|Me and my Daddy, Christmas 2008.|
When we were in Norway, we took a picture of Gwen meeting her Grandad for the first and last time. He passed away the next day. When Gwen looks at that photo in years to come, she might see a weakened body in a hospital bed, eyes struggling to focus on her little face and her own chubby little hand wrapped around a very thin finger. As we study that picture of a Grandad she won't have her own memories of, I will gently tell her who he really was inside that frail body.
Gwen's Grandad was a man who, above all, loved his home and his family. He bought a modest little home for us, then set about fixing it up and making it nice, eventually doubling it in size to keep us all comfortable. He kept a huge garden for his kids, and eventually his grandkids, to run wild in and let us use his tools and materials to build our own tree houses, catapults and wooden go-carts that we would push and pull up and down the lanes. We never gave it any thought as kids, but in retrospect I can't help but think that my mum and dad set the stage for a fantastically wild childhood, then quietly stepped back and let us enjoy it. No wonder our friends always wanted to play at our house.
He loved us all to a fault. He spent his last months pushing and bullying my mother through various home improvement projects just to make sure they were done before he died. My dad loved my mum so much that he fought her ever last inch of the way to make sure that she had a finished and functional laundry room, when she would much rather they spend that last time enjoying themselves together. In fact, in his truest, most stubborn form, his last trip out of the house and hospital was to choose a new dryer and storage cabinets for the laundry room that now stands as an odd, but ultimately sort of beautiful, memorial to him. We all have so many stories about how he showed his love for us, all of them powerful, very few of them in the straightforward, "normal" way you think people love each other.
He taught us a lot by example. Because he was a normal human being, those examples weren't always great. He held a few prejudices pretty close to his heart, and could hold a grudge competitively. He blamed a lot on his childhood, and never seemed to think that the 40-50 years that has passed since he was a child could alter any of that. He cared much too much what people thought of both him and our family. But he had a good and kind heart and helped and cared for people who needed it. When he hadn't heard from an elderly neighbor for a few days, he stopped by his house to check up on him. When he discovered him sick in bed with a fever, my Daddy brought the old man home with him and put him in our guest room until he recovered. He could often be found doing carpentry for less handy friends, and never seemed to turn down a request for his help.
Besides his family, my dad had two great passions: performing and family history. Now that I think of it, they couldn't really be more different. On the one hand he was never happier than when he was in front of an audience (the bigger, the better!) and loved the attention that came with being a familiar face in the community. He loved and lived to make people laugh.
On the other hand, he clocked countless solitary hours working on his family history that has really become something of a legacy and a lifework. He spent close to 40 years researching our lineage and had traced some lines as far back as the 13th century. As I sat by his bedside that last morning of his life, I promised him that I'd to my best to continue his work, overwhelming though the thought of attempting to fill those shoes might be.
One day, when Gwen is older and ready to understand, I might tell her about the afternoon when her Grandad passed away. I'll tell her about how I will always remember that day as being bathed in golden sunlight. How, when death finally came, it wasn't as the frightening horror I had always imagined, but as something gentle, peaceful and almost kind. I'll tell her how I chose to help tend my Daddy for the last time, and how that will stand in my mind as one of the most sacred experiences of my life. I washed his hands as I cried and cried over all those hands had done for me in my life. Now they were so very still.
After we had dressed him in the blue shirt I had chosen (he always looked good in blue), I sat in the chair beside him and watched the sunlight and shadows through the lace curtains dancing on the wall above my Daddy's bed. He looked so peaceful and so much like himself that it felt good to be near him. At the same time, I knew that everything that made him my Daddy had left that body. His voice, his smile, the faraway look he'd get in his eyes when he got emotional. The love that he felt for us, his family, was no longer contained in that frail body.
Now, that love lives in us. We carry it with always. Wherever I go, I will go with a knowledge that I had a father who loved me. Who sacrificed for me. Who worked hard for my happiness and success, and who was ultimately proud of my accomplishments big and small. Espen will be able to look at photos and see clear evidence that he had a Grandad who loved him and spent whatever time he could with him. And Gwen? Although they only spent a day together, Gwen has perhaps the greatest proof of all that her Grandad loved her, because he waited for her. During those last days, when he was so weak and so tired, he held on just long enough to meet his little granddaughter, to hold that tiny hand and look into those bright eyes, so surprisingly blue like his own.
The very next day he was gone. We all miss him so very much, but feel nothing but joy and gratitude to have had him as our own daddy, husband and grandfather.
Goodbye, Daddy. I will always love you.