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A matter of life and death

Exam week is a great time to think about death. As wide-eyed freshmen forswear human contact and move into Perkins study rooms, I wonder: What will happen after I die? Not in the religious-spiritual-metaphysical sense—rather, what will they say at my memorial service? Will the service be short and perfunctory, or will they raise a toast to a life well lived?

Three years ago this month, my grandfather’s family and friends gathered to honor a life well lived. My Grandpa Herb graduated from college and earned a master’s degree—so he passed exams, like I hope to do this week. But when he died, his obituary didn’t mention his GPA. No one quoted from his midterm essays at the memorial service. Instead his obituary promised that his loved ones “will carry on his joyful spirit and unshakeable commitment to family.” His legacy was not grades, degrees or credentials. It was joy and family.

For instance, my grandfather taught us grandboys how to be family men. He treasured his four siblings for all of his 81 years. During college, he lived with his sister and helped raise his beloved nieces. He made sure that our extended family gathered every summer for raucous family reunions—you really reinforce the ties that bind when you’re bound together for a three-legged race! In his last years, Grandpa talked with his brother Ken every week. Men don’t often talk on the phone, so that really says something.

Grandpa was so close with his siblings that I actually believed one of his favorite stories. Food was tight in the Great Depression years, he reminded us. Sometimes there wasn’t much for breakfast. So each morning his mother cooked the one piece of bacon that the family could spare and tied it with a length of twine, like a hook on a fishing line. She lined up her five children from oldest to youngest and moved down the line, dipping the bacon into each child’s mouth to give them a taste before reeling it in and moving to the next child. It’s embarrassing to admit that I believed this story until a few years ago—birds do this, not humans!—but I’m not too ashamed. I think the story’s credibility stems from my grandpa’s love for his siblings. Grandpa instilled that sense of family in each of his five grandboys, with one difference—we get our own slices of bacon now.

In “Shower the People,” James Taylor sings that you should “shower the people you love with love.” Grandpa excelled at sharing love as a father and a grandfather. He had a particular style of fatherhood; skeptics might call it spoiling, but I prefer the term “doting.” The day after he died, my aunt shared a story from her childhood. Every week or so, my grandmother would spend a much-deserved evening out with her bridge club. And when the cat’s away, the mice will play—and Grandpa Herb was quite the mouse. After my grandma left, my mom and aunt raced down to the den and encountered a sight for sore eyes: a veritable feast of pretzels and Pepsi! Grandpa’s two girls spent those evenings munching happily, watching cartoons and basking in their dad’s love.

If Herb spoiled his children, imagine how he treated his grandchildren! I’ll never forget the many hours we spent in his workshop, toiling away on little woodworking projects. We shared endless cups of Arizona Iced Tea and never tired of watching “Walker, Texas Ranger” with him and my grandma. Once we were old enough—about 5!—he treated us to covert sessions with his BB rifle. Oh, the adrenaline rush of shooting at a soda can from behind my grandmother’s flowers.

Herb died on a Monday after two weeks in hospital and hospice. The Saturday before he passed, I wrote in my journal that he was “radiating love.” As his body weakened, he seemed to drift between two places. He was there in the hospital with us. But he also spent time somewhere else, somewhere we couldn’t join him. And from that place he brought back love, overwhelming waves of love that emanated from his hospital bed and gently crashed against all those around him—his wife who held his hand, his daughters who stroked his hair, his grandsons who dabbed his lips with water in those last days. You couldn’t enter his room without feeling bright rays pierce your soul. I cried, but not quite out of sorrow. I cried because there is nothing else you can do in response to that kind of all-consuming love. You must simply hold it while you can and remember it forevermore.

If I could talk with my grandpa this exam week, I think he would tell me to hit the books.

But he would remind me that loving my family and friends matters so much more than studying for finals. That doesn’t make exams easy, but it does remind me that grades will not define my legacy. So I raise my glass to toast a good man; he passed on three years ago, but his love endures. And I raise my glass to toast the only things that are truly a matter of life and death—our lives, and our deaths.

Andrew Kragie is a Trinity junior. This is his final column of the semester.


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