Sunday, May 22, 2016

Goodbye Opa

My grandfather passed away last week. He checked into the hospital Thursday night with heart issues and was told it was the end. He passed the next day, in the hospital surrounded by family. I was not able to make it out to say goodbye to him one last time. But I have great memories from my last visit with him in March.

In March I flew out to his city to defend a deposition. I was on the fence a great deal about whether I should stay with my grandparents or even let them know I would be in town. I love them both. But I was kind of looking forward to being put up in a hotel with a little kids-free down time. And I remembered visits with my grandparents as being a little bit exhausting (especially for an introvert who values being alone, without any conversation). In recent past visits, my grandparents would bicker. And I had a hard time understanding my grandfather (we call him Opa, which is "grandpa" in German). He liked to talk and always had hours of stories to share with anyone who met the qualification of having at least one ear. He led a fascinating life (jumped out of airplanes, participating in reparation peace talks, translated and authored books about Germans who survived mass genocide) and his stories reflected that.

He also liked to tell jokes. His sense of humor rivaled his story telling. It was quirky and would probably make most people groan. He re-invented lyrics to popular songs including Christmas songs. A staunch conservative, he taught me many things that after much political exploration and critical self-examination, I now value to be true and steadfast (to the horror of my very liberal husband). He LOVED political jokes and, for the sake of a good laugh, he was never afraid to parody or mock anyone. Unfortunately due to his mumbling, I often couldn't understand either his stories or his jokes. All I could do was smile and attempt to laugh at the appropriate times. Most of the time I would fail miserably and laugh at a pause only to discover that the joke wasn't over and the punch line had not yet been told (he probably thought I was a lunatic).

Luckily (in hindsight), I decided to stay with them back in March. It was only a quick visit. I arrived at 6:30pm and left bright and early for my deposition the next morning. But it was a perfect visit. I witnessed that my grandparents had developed a special bond in recent years. The bickering was gone and was replaced by sweet, caring gestures. My Opa worried over how to get my Oma to her cribbage game the next day. My Oma had posted several notes around the house reminding Opa of important things such as a note on the front door that read "Don't Leave Without Your Teeth!"

My Oma had pinched and saved up her small weekly allowance so that she could treat me to dinner at Applebees that night (don't worry, I insisted on treating THEM). They helped each other pick their meals and appetizers, each knowing the other's likes and dislikes too well. That evening, they retired to their bed at the same time. I woke up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom and, through their open bedroom door, found them cuddled up next to each other. The image brought me smiles then. It brings me tears now. I can't help but wonder if my Opa sensed that his time was coming.

My Oma and Opa treated me like royalty the entire night. They were so interested in my life and my family and my work. I tried hard to live up to their expectations and thoughtfully picked through my adventures for their entertainment. Most importantly, that night before bed, I got a final opportunity to hear my Opa's stories. At my prompting, he told me once again about life on the farm, living through the great dust bowl, and jumping out of airplanes. As I said goodbye to Opa, it never crossed my mind that it could be the last time I'd see him. As with most things, I'm guilt of under-appreciating and taking for granted the people in my life. We always assume we have plenty of time. We always assume things and people will be where we last leave them.

Now my Opa is gone. And that hug we shared hovered over his front door mat is the last memory I will ever have of him. The last time I will touch him and bring some happiness to his day. I'm so thankful for that memory. I'm so thankful I didn't give into the selfish temptation to just sneak in and out of town for work.

My Opa's funeral was Tuesday. My husband had an important work presentation and wasn't able to join us. So I packed up the mini van and led my kids on a five hour car ride to attend the funeral. When I learned my Opa passed away, I didn't cry at all. His death didn't seem real. The message was just meaningless words communicated to me from a hundred miles away. I really only saw Opa once every other year and, to my surprise, his death didn't seem to have a significant immediate effect. It wasn't until I was seated in the pews of my Opa's Catholic Church, surrounded by aunts and uncles, the lyrics to "On Eagles Wings" filling my senses, that it really hit me that he was gone.

Looking back, it seems a little inappropriate to have taken a family picture at my Opa's funeral mass. But it was also a joyous celebration of his life, his legacy, and all that he had accomplished. So I think he would forgive me.

After the funeral, as my uncles gave their eulogy speeches I learned there were parts of my Opa that I never knew. Stories that he had never told. Chapters of his history that were never shared. It's amazing how you can know someone your entire life and still not know all the significant aspects of them. That people are so much more than just the sum of your interactions. So much more than what you can see of them from your perspective.

The funeral and the speeches were beautiful. But a sadness fell on me. Not just from the loss of my Opa. But from the realization that someday, we will all just be a eulogy told by a loved one. One day I will be gone and all that will remain of my life are memories held by friends and families and a two-minute speech summarizing my life's efforts. What would people say about me? Would I be satisfied with all that my life had born? If not, what can I do right now and every day moving forward to change that?


  1. I'm glad you chose to stay at Oma and Opa's too. What an amazing last visit.

  2. Very sorry to hear this. My grandmother died last month and the point you made about knowing just a small part of your grandparent from a grandchild's perspective is one I've spent a lot of time thinking about. Glad you made it to the funeral.