My Grandpa Hofer passed away in 1999, when I was 29 years old. He died of pancreatic cancer. At the time of his diagnosis the doctor said he had 3 months to live. The doctor was about right.
My grandpa was a retired music teacher. I never met any of his students, so sometimes I wonder if he put onto them at least a tiny portion of the stamp he put onto me. I imagine so. After all, no matter what he was teaching, he taught by example. People remember when you teach by example, because teaching by example is so rare.
When the doctor’s diagnosis came there was little debating whether to fight the cancer or not. My grandpa figured his time had come, and every moment he spent trying to prolong his life would be a moment he did not spend preparing the world for his exit.
Knowing his wife would need care he would not be around to provide, he sold the home he had built with his own two hands and moved himself and my grandma into a retirement center near my parents. My grandma still lives at that retirement center today.
My grandpa had lived most of his life within a 100-mile radius of a small farming town in central California, and he began guiding my dad on drives through the communities where he had grown up. As my dad drove along dusty, dilapidated country roads my grandpa pointed out key sites important to his life’s stories. Sometimes he would ask my dad to pull over by the side of the road so they could get out and walk around and my grandpa could point out an old building or a tree that was playing a starring role in one of his stories.
Towards the end of one of these drives, my grandpa told my dad, “When I am gone, I want you to take Matt and Mark (my younger brother) on this exact same route, and I want you to tell them these exact same stories. Word for word. I want them to know where they came from.” Now when I see an old barn that looks like it’s about to collapse, I don’t see a useless barn, I see someone’s story.
About two months after the diagnosis, the cancer was ravaging his body and he was quickly growing weak. One day he picked up the phone and asked my dad to take him on an important errand. He needed to go to the funeral home to make arrangements. My dad took my grandpa to the funeral home where he picked out and paid for two adjacent plots, chose what kind of service he wanted, and picked out his own coffin. He wanted to make sure the details were taken care of early, so his family would not have to worry about them in the difficult time that was to come.
In those days I was living almost 1,000 miles to the north in Seattle, busy with a life doing work I loved, hiking in the mountains, and settling into the home I had bought earlier that year. I knew what was happening in California, though, and I kept close tabs on the situation. As the long Thanksgiving weekend approached it was clear my grandpa would not last much longer. My parents called to tell me it was time to come say goodbye. I hopped in my car and drove 16 hours overnight, arriving at my grandpa’s side early on Thanksgiving morning.
In his last week my grandpa had moments when he was lucid, but he also had moments when he was not, and the moments of not were quickly becoming the majority. The family didn’t have much of a Thanksgiving feast that year. No one was in the mood. Everyone was drained. We just stuck close to each other and waited together, spending most of our time at the retirement center where my grandpa was passing his last few days.
I had to be back at work in Seattle Monday morning. The night before I headed back, my mom told me it was time to say goodbye to my grandpa. I had never done anything like that before, saying goodbye to a loved one who expected me to openly acknowledge that we would never speak to each other again, at least not in this life. There would be no empty declarations of hope for recovery. This was going to be it.
I sat in one of the side rooms down the hallway, steeling myself, trying to muster the courage to look my grandpa in the face and say my final words to him. When he was lucid enough to know who was in the room with him, my mom came down the hall to get me. “It’s time,” she said. I stood up and walked down the hall with her, trembling from the stress. At one point I stopped suddenly, and my mom, knowing why, turned towards me and steadied me as my knees buckled and I started sobbing. I pulled myself together again, took a deep breath, and walked the remaining few steps into the room where my grandpa lay in bed.
I knelt down next to the bed, took my grandpa’s hand, dug down as deep as I could, and told him the things I knew I would never have another chance to say. I told him I loved him very much. I thanked him for the love he had shown me and the guidance he had given me over the years. Tears streamed down my cheeks and my voice cracked with every word, but I kept on. I told him it was okay to go now, don’t worry, Grandma was safe and we would take good care of her and we would make sure she never felt alone. I told him to say hello to Heather, my cousin who had passed away some years before.
My grandpa’s eyes were closed and he couldn’t speak, but I knew he was listening because his hand was squeezing mine, giving me the courage to say what I needed to say. I finished speaking, I squeezed his hand one last time, I kissed him on the forehead, and I stood up. I turned and hurried out of the room, unable to look anyone in the eye as I brushed past. I ran down the hall and burst out the front door to take a deep breath of the fresh night air.
A few days later I was back in Seattle when the phone rang. It was my mom. My grandpa had passed away. When he had taken his last breath, my dad had been sitting next to his bed and they were listening to one of his favorite pieces of classical music.
There are times in life when we want to collapse into a corner, to curl up into a fetal ball and shake and weep and dissolve into a trembling bunch of nerves. But in his parting gift to me my grandpa reminded me that every single one of us can choose instead to tap into a vast pool of inner strength, and when we tap into that pool we become bigger people. Those around us desperately want us to tap into it, because they are trying to tap into it too, and they need us to show them the way.
When you learn how to tap into that pool of strength, you must begin living a life that requires you to tap into that pool every single day. If you do anything less with your time here on this earth, you are wasting that time and you are wasting the gifts god gave you to use.
Since my grandpa passed away, I have tried to live this lesson every day of my life. There have been times when I have stumbled, but I have never stopped trying. I will live it until the day I die, because my grandpa lived it for me, and now I must return the favor.