This weekend, I went skydiving. I felt like an accomplished bad-ass. Obviously, it swelled my ego, if not temporarily anyway. It was a great rush, and I felt like I was doing something different and worthwhile.
I could get into the details of skydiving, but that is not really what I feel like talking about. Really, at the end of the weekend, it’s not even what sticks out in my mind.
I never give enough credence to my family. They always love me, even when no one else will. And, yet, I turn my back on them and take them for granted. Occasionally, I feel bad for this, but it is what I must do at times. Honestly, I am only reminded of this when I sit down and have one-on-one time with them. Not even when I am sad and lonely do I realize this. It’s easy to wallow in self pity. And, really nothing is more pathetic.
Sunday morning I was given the task of “watching” my 100 year old great-grandfather while the women in my family attended a bridal shower. I looked at him; paper thin skin, cataracts in his eyes, slumped in his chair, watching the news. My great-grandpa has, perceivably, always been a quiet person, and if someone were to see him, they might assume that he was out of it, or an invalid. But, most of this is due to his lack of ability to hear or see others. His body began failing him a decade ago. But, if you get close enough, and speak loud enough, you realize that his mind is still very much there. I began to wonder what he would think of my experience skydiving. In a loud voice, I told him I had something I wanted to show him. I sat my computer in front of him and played the video of my skydive for him. His eyes got big, and a smile came over his face. “That’s you?” he asked with a quizzical look and slight smirk. “Yeah!” I explained. Maybe he would find amazement in my adventure. Maybe he might be impressed. I couldn’t imagine what he would think, really.
He laughed. “That looks fun!” he said, “I went para-sailing in Acapulco back in 1967. That was fun.”
“What?” I asked, I could not believe what he had said. He was such a mystery. The only things I really knew about my great-grandfather were that he emigrated from Mexico in 1916. He worked his ass off in the steel mills as a young man, got divorced from my great-grandmother, and then retired early. He temporarily moved back to Mexico and played a lot of golf. I had heard that he was married a second time too, but no one ever knew much about it other than she was a Mexican woman. Other than that, he has always had the same image in my head, a quiet, simple man, who enjoyed reading. I immediately decided that I wanted to record the conversation.
“I was crazy back then. I drank too much, and was careless.” he explained.
I was taken back. These were the kinds of things I had been chastised for by my conservative family for most of my life. I had always felt like an outsider in my family because I had a different idea of happiness than the rest of them. My interest was peaked. I began wondering what other microcosms existed in this man. There were multitudes of stories I had never heard that he could tell me. What else had he done that I didn’t know about? He took on a new complexity.
He started to tell me some stories about working in the mill, and the day he retired. How he spent his whole career being treated like a worthless animal by his superiors, and then on the day he retired they wanted to take him to dinner. He said, “Just give me the money. I don’t want to have you humiliate me anymore than you have my whole career. I don’t want to eat dinner with you assholes anyway. I’d rather have the money.” He explained how dangerous his career was, and how they wouldn’t treat you like a human, and how he always just wanted to be respected as a man. These stories were interesting to me, but they were still outside my realm of thought. These were experiences I had nothing in common with. These were still things which seemed specific to a time that had passed. Those rustic pictures of the dirty mill workers from the industrial revolution entered my head. They were almost mythical.
I wondered what else he might have stories about. Stories concerning topics that I was dealing with myself. I asked him about love, a question that has come to plague me as of recent.
He pondered aloud, “Love! Love? Love.” He has this trait of repeating himself when considering what he thinks and deciding what to say. An incredulous look came over his face. “I don’t really know what that is. I don’t know what people mean when they say that. All I know is it means different things to different people. It’s a complex word. But really, it’s a worthless word. It only has the function of giving people distorted expectations. To love is an action, and the word means nothing, but people say it a lot anyway. It is to have concern for someone: well-being, empathy, to care for someone. The only people you can really love is your family. You can try to love others, but that is hard to do. There is no real commitment with other people. They come and go.”
