It takes 18 days for a soulmate’s heart to break.
My Grandma passed away the evening of Feb. 6th. Grandpa followed on Monday, the 24th. I think it would have been even sooner if he hadn’t been such a strong man and if some dementia hadn’t rattled him this past year or so.
It’s hard to imagine the world without either of them — the fiery Italian woman with coffee and cookies, Christmas decorations and simple yet effective advice and her sailor, a man who passed his tough love, grizzly-on-the-outside-teddy-bear-on-the-inside demeanor to my Dad. It’s hard to imagine the world without them, but it would have been much more painful for one to endure continued absence of the other.
They would have been married 69 years last week. 69 years watching their five children grow, and watching Grandma inconsolable over the loss of her eldest a few years ago. 69 years watching their farmhouse in the country become a small stamp in Suburbia, 17 grandkids and 17 great-grandkids mingling about their outdoor pool, their shag-carpeted living room, the concrete patio with colorful lights strewn about us in the night.
My grandmother brought the words of wisdom and the most delicious food ever created.
My grandfather was a hard-working man who was still doing odds ‘n’ ends with his backhoe well into his late 70s.
I loved sitting across from my grandma at her kitchen table, escaping the world’s problems and life’s hardships even for just a few moments. And sitting on my grandpa’s lap meant giggles and made-up songs on repeat.
“Baby Face, you got the cutest little Baby Face…”
My Dad has his hands. They are large and strong, they are tan and worn. They are good for holding. They make you stronger, just by holding them for a bit.
“What’s the secret to a happy marriage for so long, Grandpa?” I asked him once.
He smirked mischievously. “You think I’m happy???” he joked. “She tortures me all the time.”
And then they would start their Laurel-and-Hardy-like sketch about him leaving World War II and marrying her and starting World War III.
“Oh, you never had it so good,” she would say, whacking his shoulder with her hand while winking at us.
We, as their legacy holders, never had it as good as we did in their midst. They created incredibly smart individuals — some good with numbers and some good with tools. They created street-smart kiddos, too — the tough little girls and polite little boys who grew up to be good friends and siblings and husbands and wives.
Their home, I think, will quite simply last longer than bricks or stones. It is built with memories and survival and love, and that is the greatest of foundations.
When the wind is light and the air is warm, I can see him, flyswatter or pipe in hand, scanning his land from the front porch. I know she is happy, maybe on the phone, the long cord wrapped around coffee cups and wooden chairs as she stirs her homemade sauce.
“Hello, young lady,” he says in his deep voice. He gives you the best hug like it’s nothing at all, but when you look back over your shoulder as you walk away, he is smiling. He is smiling and nodding and beaming with pride.
Years after my mother passed away, my grandfather would still regularly visit her grave. Such a simple gesture, such a beautiful thought from a kind man who never forgot a life and who lived his as if each day was his last. He suffered when his friends began to pass away, his heart ached so much. I can only imagine the suffering he faced in those moments of clarity these past 18 days when he realized his stubborn soulmate was gone.
When I last saw my Grandpa, the day after he stared at his wife’s coffin on a winter day alternating between “You have to take life as it comes” and bits of confusion, he was sleeping in his recliner in the living room. I wanted desperately to jump into his lap for old times’ sake. But instead, I took his hand in mine. He woke for just a moment, smiled, said “It’ll be OK.”
I don’t know what he meant. Perhaps he meant we would be OK without them. Perhaps he meant he’d be OK.
I just know that in that moment, he was offering me strength, just one last time.
He loved his church and his God, his friends and his home. But most of all, he loved the faces in the 200-plus photographs on their living room walls. Some were yellowed from the sun while others showed brand new babies who wouldn’t remember “Baby Face” or “young lady” but would still, I’m sure, feel and know their love.
Those of us left behind mourn so greatly because we miss their physical mementoes — the hugs and kisses and those strong, callused hands. We miss hearing their laughter and their bickering. We miss the smells of warm meals to feed 12 when only six were invited for dinner. We miss the sound of the backhoe putt-putting across the driveway. The same jokes, the easygoing love between a couple seven decades in the making.
But we can not be sad.
They are together. I have never in my life been so sure of two souls going directly to Heaven as I am with my grandparents. Not only will they pass through the Pearly Gates, they will do so with Frank Sinatra serenading them, John Wayne applauding them and balloons surrounding them. Confetti will rain down on silver hair, hands interlocked again.
And then the lady and her sailor will be reunited. This time, forever. With no war, no loss, no sickness.
My grandfather died from a long decline in health.
And a heart that took 18 days to break in two.
Rest in Peace, you two. And try to stay out of trouble.