When I was 15-years-old, my grandfather was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer. He was 64.
To say this was a shock would be a drastic understatement. My grandfather was a healthy, active guy. He had just finished putting a new roof on the barn for my grandmother. If he hadn’t hurt his back shoveling stone dust for their driveway, I don’t know if he ever would have gone to the doctor.
I idolized my grandfather. The news that he might not be around for my high school graduation was crushing. But we had been given the gift of warning. And I took the time to learn more about him those months than ever before.
The Best Advice I Ever Got From A Teacher
After my grandfather’s diagnosis, I spoke to my high school English teacher, Mr. Campbell, about how miserable I felt. (Great teachers of poetry are easier to approach with feelings and struggle.) I didn’t know what to do. How was I supposed to fit a lifetime of moments into just a few months?
Mr. Campbell told me about when his dad died. About how he asked him all the questions that he had never thought it was important to ask before. All the little things you wonder about but think there will be time for later. He recommended I do the same.
So, every week, for months, I sent my grandfather a question. I remember being a little afraid to ask. Not wanting to intrude. But also wanting to reach out with one every day, just to know as much of him as possible.
Mr. Campbell helped me with some ideas. And the responses from my grandfather were beautiful.
All The Things I Never Knew
I have so memories of time with my grandfather. Birthday parties, hockey games, holidays, modified races, and pool parties.
I’ll never forget how he carried mini-Constitutions to give out to anyone who would listen. Or how he would wake up at 5 o’clock every morning and have donuts at the house before everyone woke up when he visited. His focus and joy while working as the spotter when my dad raced cars.
But somehow, the things that come to me most clearly are the stories he told me that year. The little things that took him from idol to person.
How he got his first car at 14 and put almost 100 miles on it driving up and down his driveway until he got his license.
How he was afraid of werewolves. His brothers had taken him to a werewolf movie when he was small, and the fear stuck with him. So much so that he was afraid to go outside in the dark well into his teen years.
His first wife, my dad’s mom, had died when my father was young. It took his diagnosis to give me the courage to ask about her. How they met, what she was like. About love and loss and family.
When He Was Gone
Two months before my sixteenth birthday, my grandfather passed away. My dad and my grandmother (both of them, I choose to believe) were with him.
I spoke at his funeral. To be honest, I don’t recall exactly what I said. I know I read pieces of his letters, but my sole focus at that moment was getting the words out. Afterward, I hugged my aunts and uncles, and they asked me to share more of what I learned. He had six kids, but none of them had heard these stories.
We were overjoyed to have these little pieces of him. But we’ll always wonder what other things we never thought to ask.
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How His Letters Changed My Life
My grandfather’s name was Robert. Baby Minnow’s middle name is Remus, in his honor. Searching for names that started with R, this Harry Potter reference floated to the surface. And I thought, perhaps, a friendly werewolf would be fitting.
You may wonder why I’m writing this story. It won’t earn you more money, improve your investments, or help you find your passion. But it is something I think everyone needs to hear.
I was lucky. My family could prepare for my grandfather’s passing. He could settle his affairs, hug his loved ones, and share his story. But we won’t all get that blessing.
There is no guarantee that our kids or grandkids will be able to ready themselves before our time comes. So never miss the opportunity to say your piece. To give your family the little stories and advice that will make you real to them even once you’ve been gone for years. Tell them about what you wanted to be when you grew up, your first kiss, your wedding, the day they were born. Let them know you’re proud.
If your kids aren’t old enough to hear it, or wise enough to listen, write it down. Keep it somewhere safe and sign every message with love.
Have you ever lost someone important to you? What do you wish you asked them? Share your stories in the comments!