As I type, Jason is boarding a plane to Denver. He’s hoping to get there in time to say goodbye to Grandpa Ken — the person who has been like a father to him since he was eight years old. Ken came into Jason’s life only a short time before Jason’s mom moved their family overseas but Ken stayed in contact over all those years and miles, in true Ken fashion — steady and stalwart as ever — until Jason graduated from high school.
Once Jason was back stateside, during his college years, there were summer camping trips and train museums and slow, meandering car rides. We didn’t see as much of him after we married until about four years ago, when he came to live with us in Seattle for about six months out of every year. And now he is dying. We are told he has a few days left and we sent Jason out a few minutes ago with his bag full of letters and pictures and notes for Ken. Here’s the letter I sent for him.
Dear Grandpa Ken,
I remember the very first time you came to stay with us. I worried a bit beforehand about what we were all getting ourselves into. What would it be like to have this man living in our house who, to me, was practically a stranger? We had, of course, been around each other a few times. A couple days here and there over the years. But never anything like this. Never anything so prolonged and ambiguous.
Was this really a good idea? I hardly knew anything about you, other than the stories Jason had shared over the years. I didn’t know what it would be like to have you in the house. I didn’t know if you would add to or help curb the chaos with the kids. I didn’t know if you would be kind to the boys, then just 5 and 6, and I worried what this would mean for them.
Now, nearly four years later, I have long since put every one of those concerns to rest. Now, I say only this: I miss you, Grandpa Ken. I miss having your quiet presence in our house. I miss having you here when Jason goes out of town. I miss seeing you help the boys with their homework out on the front porch in the Fall. I miss watching you painstakingly organize their Lego collection and seeing you shuffle around the kitchen with those damn vermicelli noodles you like so much!
I miss how you went to Costco for me (I’ve hardly been since you left — I still don’t know how you could stand that place) and how you were always willing to run an errand for me, no matter how strange or insignificant the task might have seemed. I miss how you would anticipate our needs and wants and quietly come home with groceries to stock the fridge or scotch tape for the junk drawer. I miss how Isaiah would disappear for hours at a time and how, when he finally reappeared, he would say about his whereabouts, “Oh, I was in Grandpa Ken’s room. We were doing office work.”
I miss hearing the sound of a train whistle coming from your room when I go downstairs to change the laundry. I miss walking into your room (that was hot as a sauna) to ask you if you had any packing tape or printer paper and having you swivel around in your chair with a smile. I miss how curious you were and how patiently you would explain things. I miss the knowing looks you and I would exchange when we had dinner guests who were getting a little out of hand.
Ken, you lightened our load and you increased our joy. You have been a gift to us and I am so grateful that my boys were able to spend so much time with you. You taught them so many things — how to be a stalwart and loyal companion, how to live well in spite of immense physical hardship, how to show up for people in both big and small ways, how to be patient, how to be a helper and how to ask good questions. They will carry these things with them for a lifetime, as Jason has done before them. We are a better family for having you in it. What joy has been ours to have you in our home and in our lives.
I used to think of you as “Jason’s person.” But over the last four years you’ve become my person, too. Our person. The boys and mine. And Jason’s. Thank you so much. Go well, wonderful, wonderful Ken. You will be remembered and cherished in our house always.
UPDATE: Ken died early this morning, 12/19. Jason did indeed get there in time. It was a difficult and meaningful goodbye. Go well, Ken. We miss you already.