Thursday, November 22, 2012

Silver linings

The end of the year is always a time of reflection. For me, there's not a lot good to reflect on this year, and it goes beyond the election results, which, while they are depressing, are not the end of the world. No, from a personal perspective, it's been a rough year for my family, and it's not over yet.

In August, I had an uncle pass away quite unexpectedly. He had apparently been ill for a while, but never shared with the rest of the family just how ill he had been. He had purposely become more estranged from the family to try and keep us from worrying over his condition. At the same time, my grandpa Billy's health was beginning to decline.  As it turned out, my uncle's funeral was at the end of August, and four weeks later we were back at the funeral home having services for my grandfather.

Billy was 95 and had led quite a life, and not to discount my uncle's life story, that's what I wanted to spend some time on today. Back in 1986 my real grandfather died from complications of emphysema. Billy, the man who would later become by grandmother's second husband, lost his wife to cancer about the same time, but more on that in a minute.

Billy was a 30 year veteran of the United States Army Air Corps/United States Air Force. He was stationed on Sai Pan in World War II where he was awarded (I believe) the Legion Of Merit. He was a mechanic and the unit he led were critical in their role in keeping aircraft operational. In one 72 hour stretch they serviced, repaired and rearmed planes non-stop for the duration, and their ability to keep planes in the air during this stretch of time was of critical importance to the war effort. If you asked him about it, he would say he was just doing his job, but the letter that accompanied the medal we found in a box in his garage said otherwise. But that's typical of people like Billy. Humility is first amongst their virtues.

He served in Korea and later in Vietnam before retiring from the service in 1971, at which time he went to work for IBM and retired for the second and final time in 1982 at age 65. After losing his wife to cancer he started walking with a seniors group at the mall in town. You could find him there most mornings, walking the perimeter of the mall with other seniors and drinking a cup of coffee after logging his miles. At least, that's where my grandma found him in 1992. A friend of hers forced her to introduce herself to him, and he asked out for date that very night. Those Air Force boys move fast! She said 'yes' and a whirlwind courtship ensued.

They married that year and Billy and Grandma traveled the world. He took her to Australia and Europe, bought her a mobile home and traveled the US, wintering in Florida or Arizona, or where ever she wanted to go. We used to joke that Billy still had his original nickel, because he never spent money on himself (he was angry when we bought him a new 32" TV because the old, 20 inch quasi-color unit still worked fine...but once he saw his first Broncos game on it he stopped complaining).  But, though he only ever spent money on what he needed vs. what he wanted, with grandma it was a different story, because he sure didn't think twice about spending money taking care of her. To him she was a need, not a want. We never had to worry about her after they met because we knew he would provide for her.

After a second marriage that lasted longer than most people's first marriages, Grandma buried her second husband in early October. Now 96 years old, she's had more than her share of tragedy, as you might expect from someone who's been on Earth for almost a century. She's outlived her 9 brother's and sisters, and has buried two of her own children (one this August) and 2 husbands (the second in October). In a weak moment, she'll tell me she doesn't know what she's going to do, but she'll catch herself and say "I'll get through it. I'm a tough old bird."  She still drives herself to the store, gets her hair styled once a week and gets dressed up when I go have lunch with her (even if we don't go out), and always wears a pair of earrings I got her for Christmas when I was a teenager. After everything she's been through she still pays attention to the little things.

Tragedy has struck again as my wife's grandmother fell and broke her hip and had to have it replaced. She's not recovered from the surgery well and we're now keeping vigil waiting for the inevitable, which we're told will probably come this weekend. My grandma and my wife's were not close friends but always enjoyed each other's company at family get-togethers. So Grandma calls to check in and see if there's anything she can do, and tells us she's praying for her. Even after all she's been through this year, she's not feeling sorry for herself, but rather is worried about my wife and her family. Even though she pays attention to the little things, she still sees the big picture.

So now it's Thanksgiving. Our dinner tomorrow will be a somber one, with long shadows cast over it on both sides of our family. Seats at the table will be empty that have not been in decades, if ever, and my first thought is that I don't have a lot to be thankful for this year, other than it's almost over. But that's not true. Despite the hard times this year, I'm thankful that my grandma had 20 years with Billy. I'm glad that I got to know him. In the end, I knew him longer than my real grandfather. He demonstrated the value of thrift, that hard work is its own reward, that humility and perseverance will carry far in life, and that doing good things makes a difference to people around you. I'm also grateful that all of this has brought me closer to my grandmother. I've learned more from her about my family's history this year than I have in the previous 42. I've reconnected with cousins and made plans for next year with extended family. I've seen my side of our family pull together in the face of multiple losses this year, and now we're going through it all again on my wife's side as we have another loss looming in the near future. So yes, it's hard to be thankful if you dwell on the losses.  But when you pay attention to the little things - the lessons left behind, the connections made or re-made, and the big picture things like what lies ahead for the rest of us, and how we can impact the lives of others then yes, there's a lot to be grateful for.

I also know that ours isn't the only family dealing with losses this year, and that our personal tragedies aren't even the worst we could be facing, so that helps put some perspective around it for me.  Whatever is going on in your world this year, I hope you have a good Thanksgiving and find much to celebrate. Life can be painful, but life is good.

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