Last week my grandfather, my father’s father, died of cancer. He had cancer for almost fifteen years. At each step, he’d conquer the cells at hand, live somewhat worry-free for a while and then new little demons would move in. Eventually he had a certain grouchy acceptance of his fate. He was getting older and he’d beaten many odds.
A couple months before he died I visited him at his home in Florida. He was inching ever so slightly closer to letting go. He was not the sort of fellow to indulge in soulful talk about death. And so as we spanned topics, all ordinary in nature, my heart raced alongside clamoring to retain—his inflection, his gestures, his words. Mostly his presence. I needed to go beyond hearing so that I could remember.
The weeks to follow provided more opportunity for phone conversations, mostly about the weather, my sons, baseball. But on the evening I received the call that there was no more time to talk, I wept like I was seven. I’d had a long time to prepare for this, but it didn’t seem to matter.
I am an “only child” of two high school sweethearts who, like most first loves, out grew each other as they grew into themselves. I have no memories of my family because my parents divorced when I was two. My memories of family are fragments. Playful years with my mother. Struggles as she remarried. Joy and resentment as half brothers and sisters were born. Summer vacations with Dad. Holidays spent having multiple dinners, surrounded by many people who loved me, but without any one person who shared my unique history. I longed for my own sense of place.
Except when I was with my grandparents. All four, in their own unique way unequivocally let me know where my place was. It was with them. When with them, there was no prefix needed. I wasn’t half or step anything. I was simply Holly. I relished in just being me. No change of heart or re-configuring of anything would erase my status as granddaughter. Their granddaughter.
I soaked up ever bit, in fact needed, their love. Better yet, they seemed to desire the same oneness with me. Maybe it was because I was the first grandchild. Or, it was their way of showing love to a son and daughter. The reasons they gave their love do not matter. That they did made all the difference.
And so on the night my grandfather died, I sat eyes closed momentarily yearning to be ten again. To feel the warmth of grandparent pride. Of endless hope and admiration. I thought of summer vacations, hours spent cooking, dinners out sipping Shirley Temples, late night conversations, card games, boating, golfing, and shopping.
A grandmother’s generous laugh—a grandfather’s trumpet sweet and loud—a grandmother’s gift to indulge, to teach, to pray—a grandfather’s simple presence providing security beyond measure.
And then, a little left, but not at all alone, I opened my eyes and felt the warmth of my home—my place. The unconditional tenderness of a husband. The boundless, silly love of two sons.
And I thanked them, all four. For being there, then and now.
Holly Howley is a freelance writer living in Glastonbury, Connecticut. Holly can be reached at 860-430-1577 or