Well, son of a gun, she’s back. Hello, my dear, sweet angels. Please accept my sincerest apologies for the most recent hiatus. I can hardly imagine the anguish you’ve all experienced in my absence. Why? Why would she abandon us? You deserve answers, people, and you’re about to get some. Let’s do this.
So, rewind to my last post, and you’ll find yourself at the end of October. In the words of Drew Barrymore in the devastatingly underrated rom-com classic Never Been Kissed: “Yikes bikes.” December has been neither over nor underwhelming. A solid “whelming,” we’ll give her. November was a bitch, though. And that’s where we’re going to play today.
A lot of shitty things happened in November, running the gamut from a massive Church shooting in Texas to the devastating demise of the Notre Dame Football season. We learned about a woman named Cyntoia Brown, who’s presently serving a life sentence for shooting and killing her 43-year-old sex trafficker at the age of 16. A mosque was bombed in Egypt, killing 305 people. The allegations against Harvey Weinstein continued to pile up, many of which slid under the radar as dozens more men in the industry were accused of similar misconduct. Bye, Louis C.K. Au revoir, Matt Lauer.
Oh. And my grandpa died. That, too.
On November 9th, after a seven-month battle with Stage Four Pancreatic Cancer, my grandpa decided it was time. It’s super weird to say “grandpa,” for the record, considering we all called him “Paka.” I don’t know, I’m the oldest grandkid and apparently couldn’t talk for shit as a toddler because when they asked for “grandpa,” my ass came out with “Paka.” And so it was.
I hopped on a plane Friday (the day after) with an itinerary including the following: Notre Dame-Miami game Saturday, wake/visitation Sunday, funeral Monday. For anyone who finds it odd that football was prominently featured on the schedule of events, you don’t know the Smith Family. In fact, after that absolute horror story of a match, we joked for the remainder of the weekend that Paka peaced out pre-gameday on Thursday to avoid having to watch such an atrocity. Notre Dame was ranked number three in the College Football Playoff rankings when he died—and he wanted to keep it that way.
Anyway. Notre Dame shit the bed on Saturday, so next up was the Sunday wake. Anyone who’s done this knows the family arrives to the funeral home earlier than the actual scheduled visitation period, so as to “get settled” (because funeral homes are so “settling”), ask questions of the staff, and have a little window of personal time with the deceased before the “guests” arrive.
We went with an open casket. Paka was a damn good-looking man (which he’d tell you any chance he got), so it would’ve been an injustice, really, to go any other route. But I won’t jerk you around here, it fricken sucked.
This is a bit tangential, but bear with me here, I swear it’ll make sense here shortly. There’s a cache of arbitrary questions we’re all asked dozens of times throughout the course of our lives. What would be your superpower? If you could go anywhere, where would you go? If you could have dinner with anyone, who would it be? You get the idea. But let’s focus on this one: what’s your greatest fear? There’s the go-to collection of common responses: snakes, spiders, heights, what have you. I vaguely recall a Maury Show segment on peculiar fears featuring this lady who was unspeakably afraid of mustard. Aside from that anomaly, though, I’ve come to establish that all of our fears really boil down to two things: pain and death. You’re afraid of snakes or tarantulas. But why? They’re foreign and freaky-looking, sure. But why are you really afraid of them? Because that snake is going to bite you, and it’s going to hurt. Or the venom enters your bloodstream and BOOM, your ass is out of here. You’re afraid of heights. Why? Because you could fall. You could fall and maim yourself beyond repair or die a pretty gruesome and most-assuredly graphic death.
We fear pain. We fear death.
We fear loss. And with death comes loss, obviously–the loss of life. The loss of someone’s physical, earthly presence–the smell of his shampoo (yeah, he still had a full head of hair, thank you very much), the sound of his thunderous laugh. That smirk he’d sport after dropping a stealthily (or positively outrightly) jeering remark about the Packers or Spartans. Or Fox News.
