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The Relay of Life

Something I Overlooked During My Formative Years

Photo by Wendy Scofield on Unsplash

The other day I took a leisurely ride through my neighborhood while tending to some errands. I passed by my current job, which is about a mile or so away from my grandparents' home. My grandparents are long gone, but I had to slow down in the vicinity of their home while I soaked up many of the wonderful memories I shared with them, especially with my Grandpa.

Grandpa was the only male grandparent I could remember. He was my Dad's Dad. He was a man of average height and weight. In looking at him, I could easily see how he was the mirror image of what my Dad would have been at the same age. Last year or so, my brother emailed a picture of our Grandpa standing with his friends on the stoop of the house. I had to look at the old picture a few times in order to actually be sure I was looking at my Grandpa and not a picture of my Dad. It is not that I did not love my Dad. I adored him. It is just that my Grandpa brought me some more joy to the joy I already had with my Dad.

I never knew or met my Mom's Dad, but my Dad's Dad is forever firmly etched in my mind. Before my age reached the double digits, I always looked forward to seeing my Grandpa. I wanted to see him more than I wanted to see an amusement park. That is how much I loved being with him. He was the king of the family, and I was his staunchest defender and protector. That was my Grandpa.

Mom would frequently mention her parents and the type of life she had when they were around. It seems that her Dad died long before I was born, but her Mom died shortly either before or after I turned two back in 1958. I honestly vaguely remember her. The only person who clearly reminded me of my maternal grandmother is her sister, my Aunt Van. Although my Aunt Van cared for me, she was as tough as nails. To be very honest, I never even saw her smile, not even during the family holidays. She was that stern. Thanks to Aunt Van, I had a somewhat vague idea of what my maternal grandmother was like. I did hear Mom regale me with a story of how her Mom would always cuddle with me and looked after me. It made me smile.

It would be years later that I would learn that my paternal grandmother was actually my Grandpa's second wife. It did not matter much to me because I still loved her, but I was informed by my eldest uncle that my Grandpa's first wife died shortly after my uncle was born. Obviously, I never met her nor did I ever hear any stories about her either. So what she was like has always remained a mystery to me.

All through the decades, I would sit and listen to my Mom talk about her Mom, but I never heard Dad talk about his side of the family. I was content knowing that I could go to either side and ask questions, but I never did.

Then, the barrage of death arrived. For the first time after finishing my three year stint as an altar boy at my church, this Catholic boy was in for a very rude awakening.

In 1975, just shortly before finishing my first year of studies at St. John's University, my much beloved Grandpa died. This really shook me to the core as I started that school year mourning the automobile death of a close friend of mine. It really pained me to see my Dad walk up to his Dad's open casket to say goodbye. I saw the pain on his face, but never realized how much that had hurt Dad. I did not want to be in the very same situation when it was time for my Dad to go. What did I know?

In 1979, my Aunt Van passed away as well as my Uncle Percy, my Grandpa's brother. Still, because I was not really close to the last two individuals, my mourning period was not as tough for me as it was when Grandpa died. Because I had no car or any other means of transportation, except for the city bus, I never attended the last two funerals. I just decided to stay home and just think of them instead. It was the best I could do considering the situation.

Time moved on!

I am now looking at the middle of December 2018. The hair on my roof has quickly turned into snow. I am the ripe old age of 62 with 63 about to knock on my door at some time in the coming February. I am older, but not too much wiser because there is still plenty for me to learn in the coming days, weeks, months and, perhaps, years, if I am allowed to have that much time. During the time since Grandpa died, I lost my baby sister in 1987, Dad in 2012, and Mom in 2015. Yes, my family got much smaller.

Each day that I wake up, I think about them constantly. When it is time for me to go to work, I never take the direct route anymore—even if I am late. I take the “scenic” route that allows me to pass by my parents’ resting ground, so that I can say a passing thought to them. “Hi, Mom, Dad, and Janice. I miss you each and every single day.” Then, it is off to work. On the ride home, I take it slow. I already passed the cemetery on the way to work. Now, the drive home is just to take in the memory where they used to go to the corner store, gas station, cleaners and anywhere else I used to see them. It is just that life is not the same anymore without them.

In my mind, death came for them too soon. They needed to see more great grandchildren, the expansion of our family. They needed to see me retire. I wanted them to also see me marry, but all of that is for naught. They are no longer around. I had always especially planned to help them celebrate 100 years of life, but that will never be at all for any of them.