He paused a long time, continuing to think before he spoke. This is a trait I hope I will gain some day. I often speak foolishly before I develop my own thoughts. He started speaking again; “I sat in court and heard a judge say to a woman, “Are you sure you know what you are doing? This man has a good job, he is consistent, he has not committed adultery, he has good credit, and you say he does not beat you.” And the woman replies, “Yes, but I don’t love him.” And the judge grants her a divorce. He sees it is justified. I don’t understand.”
He was telling the story of his divorce from my Great-grandma, Ada. I guess I have a long legacy of divorce in my family. He began to get a somber look on his face.
“So, tell me, what is love? I don’t know. You can care for a woman and provide her with everything she asks for, listen to her, allow her to be herself, and she still won’t ‘love’ you. And, a judge will give enough weight to this to grant her a divorce and allow her to take your children to be with another man. Someone she says she loves. So, I say, I don’t know what love is.”
Another long pause, and he began to speak again. “My brother’s Son, Ramon, he proposed to a woman, and she said no. He killed himself. I don’t understand that. There is no logic in that. He couldn’t stand the rejection, I suppose. But, he didn’t realize that he was giving up all the other love he had. His family still loved him very much. I loved him. We did not reject him. We would always be there. ‘Love,’ the way many people define it, is a very ridiculous thing.”
I said “I love my family too, but don’t you ever feel lonely? Don’t you ever feel the need to connect with someone other than your family? Isn’t there some kind of love between a man and a woman? Romantic love? Weren’t you married a second time.”
He looked to the ground a while, and a look came over his face. He stared away toward the window and he did not talk for a length of time. So, I began to turn off the recorder. But then, he began to speak again.
“I was married a second time. After I retired, I joined a Latin Amateur Golf Club, and I traveled all over Mexico playing golf. I began drinking too much, and living wildly. But, after a while of living and traveling in Mexico, I began to miss my family. So, I moved back home. I took up with a woman. She actually pursued me. She saved my life. She got me to quit drinking and smoking so much. And, I am thankful for it. So, yeah, we got married.” It was apparent that he had a fondness for this woman, and I wondered why he didn’t stay with her. I asked, “So, what happened? Why did you split up?”
He explained, “She had a daughter. That daughter lived in California and she had a child there. One day the woman I was married to said that she was moving to California to be with her daughter and granddaughter and that she wanted me to come with. I told her that I had my own family here, and that I couldn’t leave. She said she figured that would be the case. A few weeks later I got the papers for divorce in the mail. See, she needed to be with her family, and I understood that. So I signed the papers, and we were divorced.”
I asked him, “Do you ever regret letting her go? Didn’t you love her?”
He said, “I know why you are asking this, It’s about that girl. Don’t worry, there are others out there that you can care for. It was probably her family. They probably didn’t want to lose her. They didn’t want her to leave Mexico to live in the United States so that they would never see her again. You see, a family is the only people that really love you. And they really love her. You will understand that someday. I love my family, I spend most of my time thinking about my children, still, and thinking about my grandchildren, and my great-grandchildren. I have concern for them. I hope they are healthy. I hope they are safe. I hope they are happy. I have concern for you.” He looked away, clearly perturbed and somber. That’s all he wanted in life; a family to love and be loved by.I realized how much he cared for me. He knew more about me than I realized.
It must be lonely in there; his mind. His brain still moves a million miles an hour, but his body no longer serves its needs. His thoughts are no longer easily manifested and explained. He is a quiet old man now, and many people just see him as that, an object. Because it is difficult to communicate with him, many people won’t even try; even his own family. He still yearns for interaction, inspiring conversation, and stimulation. His siblings have all passed away. The people he loves have slowly stopped paying him the attention he desires. And, he knows what loneliness is. That much is clear. The question of love has plagued him, too. I can see that now. I realize it must be lonely in there. I know I need to spend more time with my great-grandfather while I still can. I need to love him more while I still can.
Although the world changes wildly throughout time, there are still those things that make up the human experience, and those things don’t change. You have more in common with your great-grandparents than you know, and you will have so much in common with your own great-grandchildren some day. That is why family is special. Others may come and go, but family will always love you. They are some of the only people worth your love.