People love to say life is short. In some cases, that’s certainly true. My grandfather’s father died in a car accident at age 48. For him, life was too short. Yet his son has outlived two wives, a son, and most of his friends. He will turn 100 in a couple of months. Ask my grandfather and he’ll tell you life is plenty long. Too long, even.
This past weekend I went to visit my grandfather at the assisted living facility in Florida where he lives. It was his wish that his entire extended family not descend on him en masse to celebrate his birthday, but instead come one or two at a time for a short visit.
Even at his advanced age and in failing health, he’s a charming man. A full head of silver hair and a trim beard. A snappy dresser and a sharp wit. When I ask him if there are any other centenarians in his community he says, “Oh yes, 4 or 5 of them, probably. We get some that live to 105 around here.” He pauses, and with a sardonic grin, adds, “I better not be one of ’em.”
I know I’m lucky to have any living grandparents, let alone one who’s been around for an entire century. I could listen to him tell stories for hours. He served in the Army and Navy, lived all over the U.S., knew Ronald Reagan and Walt Disney and Jim Beam. He tried out for the Olympics and performed in diving exhibitions at the 1934 Chicago World’s Fair.
But it’s also kind of unsettling to spend time with someone so close to the end of his life. Yes, we’re all going to die one day. It’s one thing to know that intellectually, though, and it’s quite another to experience it viscerally – say, when you hear someone renewing his newspaper subscription for only 6 mos. instead of a year. Or when you hold in your hand a hand that’s been around for 100 years, its skin as papery-thin and mottled as an autumn leaf.
It’s not any less sad that someone’s dying because they’re old.
That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy my visit. I did. We shared meals and memories around the table. We went for a drive by the beach, and to places where my grandparents used to live. I collected some beautiful shells to bring back to my boys at home. I watched loggerhead turtles swimming slowly in the lake, bobbing to the surface from the murky depths. I wished the boys were there to see that.
The other thing people love to say is that life’s not fair, and it’s true. It’s not fair that at one stage of life we can be desperate for some time to ourselves and at another stage, desperately lonely. It’s not fair that some people die young and others live to a ripe old age. Too short, too long, too much, not enough. Pick an adjective, and that’s life.
My last night there, the voice recorder I had brought with the plan of taping some of my grandfather’s stories is still in my bag, untouched. We sit side by side, not saying anything, staring out the window at the full moon. In that moment, just being there is enough.
QUOTE O’ THE DAY: I asked my grandfather what his secret to longevity is. He replied, “Six ounces of bourbon whiskey a day.” Oh, and he always eats dessert.
PIC O’ THE DAY: Here I am working out with my grandfather at the gym. The man is almost 100, people. What’s YOUR excuse?!