I Asked My Grandfather What He Hoped I Would Do in Life

Throughout Pope Francis’ pontificate, he has been emphasizing the value of encounter between the young and the old. One of my favourite quotations ever of his is this: “We, the elderly, can remind young ambitious people that a life without love is arid. We can say to young people who are afraid that anxiety about the future can be beaten. We can teach young people too in love with themselves that there is more joy in giving than in receiving. The words of grandparents have something special for young people. And they know it.”

I think the reason I appreciate this quotation so much is because these are indeed the very things my grandfather taught me and, equally, the very things I most needed to learn from him.

My grandfather was deaf in his 80s and 90s, but his mind remained sharp until his death. I wrote to him A LOT and was the scribe at family dinners, usually transcribing the flow of the entire conversation for him.

One day, several years ago, I decided to ask my grandfather what he hoped I would do in my future, what he thought I would be.

The answer he gave me in this 1-minute clip is one of my most precious memories.

Indeed those words were special, and I knew so right away.

Death is Contagious

Today I was reading through Henri Nouwen’s correspondence and came across some interesting reflections of his in a letter he wrote to a friend whose father had just passed away.

In a 1987 letter addressed to Jurjen Beumer, Henri Nouwen wrote:

Many thanks for your very kind letter. I am very moved by what you write about the death of your father. I am so happy that you had a good and cordial farewell. I realize how important that is for you, especially since you told me a little about the tensions in your relationship with your father. Somehow I am convinced that this is a very important moment in your life, a moment in which you are facing your own mortality in a new way and where your father will become become a new companion in your own journey. I am deeply convinced that the death of those whom we love always is a death for us, that is to say, a death that calls us to deepen our own basic commitments and to develop a new freedom to proclaim what we most believe in.

Have you ever considered whether the death of a loved one has been a mini-death for you in the way Nouwen describes?

Is it true that the death of a loved one “calls us to deepen our own basic commitments and to develop a new freedom to proclaim what we most believe in”?

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Responding to Death with Poetry

My grandmother died on September 22, 2009 between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. A few days after her death, when I was 18, I wrote this poem in memory of her, which I just found again today:

A Tribute to My Grandmother

I first met my grandmother
When I was very young
She held me in her arms
Before I had turned one

My family ventured to Toronto
And she and grandpa came to Calgary
Those times were special then
Always remembered they will be

When I was only four
My grandma called me near
I didn’t like her nickname for me
She used to call me ‘dear’

So we agreed upon ‘Mandy’
This name for only her to call me
Her precocious little granddaughter 
And I would call her ‘Bubbie’

I remember the trips to Toys ‘R’ Us
With my brother to choose toys
We could pick almost anything
As long as it would bring us joy

My grandma loved education
And she always called me clever
She knew my commitment to my education
Would surely last forever

In her final years
Bubbie grew old and frail
But my grandpa visited her
Every day without fail

I learned unconditional love
Through the witness that they gave
To a love that knows no bounds
And to a love that is very brave

Sometimes it was hard to see my grandma
Lost and confused in her mind
Then I’d remember though
How much her heart was refined

My grandma’s life was a gift
From the God who I do praise
The Lord is compassionate and loving
In all His mighty ways

Ever since I was a child, writing has been my favourite creative outlet. Whenever someone would die or whenever I would grapple with the mystery of suffering and death, I would scribble words of poetry and reflection to contend and find meaning.

In addition to being a helpful outlet at the time, I find it interesting to look back on what I wrote in the past and to discover how sealing those memories through creative acts magnifies the memories I hold.

How To Become Something

I was struck today by something I read on the Anne Frank House website:

On this Q&A-style page, there is question: “What does writing mean to Anne?”

The answer that follows is this:

Writing meant a great deal to Anne. It was her way to vent.

The nicest part is being able to write down all my thoughts and feelings; otherwise, I’d absolutely suffocate. – Anne Frank, 16 March 1944

She hoped one day to become a famous writer or journalist. Although she doubted from time to time whether she was talented enough, Anne wanted to write anyway.

That last sentence is so key! She hoped to become a famous writer and, in fact, she did but not in a way she could have ever expected. Anne Frank perished in the Holocaust at age 15, and her diary went on to be published after her death. Since then, more than 30 million copies of the diary have sold in more than 70 languages.

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How I Will Live after the Pandemic

There is a miscellaneous text by Janusz Korczak (the Polish Jew who perished in Treblinka along with 200 children and staff of the orphanage he directed) that is titled, “How I Will Live after the War.”

In it, he notices how “about fifteen of them are keeping journals.” Most of the journals document life day-to-day and, occasionally, there are reminiscences about the past. However, “only once did someone write about what he was going to do after the war.”

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