The Beautiful Melody of a Life Well-Lived

In my last column, I wrote about leaving a church – a transition that was harder than I expected. There’s another kind of transition, too. The kind you know will be hard and you can’t do anything about it.

My grandfather died last month.

He was ninety-nine years old. He died peacefully and with enough advance indication that his children had the chance to say goodbye. Rationally, I realize that this is about the best end-of-life scenario that anyone could possibly hope for.

But grief isn’t rational, of course.

So I’m heartbroken and pissed off and – somehow, despite it all – surprised by his absence. When someone makes it to ninety-nine, is it really such a stretch to think they’ll just live forever? Is that really asking so much?

As I write this column, I’m listening to a professional recording of my grandfather playing the viola. Many of my memories of him come with their own soundtrack, because he was a musician in the deepest, most profound sense of the word – a man whose entire life was defined by his relationship to music. It was his career and his calling.

I saw my grandparents mostly at the holidays, gatherings that were always filled with music. We’d gather in their living room, piled on couches or lying on the floor under the grand piano, while various family members took turns performing. My uncle played guitar. My mom and I played piano duets. Everybody sang. And my grandpa played the viola or the violin.

He and I played together throughout my childhood – first his patient accompaniment to my halting attempts on the viola, and later my frantic piano accompaniment to his violin. I say frantic because there is nothing more nerve-wracking than accompanying a professional musician, grandfather or no. I was terrified every single time we played together, but exultant when I made it through a piece without too many mistakes.

His musical career took him on concert tours across the country, and occasionally around the world, and during that time we became pen pals. He would send me postcards from his concert stops or short letters on the stationary I had made him, decorating sheets of paper with music notes from a rubber stamp. When he gifted me a set of his CDs, I was awestruck.

As I grew up, the sound of grandpa playing marked important moments in my life. He played at my wedding. And the baby dedication service for my son. He and my mom played together at my ex-husband’s installation service in 2012 at our “new” church in Kentucky. It was the last time they played together publicly, and it was perfect.

My grandfather was nearly 90 by the time my kids were born, but if you’re picturing a doddering old man, think again. Shortly after we moved to Kentucky, grandpa decided to move from his retirement community in Iowa to a different one in Ohio, because he knew more people there.

That’s right, at the age of 92, my grandpa moved across two states for a better social life.

My kids adored their Grandpa Larry. Although his body became increasingly frail – before each visit, there were preemptive injunctions against jumping on him – his mind was alert and his smile was always ready. He was a fabulous reader of children’s books, always imbuing them with personality. He would sit patiently on the couch as my kids returned with book after book, nestling contentedly beside him. Eventually, even that wasn’t possible, and he mostly just watched the ebb and flow of family gatherings. His hearing was fading, along with his participation, but you could see how much he enjoyed the hubbub.

My first Christmas in my new post-divorce house was the last year he was well enough to travel and I will forever picture him in the living room by the Christmas tree, smiling a bit bemusedly while my kids paraded before him in their matching holiday jammies.

Even after he could no longer experience music, it made one final appearance in our lives. On one of our final visits, he wasn’t doing very well. Verbal communication was difficult, so my older daughter drew him a picture of a violin in her sketchpad and left it with him as he dozed off. When we returned to his room a bit later, he had drawn a matching violin next to hers – a final, beautiful love note that we treasure.

Death hurts. Love is stronger. Memories are the greatest gift. Amen.

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