I never thought about what age is or what it meant until just a few years ago. I believe there are two important life changes that cause a person to consider the issue of age and they are: birth and death. I experienced both within eight years of each other and I feel this is what shaped my current perception of age, time, and the brevity of life in general.
Unlike most of my friends who are my age (I’m 35) I had the great fortune of having my both of my grandparents live to see me well into my adult years. They were able to watch my daughter grow from infancy to elementary school. They actually got to know her. Hopefully, my daughter was able to get a glimpse into what it was like for me to grow up down the street from the two wonderful people my brother, cousins and I referred to as “Mamaw” and “Papaw”.
They lived long and full lives well into their 80’s and with the exception of their last few weeks, they were both physically and mentally competent. The changes in their physical appearance meant nothing to me because they were the same people I knew my whole life and that was a constant that I depended on and perhaps took for granted.
In 2008 Mamaw’s health quickly declined after a severe spine fracture. It was an injury that she acquired after falling on some ice leaving her weekly hair appointment. The recovery was long and it led to further health problems. In 2009, after saying the rosary, she passed away surrounded by her six children and husband of over 60 years.
Papaw was never the same and his decline was almost immediate. An outcome we all expected whenever the topic of “what would happen to one if the other went first” was discussed. We always knew Mamaw could handle things because she always had. Papaw would need help. Thankfully, my aunt and two younger cousins stepped in.
In May of 2011 my cousin Lauren got married. We all hoped Papaw would be there and thanks to my aunt, who drove him the 500 miles from KY to GA, he was. It was a familiar route through Tennessee that he had driven with Mamaw many times over the years. His lead foot had always prevented him from completing the entire trip without a speeding ticket. State patrol would catch him on his way there, or on his way back. One time it was both.
The weekend of the wedding the whole family was together. The energy was upbeat but there was also an underlying and undeniable feeling that we could not ignore. We all knew without anyone saying it, that this would most likely be the last big event we all share with Papaw. This would also be my last chance to do something I had been putting off for almost fifteen years. The reality of time and opportunity, gave me an overwhelming sense of urgency. I had to get the photo.
The photo I wanted was simple and I needed Lauren and Papaw in it with me. There was only one arrangement of the three of us that would be acceptable. Lauren had to be on his right and I had to be on his left. I wanted to duplicate a picture that was taken of us 27 years earlier.
This particular picture was important to me because it says so much about my grandfather and what kind of man he was. You can see how much he truly loved his family by his expression. He had a gentle way about him and would easily break into tears if he talked about anything remotely sad or sentimental. He never worried about appearing weak because everyone knew he wasn’t. He was one of four boys born in KY during the depression. His father walked out on the family when he was very young, and soon after that, his mother died. Orphaned and raised by his older brother, his formal education ended around the 7th grade. These are all things that I never knew about him until I was an adult.
I got my picture the night before the wedding during the rehearsal dinner. The next day shortly before the ceremony, Papaw was looking around at all the people and the elaborate decorations. I could tell he was going to comment about the extreme amount of money that was spent on the event. I was trying to think of a response to whatever was coming when he looked at me with big tears welling up and said, “When I married Rita, I had less than 30.00 in my pocket and I felt like I had everything.” I was scrambling for something profound to come back with and I couldn’t think of anything. I felt like I needed to say something but wasn’t sure I could. He then followed up by adding, “I am so proud of my family and if not for Rita and I none of you all would be here.” He didn’t say it to be arrogant; he said it because he genuinely was proud of his family and felt proud to be responsible for its existence. I remember wondering if this is something that he just realized at that exact moment or if he had thought about this for many years and needed to say out loud. It really didn’t matter I was just happy to hear it and glad he saw how significant he was to all of us.
When Papaw returned to KY he got weaker over the next year and needed full time help. His body was frail and kept him in and out of the hospital. It was heartbreaking for us all to watch. In February of 2012, he died peacefully in his sleep. His oldest son who was also his first-born, was there holding his hand.
After he died, I started thinking about how his life experiences and personal beliefs really contradicted the person truly was. Here was a man who did not have a father yet he was an incredible father to six children. He was born into a strict southern Baptist family, married an Irish Catholic and loved his daughter’s Jewish husband. He was a right wing, gun-toting, Reagan supporting, conservative who instantly and openly accepted his gay son and partner without one ounce of hesitation. I am sure he never thought about things like this. He just did the right things for the right reasons.
I am not sure that age always brings wisdom but I believe that as you age, you have the ability to change your perspective and wisdom is the result of that. I don’t see age as something that brings people closer to their death. I see it as an opportunity to look back and realize what can make us better humans in life. I hope that one day I too will be able to look at my grandchildren and let them know how proud I am of them while knowing that I had something to do with it. If that happens, I will have everything.
Lauren and I again with Papaw 2011
This is my daughter standing with Papaw at the wedding.