Goodbye, Stranger

My grandfather died this winter, as the last one of my grandparents. He was 85 and outlived his eldest son – my father – even though he was an alcoholic and had been for almost his entire adult life.

My grandmother kicked him out due to his substance abuse ages ago, and thus, I remember only meeting him on two occasions: My father’s funeral in 2001 and my grandmother’s funeral in 2013. At both events, he asked me who I was.

How do you say goodbye to someone you don’t know?

It’s safe to say that we never knew each other, although both parts knew of each other’s existence. No attempts were made at rekindling a relationship or exchanging pleasantries on special occasions.

I found out my grandfather had died, when my uncle announced it on Facebook. For a while, I’d wondered if he was still alive, and knowing now that he wasn’t was a little strange.

My sister and I were invited to his funeral, and I thought long and hard about it. How do you say goodbye to someone you don’t know? How do you pay respects to someone who had no interest in your life? I decided not to go – I’d let the ones that were close to him say their last goodbyes without fuss.

Entering his apartment was such an uncanny experience

A few months later, my grandfather’s sister got in touch with my mother. Apparently, my uncle had chosen not to have anything to do with his father’s death, and as my sister, my brother and I were the next rightful heirs, we were now responsible for his estate. It had been empty since his death and was still costing money in rent.

So, yesterday, we went to his place to empty it. Entering his apartment was such an uncanny experience. Here, my grandfather, my father’s father, had lived for years and years, without me knowing him or anything about his life.

In his bedroom was a cabinet with two doors and two drawers, which was the first thing I investigated. I opened the first drawer, and to my major surprise, I saw a few Christmas cards – with pictures of my sister and me. They were from the late 80’s and early 90’s, which means he kept them for 30 years. It felt so unreal.

I stumbled upon so many things that revealed who he was

And then I felt a little guilty. Maybe he did think about us, maybe he did want to be a part of our lives. Maybe he was afraid that we’d reject him, the same way that our grandmother did. Maybe he was waiting for us to make the first move. And we never did. We didn’t even attend his funeral.

As I went through my grandfather’s stuff, sorting the trash from the keepsakes, I stumbled upon so many things that revealed who he was: Cards from his siblings and friends, logbooks recording his leave as a soldier and destinations as a sailor, course certificates, letters from past lovers and other very private belongings.

It made me think about people going through my stuff if I died now, and how much I‘d hate it. Nothing they would find could justify the choices I’ve made or convey my happiness or doubts about parts of my past. No object could reveal my true personality or make anybody understand how much I care about them.

The most important things in life aren’t things

My grandfather lived a simple life; he didn’t travel, didn’t buy fancy clothes or furniture, didn’t even have a car. His sister told us he’d stopped drinking a few years ago and condemned alcoholics to the day he died, and that he made several attempts at contacting my grandmother, when she was still alive, to apologize for the mistakes he made in the past.

With this somber experience, I’ve definitely been confirmed in my belief that the most important things in life aren’t things; that I don’t need to be wealthy to be happy. That the freedom to go wherever I want, whenever I want ranks much higher than any item I could ever buy.

Over the last few years, I’ve been questioning and obsessing over the meaning of life. I know now that I would much rather live a life that is rich in experiences and memories than with a house full of things, and knowing that I’ve lived a life that I have purposely created for myself and, hopefully, have no regrets about.

But, most of all, this experience has taught me the importance of loving and cherishing the ones that are close to me – before it’s too late.

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