I really wanted to say something, but as my father and uncle took their turns at the podium during my grandpa’s funeral, my mind was mush. This was, after all, the first funeral I had been to in a decade, the first since I began a career in words.
Selfishly, I wanted to say something special—something writerly—to the hundreds of people paying their respects to Grandpa Zak that afternoon. In the moment, though, I had nothing, which was funny because I had been thinking about it for nearly two years, when emergency surgery gave Grandpa’s life flip-of-the-coin type odds of survival. Almost two years to think about what to say, but summarizing a connection so deep proved impossible.
I simply didn’t know what to say…at least not until I left Wisconsin a day later.
I sat in the airport, ready to leave Wisconsin for second time in eight days, clearing old messages on my iPhone, the oftentimes meaningless texts from months ago that innocently consume memory space. In my rabid swiping of the screen I found one that was not so meaningless. It was a video message from my Uncle Tim, the youngest of Grandpa’s four sons. There was no text included, just a video and, admittedly, it isn’t that appealing. It’s just 14 seconds long and shot vertically from a hallway at Mercy Medical Center in Oshkosh, Wis. None of that matters, though.
The video shows Grandpa (the man who seemed to get every ounce of possible strength out of his body, who helped my father lift the dock into the lake each spring and played kickball with his grandchildren in his 60s) walking gingerly behind a two-wheeled walker. Wool socks stretched up his calves as his feet skid across the carpeted floor. The V shape made by his hospital gown stretched casually past his sternum. This was a far different look than the one he would sport a week later, but that didn’t matter.
As Grandpa passed by my uncle, Tim told Grandpa he was getting the act “on tape.” Grandpa laughed a little before repeating my uncle’s words and telling the nearby nurse “so he can show his kids.”
It was a small, seemingly insignificant moment, but explained exactly why I wanted to say something at the funeral. The 14-second video may not have shown Grandpa in his typical, lively state, but it did, however, show exactly where his heart lay: with his family, especially those 10 grandchildren.
It’s during a funeral that, in passing by the many photos and scrolling through the endless stream of shared memories, you finally learn the true depths of your connection in realizing just how much someone cared about you, even when you weren’t paying attention.
That’s what Grandpa was doing between the silver, metal legs of that walker. He may have been moving slowly but his brain was chugging along as fast as ever. With less than two weeks left, he was hoping that Tim would pass along a happy video of Grandpa skating through the hospital hallway. Grandpa was caring again—for the umpteenth time—about what his grandkids were doing, what they were seeing, etc. That’s how he seemed to live everyday of his final 28-or-so years from the moment my cousin Tyler was born until his last goodbye from the hospital room in front of my brother Ryan.
Grandpa was there, just five weeks shy of his 80th birthday and just 10 days before his trek to Heaven, trotting around his hospital floor thinking about his grandkids, even while we weren’t looking. I’m very thankful Uncle Tim was watching, though, because for the first time, New York feels really far from Wisconsin.
I recently read this story from the Washington Post on what it’s like to see life begin while seeing your own come to a close. It’s great and has a powerful finish. Makes me think of my Grandpa a lot. He really loved seeing the various directions that life was taking his grandchildren.