At Grandpa’s memorial service this Thursday, the church sanctuary was full. So was the mothers’ room, and the open space adjacent to the sanctuary where the pastor had arranged a live video feed. People were lined up, standing, because there were no seats left. It was kind of like riding a bus at rush hour, squashed elbow to elbow, except that no one had an I-pod playing too loudly. The church holds 150 people, and the head count came in at well over 250 people. The only place there was room for my little purse during the service was on the floor.
The overwhelming message that shone through on the day we laid my grandpa to rest was how consistently giving he was of himself. Person after person told us how much he meant to them, because he always had time to listen, and gave advice without judgement, care without obligation. The little church only a few blocks from his house was packed to the baseboards with people to whom Howie made a difference.
At big family meals at my grandparents’ house, there were always extra chairs at the table for special guests. Over the years, Grandpa invited people he knew to join us, people who would otherwise eat alone for Thanksgiving or Christmas or Easter. On those occasions that are about families and togetherness, Grandpa opened the little circle of his family just a little wider to include people he thought could use a little extra love.
Grandpa worked with people who wanted to improve their lives. I can’t think of a visit I had at his house where someone didn’t call for help or advice. I also can’t think of a visit where Grandpa didn’t make time to talk to that person who called. For many people who had nothing reliable in their lives, Grandpa was a dependable constant.
Over the years, Grandma and Grandpa gave within their community, particularly through their church. They were both on the rotation of collection counters, and regularly devoted their time to giving back to their congregation. When a new pastor was considering a position at their church, Grandpa took pride in showing him around the neighbourhood and taking him to his favourite lunch spot, Hathaway’s Diner. Grandpa also supported World Vision, and for many years sponsored a child in a distant country. When one child grew up and was no longer eligible for sponsorship, Grandpa signed on to support another.
For several years, I struggled with an illness that was eventually corrected with major surgery. Grandpa came with me to a number of appointments with specialists, and he always drove because he knew I was nervous about yet another appointment with yet another doctor. He refused to let me plug the meter, too, even though I brought a baggie full of quarters. On one occasion, he waited more than three hours with me while the specialist was called away on an emergency. I don’t know of many grandfathers who would wait without complaining, particularly in a gynecologist’s office with babies screaming and no golf magazines in sight, but Grandpa did it.
When I had an appointment with an insurance adjuster after being rear-ended and injured in traffic, Grandpa insisted he come with me. He didn’t want anyone taking advantage of me, he said, and he wanted to make sure that the adjuster took me seriously. In a heavy rainstorm, he fought rush hour traffic to attend that meeting on my behalf. The insurance adjuster was a pit bull, but Grandpa took no guff from her. In the middle of that mess, it helped me so much to have Grandpa backing me up. No matter what, I always felt supported by him, and he never let me down.
I was chatting with my cousin Jen over those little funeral sandwiches, the ones that are a quarter of a whole sandwich so you still have room for a brownie or a nice hunk of cheese, and she commented that she never expected Howie to die. I felt the same way. He was one of the constants in my world. Howie was that reliable, like turning on the tap. It’s such a dependable, everyday thing that on the day you turn the handle and the water doesn’t run, everything gets disrupted. Funny that you don’t often think of how blessed you are to have indoor plumbing until the day you don’t.
Many people I spoke to were shocked when Howie passed away. It’s not that he’d been one of those healthy people who never got sick. For a number of years, now, Grandpa’s calendar was peppered with appointments with doctors and specialists. He was prescribed a side dish of medications with each meal. He used oxygen around the clock in the last years of his life. Somehow, though, he was never really “sick.” Grandpa drove Grandma and himself to their appointments, to the library, out for lunch, and to see the people they cared about. His health wasn’t always good, but the things he was really made of, his sweet marshmallow filling, his steely, determined spine, his heart of gold, those things kept him going when the rest of his body started to wear down.
Nothing is as shiny, as historically treasured as gold. Pirates hid it in chests on distant islands; athletes swim faster, run harder, jump higher than all the others in hopes of gold. There is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and the best of the best is called the gold standard. The problem with gold is its delicacy. You wouldn’t think it was so soft, but it is, and it shows over time. Look at the bottom of an old person’s wedding ring. The bottom of the ring will be worn down after many years of service, maybe bent a little after decades of journeying with that person through life. A sturdier metal would last longer, bend less, carry through the years without the nicks and dings that exist in real life, but we continue to make wedding bands out of gold because we value it so much.
Grandpa Howie had a heart of gold, the best kind of heart a person can have. It gave him a richness of character, and a depth of genuine caring that is rare. Like every treasured thing made of gold, however, it wore down. Like that wedding band that lasts for many, many years, through the jars and snags and bumps of life, Grandpa’s heart held together. Eventually, though, gold wears through and the band breaks. That’s exactly what happened to Howie. One day, his beautiful heart simply wore out, and stopped beating.
copyright 2011: http://bluespeckledpup.com