published in Volume 2, Issue 4 on July 27, 1995
About two months ago, a doctor called me into a room to tell me my grandfather was terminally ill. As I absorbed the fact that Grandpa, the man who never got sick, was dying, my perspective on the world reversed itself. Things that seemed important became trivial, and what was once normal became extraordinary.
Up until that day, normal for me was having Grandpa in my life, day in and day out since he and my grandmother moved in with us when I was five years old. It seemed perfectly reasonable to have grown up with Grandpa greeting me in the morning with breakfast, sending me off to school with a sack lunch, and waiting for me when I came home to take me with him to go eat or shop or seek out garage sales. Even when I became "too busy" for such excursions in high school and college, he was still there as I left for school or work, pressing a grilled cheese and ham sandwich in my hand and saying, "Here's a little something to eat on the way, honey."
With the discovery of his illness, I began to realize how profoundly my grandfather had influenced my life. Like most of our family, Grandpa had a gift for telling stories. In my eyes he was a magician, crafting words into marvelous tales, with the images carried on his resonant voice being shaped and unfurled by the movement of his hands. With Grandpa, the line between fact and fiction was fine one, for real-life people and places invaded his tales of make-believe and exagerration always seemed to nudge his real-life stories into the realm of being "mostly true."
Grandpa's storytelling was the bread of my upbringing. His episodic adventures in which my friends and I were the heroes nourished my imagination, while his nostalgic tales of his family and life in Detroit provided me with a strong sense of tradition and heritage. Through Grandpa's stories, I learned his basic tenets of life: always take care of your family, always look for the good in people, and always find humor in things. Grandpa articulated these beliefs not only in his stories, but also in his actions, which were consistently kind and selfless.
The reality of his death is just beginning to settle in my mind. My habits of thought are shifting from, "Oh, I'll have to tell Grandpa" to "I wish I could tell Grandpa." Rather than expecting to hear his "Hi, honey" as I walk in the door of my parents' house, I find myself anticipating Grandma's more practical "Hi, Kris." But amidst all of these adjustments, I cannot assuage my need for sharing those magical moments of storytelling with him. As much as my love of reading enriches my life, there is something intoxicating about the bond generated between the teller of tales and the listener. While the teller gives the words life, the listener gives them meaning.
Therefore, to both honor my grandfather and to satiate my craving, I go each week to the cemetery with flowers and a book. Sitting cross-legged next to his grave, I choose a passage or poem from whatever it is I have brought with me, and I read aloud. The very act of releasing my voice to the open air fills the void that Grandpa's death created like nothing else can. And as the breeze rises to meet my words, I believe that somehow my grandfather is listening.