I am constantly depressed from the moment I wake up until the time I go to sleep. I have no reason to even smile. Celebrating holidays always include visits to the cemeteries so that my loved ones will know that they are never going to be forgotten. That is my life.

Then... it really dawned on me!

When my Grandpa died, my Dad was just a mere 45 years old. When my Dad died, I was 55 years old. By a sheer miracle of numbers, I had 10 more years to enjoy my Dad than he had with his Dad. I don’t remember offhand how old my Mom was when her Mom died, but I had more time with my Mom than she had with her Mom. It was a strange consolation, but it was true.

I also realized one more thing that is very important here. I realized that through the latter portions of my life, my parents were probably quietly dealing with the deaths of their parents. They looked to my brother, sister, and me to keep their minds off those deaths. That sort of explained to me why we moved from Manhattan to Queens while I was only two years old. The depression of my maternal grandmother compelled my Mom to get out of the same living quarters before depression drove her crazy. It all began to make some sense. Dad, on the other hand, seemed to be okay. However, when my paternal grandfather died in 1975, I saw some very subtle changes in Dad, as well as his brothers and his only sister. We sort of grew a wee bit closer.

I remember very well the day when my sister Janice died. It tore me to pieces because she and I were very close. She was my confidant. I told her my secrets and she told me hers. We were about as close as a brother or sister could be. She was the best sister a guy could ever have and I was (and still am) proud to be called her big brother. When I arrived and saw her cold and lifeless body on that hospital bed, the bottom fell out for me.

The funeral was our first as a family. Mom and Dad held each other very closely. My baby brother sat in silence with his soon-to-be wife. The ceremony in the church was quick, but extremely poignant. It was the best sendoff that I have ever been a part of.

A few months later, I rode with Dad, Mom, and Janice's daughter (my niece) to see Janice's grave somewhere in Long Island. The four of us stood at her grave and prayed for a bit. At that moment, however, Dad walked a short distance away. He paused and hung his head low. I could not see his face, but I realized what was happening. He was crying! My Dad was actually crying that day, but he did not want us to see him shedding a tear. I knew that he loved Janice, but the pain of seeing his only daughter's grave must have really hit him hard. I understood. Mom, Jasmine, and I usually openly cried together, but this was a first for me.

Now, it is my turn. The relay baton has finally been passed to me. I attempted to run track in high school. Even though I was unsuccessful there, I was successful in understanding that it was my turn to deal with this pain. I soon realized that through all of my life living with my parents' that grief never goes away. You only get used to it being around. You are death's whipping post as it tries to bring you further down in the various levels of depression. You simply have to live and deal with it.

When I look back to those sad moments, I can see the pain my parents had to deal with because, in the wake of their deaths, I have to deal with it, too. When I hear of other deaths, famous and non-famous, it strikes a chord with me. At the time of this writing, I watched as former President George W. Bush eulogized his dad, George H. W. Bush. I saw how the son choked back tears as he told his Dad that he loved him. Perhaps, that is what my parents were saying to their parents at various times. That is why Dad cried at the cemetery. That is why Mom frequently mentioned her Mom, the Grandma I never really had the chance to know. I would imagine that one day, my niece Jasmine will do the same when she thinks about her Mom. I know that these things will happen because I am experiencing them now.

There are times, for no apparent reason, I just look back at the times I shared with Mom, Dad, and Janice. It is still too hard for me to accept that they are now in the past. They will no longer create new memories with me. They are no longer around to hug me, talk with me, encourage me, or even reprimand me when I go astray. No, they are not here, but their memories live on.

In closing, it is now my turn. One day, I, too, will be gone. In my case, however, I do not want anyone, especially Jasmine, mourning my death. It is too much of an anchor to bear. Instead, I want everyone to move on. I do not want them to be depressed. It is not worth the struggle in my case. Try to live life to its fullest and avoid all the pain.

After all, the race is far from over.

Photo by Echo Grid on Unsplash

Maurice Bernier
Maurice Bernier

I am a diehard New Yorker! I was born, raised and love my NYC. My blood bleeds orange & blue for my New York Mets. I hope that you like my work. I am cranking them out as fast as I can. Please enjoy & share with your friends.

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