must have taken LSD, because I see a Star Wars stormtrooper, 6 foot 9 transvestites in space suits, and rainbows everywhere.  A girl wearing nothing from the waist up but rainbow-colored, heart-shaped pasties over her areola charges towards me.  Good for her.  If I went topless in public, I’d feel like a rape magnet.

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“Do you want some cranberry vodka?”  She asks, holding a water bottle of sloshing pink liquid inches from my face.

Strangers nod at me and people smile when our eyes meet.  A man tells me “Happy Saturday” and I am privy to gems of human conversation like, “You never hold my hand in public.  This is so nice.”  I find that the deafening cacophony of my doubts and fears has shut the fuck up for a second, and I am perfectly at peace.  Intoxicated by the atmosphere of goodwill around me, with a mule in my belly, and a sunburn opening on my shoulder, I am simply happy.

When you have no thoughts in your head and peace in your heart, you are free to look around at the million miracles that life is.  At the Pride Parade last weekend (human pictures of which are going up tomorrow) I fell under the spell of simple joy.  And in late summer months here, San Diego is like a bride: more perfect than she is on any of her other days.

Burgeoning red hibiscus pop out of bushes, drinks are served with tequila and garnished with lime, and skin is always hot and happy.  The smell of Coppertone catapults you to your childhood, sleeping trees wake with color, and ocean water is just right: not too hot, and not too cold.

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I think the words of my dying grandfather are true.  And maybe if I marry and have children of my own, I’ll understand more fully what he meant.  But I think he also meant, that if we look closely at the scripts of our lives, we find that all we have is all we need.

This past weekend, I turned with fresh eyes and an appreciative heart towards the arresting beauty of a late-summer day, and wondered if I could recover that feeling more often.  Crises, pain and unpleasant surprises are always going to rear their ugly heads.  But if we can stop, and ask ourselves, “What’s really important?”  I think we’ll find that there’s a calm, accessible to all of us.  It just means seeing things with new eyes.

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11 thoughts on “Life Advice from My Dying Grandfather

  1. Gah. I’m so sorry your grandfather is going through that.

    I agree with that answer, with the caveat that family is what you make of it, and it isn’t necessarily the people you share blood with it.
    And family isn’t necessarily animate.

    • I like that “family is what you make of it.” And I can’t tell you how long it’s been since I saw the word “caveat.” Vocabulary expanded.

  2. That answer was your grandfather’s truth. It may, or may not be yours. Good writing. You are at your best when you express vulnerability. Cowards are tough, brave people vulnerable.

  3. Hi Natalie, You really have a way with words. I’m getting closer to committing to do an interview with you as my UGG story looks like getting to the printers late August. Keep me in mind. Best, Brian.

    Brian Smith P. 760-917-2988 F. 760-943-7370 mr.ugg@me.com

  4. Your blog=amazing! I agree with you I experienced a lot of joy Saturday and a huge sense of community! My cup ran over and I had a lot of happy tears when you approached me for my picture it made my heart so big because you could see that happiness! Family is unconditional I felt that Saturday!

    • 🙂 Thank you, Amy!! Saturday was one of the best Saturdays ever for me, and I think because that sense of community is needed/amazing, but we rarely get it. Thank you for your comment (you made my day) and thank you for letting me take your photo.

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