Yesterday, my grandfather died. He was 95 and, without question, lived a good, long life. Even though, cognitively, I knew that this was inevitable, it still came as a shock. And it still hurts.
But the truth is, I hadn’t seen my grandpa in years. When we were young, my family would visit every year, maybe every other. Then I got into high school and college and those visit became less frequent. I was there for my grandpa’s 90th birthday party, but that was the last time I saw him.
And admitting that out loud — that it’s been five years since I last visited — I feel guilty, and I wonder, do I deserve to be this sad? I wasn’t as close to my grandpa as many of my cousins who grew up in St. Louis and who attended regular Sunday dinners at his house. I didn’t know him as well as they did nor would I ever claim to. But does that mean I loved him less?
I guess to answer that, you have to go back to that good ol’ classic question: what does love mean? (SPOILER ALERT: I have no idea). In my family, we say “I love you” a lot. Like a lot a lot. Bordering on an unhealthy amount. We say it at the end of every phone call. We write it at the end of every email (and in the case of my mom, followed by a million XXXXXXO’s. Don’t ask me why the kiss/hug ratio is so off. No one knows). We sign every birthday, Christmas, and thank you card with “All My Love”. Sometimes there is even the spontaneous “love you!” text (granted, again, usually from my mom).
Yet when it comes to being physically in the same room with the people I love….well, that’s a lot rarer. But despite all that — or maybe because of that — I never felt that the love I experience in my relationships is less strong or less real. And as a result, I guess I started to believe that seeing someone wasn’t even a necessary component of love.
I admit that view of love has influenced how I approach many of my relationships. I don’t always prioritize physical proximity or making time to see someone. I often rely on words and conversations over the phone (and the occasional strategically chosen ecard). It’s the space I feel comfortable in (also, less opportunity for awkward eye contact).
But the more I reflect on it, the more I realize that being there does matter. Saying the words isn’t enough. I had 18 years of living with my family (except for Adam and Kurt…those assholes bailed early for some “college” bullshit) to establish that foundational sense of closeness, and so the distance we experience now is surmountable. My closest moments with my friends were not phone calls or texts. They were girls trips around the country, game nights and potlucks, and their willingness to show up for me when I was in IOP treatment. And while maybe I work more efficiently alone, when I make time to work alongside my classmates, I feel happier, lighter, and more a part of something.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m only starting to realize that love isn’t about just saying the words. It’s the friend who hugs you in your cubicle when you get hard news from home. It’s the person who steps in when you feel overwhelmed and offers to carry some of the weight on his shoulders. It’s the person who opens up to you about his own struggles and trusts you to listen without judgement. It’s watching your baby niece totter down the hall into open arms. Maybe I don’t know what love is, but I do know when it’s there.
And as for my grandpa? I did love him, and that love was built on real moments, not words. Moments like when he would show me around his backyard garden, quietly pointing out the different crops. When he encouraged me, saying that I could achieve anything, even when I doubted myself. When he recounted stories about running bare-naked to the local swimming pool as a kid way back in the day. Even (especially) when he told me that if I married an old rich man and poisoned him for the inheritance, he would help me hide the body. That’s what I call real love. And while I wasn’t there frequently, those moments meant something. Without the moments, the words would be just that — words.
So no matter how long it has been, those moments are the ones I keep with me. When I was a kid, my grandpa always used to say to me right before I’d leave to go home, “If you feel a pinch on your ass, you’ll know I’m thinking of you.” Sure, is that a weird thing to say to a relative and a 7-year-old? Absofuckinglutely. But that’s also just who Grandpa was. He spoke his mind, he loved deeply, and he was unapologetically himself. And his unique way of expressing that is just another moment that I will treasure.
There will be no more moments to add to the list. But I am grateful for those I do have, because they are the reason the words now mean something.
So Grandpa, wherever you are, however far away, I love you. And if you feel a pinch on your ass, know I’m thinking about you. ❤