I had often heard friends of mine compare family reunions to the fifth circle of Dante’s Inferno. It should come as no surprise then that I was not exactly relishing the idea of my first extended family gathering. I knew that this particular gathering was for my grandfather. A veteran of the Second World War, he was turning 85 in November, and his health had begun to deteriorate significantly. Because of this, my aunt had taken the initiative to organize a gathering of the Draxton clan to celebrate Grandpa Draxton’s life. A living funeral of a sort.
“How depressing,” I thought as my father navigated our car through the great sea of plains that separated Utah from the Land of a Thousand Lakes and Ten Thousand Different Species of Giant Bugs. I had always imagined that my grandfather, that all of my relatives for that matter, would always be around, that they would always be there to experience my life and my journey, my defeats and my victories. The purpose of this family reunion roughly shook me from that illusion, and as I watched rolling hill after rolling hill flash past my window, I found myself wondering what I could do to show my grandfather how much I appreciated him and what he had done, not just for me, but for his country and for the world.
After ninety three billion miles of cornfield, desert plains, and empty sapphire sky, we finally arrived in Glenwood, Minnesota and pulled into my aunt’s driveway. I had no idea what to expect from this family reunion, this living funeral. I felt apprehensive, prepared for the worst. But instead of embarrassment and cheek pinching aunts, I was greeted by boisterous humor, quick-witted intellectuals, and powerfully built Norwegians. And as I laughed and talked with these people, told stories and made discoveries, I knew that these people were my people, my family. But there was one man in particular I wanted to see.
“Where’s Grandpa?” I asked my sister. She pointed to the end of the porch. There, fast asleep, was my grandfather.I was shocked. I had always remembered my grandfather as robust, perpetually smiling, chattering away, a glitter in his pale blue eye. This thing, this living corpse, could not be my grandfather. But it was. He had been stripped of any vestige of health. My grandfather was but a shadow, a wraith of his former self.
His eyelids fluttered open. For a moment, there was nothing in those faded blue marbles. The glimmer, the shine of life was gone from them. They were as empty as the sapphire sky that I had crossed under to come pay homage to this vacant shell. But then recognition crept in, and he whispered, “Hey, buddy. How are ya?” He smiled, and I smiled back, smiled because, if I didn’t, I would cry.
The next day was the Fourth of July, and the Draxton clan gathered to hold a living funeral. We all stood in the backyard, forty or more Scandinavians, silent and solemn. My grandfather, with Grandma at his elbow, shuffled to the center of the lawn. My brother Andrew played “America the Beautiful”, and Aunty Gail read a summary of Grandpa’s service in the United States Navy. Then it was my turn. I walked to the front of the Draxton clan, and began to perform a Shakespearean monologue.
It was the Saint Crispin’s Day speech, used by Henry V of England to convince his war weary troops to fight one more battle. I felt as though I was speaking directly to Grandpa Draxton, I felt what Henry felt: compassion for drained men, fear of death, sorrow for those already lost, joy for those who will “see this day and come safe home.” And as I spoke, I felt an enormous emotion building up in me, an intense pride that sprung from knowing that although my grandfather may die, he would always be remembered. And I knew that what I “did that day” was heard, not just by my family, not just by Grandpa Draxton, but by the lake, the setting sun, the wind that ruffled through the stars and stripes above us, by all of creation. Everything heard me, and everything knew now that “this (is) a man.” But he isn’t just a man. He’s a sailor, a veteran, an engineer, a farmer, a brother, a husband, a father. And he’s my grandfather, and he always will be.
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