I remember a time when meeting someone who was just as damaged was a bit of a relief. Everyone walking…
My grandfather was a kind and gentle man. He was kind in the way TV grandfathers treat their grandkids on evening sitcoms. He pulled me around town in a little red Radio Flyer wagon for the majority of my childhood. Or at least, the childhood he got to see. Well, that’s how I remember him anyway. As I got older, my mother would tell me little bits about the man that was my best friend. A few years ago, she told me he was an insufferable drunk for the majority of his life. It two strokes, getting hit by a truck, and my birth to slow him down and turn him into the person who raised me.
He had a two very distinctive characteristics. The first, that the tip to the first knuckle of his middle finger was missing. As he told me, he was one of the few lucky people who could find work during the depression. He worked in a leather factory where he ran a massive press that would cut large pieces of shoe leather at once. The story goes, he was working so quickly that he didn’t even notice that part of his finger was missing until he saw the blood all over the leather.
The second was that he didn’t have the greatest dexterity on the right side of his body. While he could walk and use his arms, his movements were jerky and unsmooth. Something he did his best to hide. But the one thing he couldn’t hide was that he couldn’t ever tell just how tightly he would squeeze with his right hand. I was young, but I was aware enough to know not to take grandpa’s right hand while crossing the street because he would inadvertently crush my little hand.
My family would make the arduous task of driving the station wagon eight hours every summer to a little town in Minnesota called Centerville. A quiet little fishing town with, at the time maybe 600 residents. It was a nice change of pace and my mom could let me run free to catch crawfish in the creek and try and not worry about getting stolen or run over. I had three cousins all around my age so my grandfather really liked having all of his kids around him when we went up there.
One morning he called all of us kids to the door and asked if we wanted to walk with him up to the one and only gas station/grocery store in town for candy. Of course we all shouted “Yes!” and rushed out the door. Even on those quiet streets he wanted us to hold his hand to make sure he could keep track of us. I remember walking up the tightly packed gravel street holding his left hand and two of my cousins reaching for his right.
“Ouch!” One shouted, “You’re hurting me!”
“Grandpa! Stop squeezing my hand so hard!”
I looked up at my grandfather’s face and I can still remember his reaction as clear as day. He was frustrated and embarrassed. This ex-military man, known for his drinking and brute strength was now reduced to a feeble old man because of alcoholism, a series of brain misfires, and the misfortune of stepping into traffic.
My cousins joked and mocked him. They were young. We were all just little kids and didn’t understand the impact of our reactions and how our words affected others but I still remember. And more than thirty years later, burned on my brain, is that sad look of defeat on his face. One that screamed without shouting. One that left him looking defeated, like the moment you realize you are useless.
And I hate it.
I hate that memory. There are only a handful of memories that I would pay to forget. Ones that are so heartbreaking, they are permanent scars inside of our eyelids while we try to sleep decades later.
He died a year later in another tragic car accident. This time, he took my little brother with him. While they are both gone forever, I never saw it has heartbreaking. For my mother, yes. I can’t possibly fathom what it is like to lose your father and son at the same time but for my journey, it was tragic. Seeing the sorrow in his face when he couldn’t do the simple things like love his grandkids was heartbreaking. And that thought keeps me awake at night. And I would do anything to forget it. Sometimes I will go a few months without even thinking of it, then when I least expect it, that face comes rushing back to break my heart again.
I can handle tragedy, but I can’t live with heartbreak. And the only thing any of us can do is instill hope. Because watching someone lose hope infects us all. When you look into the eyes of a person who isn’t just sad, but has lost the light in their eyes, it is like a black parasite burrowing it’s way into your heart to dim your fire and smolder inside there forever.
We are all influenced by our surroundings. The people, the jobs, the strangers on the street. The articles and books we read and the amusement we seek. It all infects us whether we like it or not.
But one of the most important things you will ever learn is that you are someone’s parasite. You have the ability to burrow into the hearts and minds of those people quietly lurking in the shadows looking to you for inspiration and guidance. And what we project out into the world is what we infect into those around us.
I am a grown man far from perfect doing his best to forget the unforgettable. I hate that memory and year after year, I wish that I could just go back and tell him he was my hero. My everything. My mentor and my ideal of what was wrong and right. Hand or no hand, I would kill to have him squeeze me like that again. And in honor of that memory, I do my best to understand how my words impact others. Because whether you realize it or not, there are people out there holding your hand and watching your eyes to see how you do it. How you navigate the breakups and backstabs. How many times your go down and the grace with which you learn to stand and fight once again. And you need to know that there are still people in this world willing to fight for you. To believe in you. And you need to be that for them as well. And you damn well better do everything within you power to protect that little bit of fire left inside your heart.
Then we can learn to live with the heartbreak.