In a few weeks we're going to Minnesota for a 10-day stay. It'll have been a year since I was last home, the longest time I've ever been away from the Midwest. Wonder if I lost my accent. Will I remember how to say ya? Will I still appreciate the taste of a well-done hotdish?
For the first time in 34 years, I didn't experience a single month of Minnesota winter. Can't say I missed that part. But I am looking forward to going home, to see my folks and sister and my niece and four nephews and my aunts and uncles.
Since 2004, whenever we went back to Minnesota, we always made plans to "get to Fulda" so we could see my grandma. This will also be the first year our trip doesn't involve a trip to see her. She died last May 19, at the age of 91. A stroke. We flew back on May 21 last year for her funeral. This year, we're flying to Minnesota on May 21. It's purely a coincidence, not a plan. At the same time, May 21, 2009 has become one of those days where I'll always remember what I did, the same way I'll always remember hearing about grandma's stroke and death two days before.
Two days ago was another one of those anniversaries. On April 30, 1999, my grandpa died at the age of 86. He had been sick for a year. He died in a hospice. That was a day of double heartbreak. One of my uncle's best friends, my former basketball coach Mike Augustine, lost his father on the same day, just hours after my grandpa died. My uncle coached the women's basketball team at Minnesota West, Augie the men. On the same morning, both lost their fathers.
April 30, 1999 was a sad, devastating day, but it's not a sad, devastating anniversary. The same will be true for May 19. I thought about grandpa quite a bit on Friday, but even though it was the anniversary of the day he died, I thought about his life. But then, I think about him often, every day of the year, not just on April 30.
I think about him when I read a story about a veteran. Grandpa won a Silver Star in World War II. Growing up, I never heard him talk much about his service. I'd hear from my parents that grandpa suffered nightmares, ones where German soldiers came up from the lake at the farm. But like so many veterans, particularly of that war, he didn't talk a lot about his service or his heroics, only to say he never got mad after the war - a somewhat dubious claim. I only heard about the specifics of his service two months before he died, when I interviewed him for a newspaper story related to the Silver Star and some other medals, including the Purple Heart, he received in a ceremony while he lived in the hospice. I spent two days at his bedside, listening to him talk and replay those years. He talked about the men he served with, ones who died and those who made it back with him. He talked about his training. He talked about Patton. He talked about the incident that led to the Purple Heart.
The only thing he didn't talk about in depth was the event that led to his Silver Star, when he took out a German machine gun nest.
He kept those details to himself for more than 50 years of his life and held them close two months before his death. Those nightmares he suffered proved the memories of those German soldiers who had been in that nest never left him.
After Germany's surrender, grandpa volunteered to serve in Japan for the expected invasion, saying the sooner the war ended, the quicker he'd get home. The atomic bomb kept him from the Pacific.
I often think about grandpa when watching baseball, his favorite sport. He was a standout player, but that, of course, was way before my time. He still played with us in the large open area at the farm, where family games often broke out. One year, when I was maybe seven or eight, grandpa patrolled the outfield while I played short. A hit got through him and grandpa, in his 70s, took chase. A bit too slowly for my taste.
"Come on old man, go get the ball," I yelled. Grandpa finally picked it up and fired it back to me. Most of the family laughed while others were probably a bit horrified at my demands on the ol' ballplayer. But grandpa just laughed. He wasn't offended by my...uh, youthful exuberance. Besides, he knew better than anyone the importance of getting the ball to the cutoff man.
I think about him when watching basketball. I can picture him sitting in the top row of whatever gym I played in, watching quietly from above, the same scene he repeated while watching my cousins and my uncle's college team.
I remember his days in the hospice, the months he spent there, dying, surrounded by caring workers and other dying residents. But when I picture him, and when I dream about him, he's not in the hospice bed. He's wearing his ever-present bib overalls, sitting at the the kitchen table at the farm or in his chair in the living room.
I think about all of those things throughout the year. I don't need an anniversary to remember him, but each year April 30 does remind me of what we lost, while also making me appreciate what we had.
I'm sure the same feelings will come on May 19. Just like with grandpa, I think about grandma all the time. Being home for the first time since her death will be strange, possibly a bit upsetting. But the memories of the life she led overwhelm the memories of hearing she died.
My maternal grandpa died when I was 9. My memories of him are limited, fleeting visions that become harder to remember with every passing year. My paternal grandma died nearly eight years before I was born. I also think about both of them often, but with them it is more about their deaths, only because I didn't have the chance to enjoy their lives.
Everyone deals with these types of things differently. Some people remember the exact time their loved one died, others might not even recall the day. In the end, it's ultimately not that important what you do or how you remember the anniversaries. There's no right way. But it's not surprising that for many people those are difficult days to get through - it's the day the person stopped providing memories and instead became one.
But for me, last Friday wasn't a sad day. This May 19 won't be, either. Those days remind me of their deaths, but more importantly, they make me think about grandpa and grandma's lives. And those memories don't make me sad. They make me grateful.