Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A year ago today

Last year at this time I was waking up in North Dakota for a traditional Wheeler breakfast at my grandparents' farm--a pan of homemade caramel rolls and a selection of Grandma's jams and jellies to put on freshly made toast.

It was Grandpa's 80th birthday, and I had flown in the day before to surprise him. We ate our breakfast while talking about the upcoming presidential election. Of all the people I have talked politics with in my life, and there's a lot, my conversations with Grandpa were the ones I always enjoyed the most. He was a steadfast catholic and dedicated farmer who lived almost his entire life on the rural plains of a sparsely populated state.

Grandpa was also an ardent Democrat, but a man who'd only vote for the person he thought could do the job regardless of party lines. It was still early in the election cycle, and Grandpa and I had already made up our minds Obama was the man for the job--much to the dismay of many in our family.

While Grandma washed dishes, Grandpa and I got so busy gabbing about politics we didn't notice her trying to join our conversation. She finally walked over to the table with dish towel in hand and said, just on the verge of yelling, "That's enough talking. It's my turn to say something."

Grandpa and I looked up from our cups of coffee and caramel rolls surprised.

"Well Ma. You have the floor. Speak," Grandpa said.

"Well, you two have already said it all. I guess I just wanted to say I agree," she said.

Grandpa looked at me, smiled his big smile, and said, "She's getting assertive in her old age. I like it."

I think the impromptu conversations like this one that took place before, during, and after meals, are what I'll miss most about Grandpa. They weren't always about politics. Sometimes they were about my career, and other times they were about my love life.

Unlike most women my age, I took delight in talking about my relationships with Grandpa. Maybe because unlike most grandpas, he took an interest in knowing.

It's only been a few weeks since I lost Grandpa very unexpectedly in an accident on the farm, and today is an especially hard day. Even though I'm fairly certain he went the way he always said he wanted to go, fast and without pain, I think about and miss him every day.

An image of Grandpa bringing me solace during this difficult time is the picture to the right. I took it on his 80th birthday last year, the day that started out with the story above.  I remember taking it because the look of complete contentment on his face. He was sitting in the living room he'd built with his dad many years before while taking in his wife, children, and grandchildren all playing games and laughing.

It had been a long and wonderful day of surprises for Grandpa. Not only had his loving wife of more than 60 years planned a huge surprise party with many of his friends and family, but he also received a gift that fulfilled his lifelong dream of a fishing trip to Alaska. I also surprised Grandpa with a video montage of pictures showing the complete and full life he'd lived (full video below).

This photo, to me, encapsulates a quote I read yesterday in the book Mortalism: Readings on the Meaning of Life. I bought the book a few days ago to help me figure out all the thoughts and emotions running through me right now. The quote this picture reminds me of is from the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus:
"But the wise man neither begs off from life nor does he fear the loss of it. For life does not offend him, nor does not being alive seem an evil to him. And just as he doesn't automatically choose the largest amount of food, but the tastiest dish, he doesn't grasp for the longest span of time but the most pleasant one."

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

For Grandpa

It's amazing how a person's life perspective changes in the blink of an eye. Two weeks ago I was consumed by anxiety over being reduced in hours at my job and wondering how I was going to make rent and my student loan payments. Then on May 4, my life changed forever with the news of my grandpa being killed in an accident on the farm that's been in my family for more than a century.

I have grown in more ways during this last week at my grandparents' farm than I have any other time in my life, including recovering from the aftermath of 9/11. My grandpa was one of the closest people to me, and I never knew how I would cope with losing him. Now I know, and will probably share more of what I've learned in this last week at a later time. For now, at the request of several family members, I will leave you with the words I spoke at his funeral last Friday.

Lorne Wheeler
May 28, 1928 – May 4, 2009

When I got the news about Grandpa's accident on Monday, I was at work. My boss, sitting on the ground next to me in my cubicle holding me while I cried, said, "I never met your grandpa, but from all the stories you tell I think he left this world in a way fitting of him. He left strong and working on the land he loved."

Over the past two years, I’ve been in the process of writing Grandpa’s memoirs for him. As a trained journalist I'm supposed to be able to sum up a person's story and fit it all into a few inches of printed words. But when it comes to Grandpa, there's not enough paper in this world that could ever hold the fullness of life he lived.

The names of our family alone would take up several Sunday editions of The Fargo Forum, not to mention the names of the thousands of people whose lives were touched in some way by Grandpa.

We are his story. All of us, in our own way, have taken on characteristics of him that will live on for generations to come.

For some it's his irresistible humor and robust, hearty laugh that can be heard above everyone's in the room.

For others it's his incredible compassion and strength of spirit that can put anyone at ease the moment you quietly and gently reach for their hand, instinctively knowing the exact amount of time to hold it.

For others it's his sense of duty and diligent work ethic that inspires those around you to press on and press through, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

For others it's his appetite for adventure, and perhaps his appetite in general, in appreciating the here and now by taking joy in all of the simple day-to-day blessings life brings.

For others it's his shrewd business sense and honesty that garners the immense respect of those around you.

For others it's his selflessness and willingness to always be the bigger person who regularly sets aside their own needs for the sake of others.

And in all of these things, a characteristic held by each and everyone one of us in the Wheeler clan is knowing the importance of family. We are big, both in numbers and in love. The reason for this is because of the incredible love shared by two amazing people, Lorne and Libbey Wheeler, whose priority has always been and always will be the family.

So as we move forward with our lives from this incredibly sad time, we can take solace in knowing that Grandpa will always be with us so long as we have each other.