In Rilke’s masterpiece, , he writes:
…take your heaviness
and give it back to the earth’s own weight;
the mountains are heavy, the oceans are heavy.
Even the trees you planted as children
have long grown too heavy; you could not bear them.
Which is reminiscent of Paul: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth…Not only so, but we ourselves…groan inwardly…” (Romans 8:22 & 23) On the way back home from our last farewell with Granddad I was heavy. Heavy with him weakened and dying, heavy already feeling the loss. What a loss not to be able to hear him one last time. Upon arriving home another loss: a simple conversation. One easily, up until then, taken for granted. Spoken liturgically between us: “We’re safe, Granddad. Yeah, we made record time. Yep, we got 34 mpg.”
Rilke goes on a few short sonnets later:
Only in the realm of praise may Lament
range, water nymph of the tear-fed stream,
watching over our cascade to ensure
that it strikes clearly on the same rock
that supports the gates and altars.—
Look, around her quiet shoulders dawns
the feeling that among the siblings
of the heart, she must be the youngest.
Jubilation knows, and Longing has admired,—
only Lament still learns; with slender hands
she counts for nights on end the ancient curse.
Yet suddenly, maladroit and artless,
she lifts a constellation of our voice
into a sky not clouded by her breath.
On the car ride home I realized that the crisis of today is for all the joy of all the yesterdays. I am not sullen only because death still has its sting. But because in the melancholic moment we confront most unmistakably the full cosmic expanse of our joy. The joy we had when he was alive—when we foolishly thought that it, like the universe, was infinite and would forever expand and would not collapse on itself. It is this loss and collapse back to joy that I’d like to talk more about.
I know this room possesses many collected moments of joy. I heard some of them in the hospital room; we shared as much laughter as we did tears. It was a room full of people who called him by many titles—friend, elder, brother, dad, husband, professor, doctor—but honestly none of those much matter to me. He was my Granddad. Of course, you may all be aware that we did not share genetics or blood, but none of us grandchildren would have presumed differently. My older sister, Jill, announced one day while still quite young that she “got her pretty blue eyes from Granddad.” Never mind the first fact, the second being that he did not have blue eyes. So earnest were we all to be like the man that we loved—who loved us so dearly, as if we were his own.
It would have been enough if Granddad had merely been a good husband to our beloved Grandmother, but those of you who knew him know that he was much too big-hearted for ‘just’. He took care of his aging mother-in-law, his rascal of a sister-in-law (pre- and post-lawsuit), and the thrice widowed mother of the man who left my Grandmother. He did the same for his brother and sisters—supporting them, putting them through school, buying them “the prettiest bikes in town”—after his father died. But more importantly to me, he got down on his hands and knees to play Matchbox cars with me. Of course not just any cars—Porsches, Jaguars, Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, Austin Healeys, and Astin Martins. He was quick to get on his knees to play Drill Sergeant. He was always quick to get down on our level—collapse the distance. And those were the best times. The memories that stretch. Like the time in his dressing down of us new recruits he grilled my little sister, Julie, “Why did you not shave, soldier?” To which she replied with a hand on hip and in an impossibly prissy voice: “Well, I shaved my legs!” His laughter was as big then as it was every time he recounted the story. There are many other fun moments. Games with hallway mirrors. Fantastic Uncle Bill and Ivan stories. I’ve never met Ivan and to this day still believe he was Granddad’s invention in order to hide his rapscallion alter ego. And, of course, the great “Hamburger Condiment” and “Soda/Pop” debates—if you weren’t careful you’d be forever labeled a Yankee.
Later in life, now with children of my own, he told me I was the best dad he had ever seen—most likely the hyperbole of an adoring grandfather. But if it bears any truth, it is because I too get down on my hands and knees—on their level—attendant to his example.
He was always my most adoring fan. My first stage was the fireplace hearth at their house on Simms where I played the ukulele nearly naked except for underwear singing, “Santa Claus is coming to tow-yon.” He would listen intently to everything I had to say, even on the 753 miles between Oklahoma City and Durango where I would fill the skies over the plains of the panhandle with all the words a seven-year-old could muster. There was not enough sky for the words. On subsequent trips there was a standing rule: no talking through Amarillo or Albuquerque. But always on the other side of town he’d say, “OK,” and I’d continue exactly where I’d left off.
They took one of us grandchildren every year on vacation with them. It was out west as a young boy that Granddad handed me his 1950s Nikon Rangefinder (today it sits proudly on my book shelf), gave me film and explained aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and the theory of thirds. Photography is still a passion of mine. It was on these trips I learned that with landscape photography you set aperture low, which is to say the focus is infinite. In photographic terms infinite means ‘as far as the eye can see’. Today I desperately wish to widen the aperture—shorten the depth of field, keep the focus here a little bit longer and on him. Instead, we must set our focus wider than the eye can see. Even still wider on Infinity. Where “we wait eagerly for…the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all…” (Romans 8:23-25) So today we can lament—walk through the collapse together and see the joy behind us as far as the eye can see. And attentive, adoring, and kneeling we may even hope for the joy set before us stretching further than any eye can see.