Which is what I find so jarring about open caskets, I think (I told you I’d get back to this, you’ve gotta trust me here, guys). It’s like the loss of someone’s physical presence can’t yet be grasped because the body is still right there in front of you. In the back of your head somewhere–wherever the brain keeps that shit–you know this person is gone. But looking at their body, seeing their earthly form, essentially prolongs the process of denial and the eventual sentiments that inevitably coincide with the gravity of your loss.
So, when Sunday rolled around, it was funeral time. And with that the closing of the casket, the visual loss of his physical presence. But, of course, you still have to endure the funeral. You can still see the casket. You know if you snuck in just a little peek, he’d be in there.
But then the burial comes. And that’s when it’s really over. We’ve all been to a burial. We all know how it goes. But there’s certainly something to be said about watching your loved ones in that much pain. Watching your father bury his own. Watching him nearly physically collapse under the weight of his emotional agony, his hand on a black coffin, saying one last earthly goodbye.
John Green once said: “You can love someone so much, but you can never love people as much as you can miss them.”
And he’s right, most unfortunately. So often we don’t truly love with our entirety until it’s too late. Until the person we love is gone. So, we’re left with this feeling of emptiness and grief that accompanies their departure. When you love someone, when you really and truly love someone, you give them a piece of you. A piece of your heart, a piece your soul. In essence, that’s so much of what love boils down to—giving pieces of yourself to someone else. Permanently. When you give those pieces away, you’re never getting them back. That’s just how it works, I’ve learned. We’re left missing that person, of course. And we’re also left missing a part of ourselves, a part we’ll never recover—a part we’ll never get back.
But there is a silver lining in all of this. In death, we experience loss of egregious magnitude. But we don’t lose everything. Death may steal from us, but it can’t take everything. It can’t take the memories. It can’t take the lessons you’ve learned, the person you’ve become because of the one you lost. I could write a book about Paka’s impact on my life, on the person I am now. For brevity’s sake, I’ll give you a brief synopsis:
In the deeply red, conservative area of Grand Rapids, Michigan, my grandfather worked as a lawyer for the people. He was a proud Democrat. He was a union man, representing everyone from single mothers getting screwed out of their rightful workers’ compensation to the UAW (United Automobile Workers). To sum it up, he was all about the little guy. The underdog. Of all the lessons he’s taught me, of all the football, legal, political knowledge he bestowed upon me, this one has always stuck with me: fight for those who can’t fight for themselves. Fight for the underdog. Leave this world better than when you found it. Leave people better than when you found them.
Most importantly: love. Love everyone. Black, white, gay, straight, Republican, Democrat. Love.
Which, coincidentally, happens to be the last thing death can never take from us. Love. Because as cliche as it might sound, as Hallmark as it might be, it’s the god’s honest truth. Love never dies.
I know and believe that as confidently and certainly as I know the sky is blue, the grass is green, and that 2+2=4.
And I hope you do, too. I want to commemorate my grandfather. I want to celebrate his life, and I want to tell you how absolutely kickass he was. Because he was. He really, really was.
But I also want to carry on his legacy of love.
In my last conversation with Paka, he told me a number of things. A couple of them I’ll keep to myself, of course. Some things are simply too precious to be shared.
But there’s one thing he said to me that deserves to be told, that he’d want me to tell. In my last conversation with my grandfather, he held my hands in both of his, looked me in the eyes and said the following:
“I want you to promise me something. I want you to promise me that, no matter what, you keep that beautiful heart of yours exactly the way it is. I know you’ve been hurt, in ways I probably don’t even know or understand. But I want you to promise me that you’ll keep going. That you’ll take care of these guys. That you’ll keep loving. You promise me that.”
And I did. I promised him. And I promise you.
That I will keep going. That I will take care of “these guys.” Not just my family. Not just my friends. But of you. Of everyone I possibly can. I promise to do my gosh damn best to take care of you. To keep going. And to keep loving.
I promise you that.