I wrote what follows this foreword on July 9, 2018. I was sitting with my sister at the bar at the restaurant where my brother worked. It was some of the earliest evening hours the restaurant was open and there was hardly anyone there. We both were drinking as we were waiting to catch my brother. Our grandmother had passed away. We were there for each other, to spread around some hugs, and to cry into some bourbon, as just one stop in a busy grief tour that always used to be expected to come from a family’s funeral week. (2020 told us not to even take that for granted, of course.)

The title of this essay came easily at the bar that evening (though it still felt like afternoon) and I recall the text flowed out quickly behind it. I think I finished it before I finished my bourbon that afternoon. That’s how I remember it at least.

My father believes a lot in sharing (and preserving) memories and especially loves to fill times of grief with impromptu group circles of memory sharing. Most usually in such situations I feel under- prepared like I forget to do the homework and I find it stressful and forget any useful memories and rarely have much to add. I appreciate everything about it, and I love my father for it, even if I do slack off on the “homework”.

This essay felt to me like one of the first times I was ever prepared with the homework, and yet the opportunity never quite arose to read it publicly. That’s what I had written it for. Some of that is certainly on me for not speaking up louder that I had something prepared and wanted to read it. Some of that is just the blur of all of that and way that grief gets processed and everything else going on. It’s funny in its own little way that the one time I felt prepared was a rare time where I didn’t feel I needed to be.

I’m sure I’m still processing this grief, as it’s been a weird four years. I thought something that may help a tiny bit is the small closure that would be from at least publishing it publicly, since it was intended as a public address, though presumably in a admittedly in more intimate setting like a family dinner. There two it’s funny in its own way that actually doing that in the moment felt scarier than publishing it in the somewhat less intimate setting of a blog post.

Other than adding this foreward, I’ve decided to leave this essay almost entirely as it has been sitting in my notes for four years.

“Don’t Grow Old.” It was a constant reminder from my Grandmother. An honest statement, certainly, but there was always a wink to it, a dry understanding and deadpan humor.

Grandma was our babysitter for so many important events in life. She watched us during the births of siblings. She watched us those nights a few weeks before Xmas when mom and dad needed a date night, but more importantly a night to buy all the presents to spoil us with. I believe it was Paige that figured out that pattern, used that in her eventual hunt for the presents before the day to open them. Don’t grow old.

In college, grandma was a source of reliable, cheap meals, but more than that she was an important sounding board for the stresses and anxieties of engineering school. She’d helped several of my uncles, her sons, through that of course, but the best help she provided here wasn’t specific advice. It was the conversation and it’s patterns. One of them was always: Don’t grow old.

Grandma was the best listener I know. She always paid attention and cared deeply about every word you said. She’d ask pointed questions to know everything about it, your thoughts on it, and how you were doing otherwise.

Over the years there were many conversations with my grandmother. Lazy Sunday afternoon chats in the den, and late night chats over dessert in the kitchen. We’d talk life or basketball or whatever would come to mind. Sometimes we’d grouse about politics together. She had a dark, wicked deadpan, and in the middle of the conversation would drop some ridiculous bon mot of the day from talk radio with a straight face and it would take a few moments to catch on. She found that hilarious. I found that hilarious, though that hairpin from shock to humor was tough sometimes, she was great about timing that. I’ve had to apologize for enough similar deadpan jokes over the years that I know I picked up the bad habit, and the sometimes terribly calculated timing from her. I never did understand the appeal of those talk radio shows though.

When I allowed the stresses of my freshman year of college to spiral to the point where I knew that I was failing at least one course and felt unlikely able to continue, Grandma was the first person I felt I could confide in. I didn’t always expect any direct answers, but I knew that the good questions she would ask would get my head around where I was, what my path forward was going to be, how I was going to possibly face my parents at all. Perhaps the closest thing to deep advice I’m sure she gave me then might only have been “don’t grow old,” which if it is advice, it’s always too late when you hear it. Yet at the end of that conversation I did feel so much better, and I did feel that I knew where I was, and what I was going to do. I did tell my parents next. I fought for it, and got two degrees, and made my grandmother proud. I certainly grew up and out of that funk, I’m not sure about old. I hope not.

It’s a deadpan joke where the punchline is terrible. “Don’t grow old.” Grandma said it nearly to everyone, but I sometimes felt like she particularly said and meant it to me a lot. I always wanted to think that maybe that’s because I was in on the joke, shared that sense of humor, that realize that all you can do is laugh, even though it hurts. Yet, it was always a reminder, too. Not in the Peter Pan sense of “Never Grow Up”, there was never anything wrong with growing up, growing into responsibilities, learning from past mistakes. Don’t grow old, don’t let it make you a worse person. Don’t let the pains of age and time harden you from the experience.

I’d like to think that I was in on the joke, but I realize that maybe I just more often needed that reminder. I had a chance to have one last conversation with her, late the other night in the hospital. Despite the circumstances, despite the situation, I could almost imagine it was a continuation of any of those other late night family chats in her kitchen. As I contemplated all the chats I would never have with her, all the stresses and anxieties she wouldn’t be there to ask pointed questions about, she made sure to remind me, “don’t grow old.” Hah.