“When your dad was here,” said Grandpa Don to me at our final visit before his death, “He came in real close and said ‘Dad’–you know how he says that,” and I do, in kind of a gruff whisper of wonder with a heavy Chicago accent. And this felt strange and sweet, to be talking about my dad with him not there, we his kin in generations above and below him.
So Grandpa Don told me the story, remembered anew by my dad, Bob, his son, about one time when they went to swim at the YMCA down the street from their house in Roseland. “I told him, ok, I’ll stand you up on my shoulders in the shallow end and walk all the way into the deep end to the end of the pool. You tap the top of my head when we get there and then I’ll get you down.” So that’s what they did. And I can imagine how thrilling that must have been for my dad as a boy, to be able to pretend he was so tall that he could walk all the way across the pool in deep water and to do it with legs that weren’t his, but that no one could see. Like walking on stilts you can’t control, like having puppet legs.
Ironically that story is a perfect metaphor for who he was to all of us, his four children and his 15 grandchildren. He made us all look good and didn’t seem to need any credit for it. He put his muscle and breath into a supporting role so we could achieve, compete, have an adventure or a little fun. He knew how life should be lived and did it until the very last day in his 93rd year of life.
There was a pride my grandfather had, as I imagine all people gain when they go military. But this pride was also tethered by a deep humility. He was truly a servant and was always ready to help and give it everything he could, which was a lot. His was a Micah 6:8 kind of life.
This humility is partly why I didn’t connect the dots to see that he had been a leader until after his death. He wasn’t one to boast about his accomplishments. He’d squeeze a guy’s hand so hard he winced and show (off) his confidence that way, but not ever by bragging. When he was drafted into the army in WWII he became a sergeant and earned a Silver Star award for going into enemy fire to rescue a wounded soldier. Yet he never spoke of it. In his civilian work all I knew of his career was that he worked at a lumber yard. I didn’t know he worked there 35 years and was a vice president of the company before he retired.
At the wake who walks in but my freshman year high school English teacher who didn’t recognize me but did recognize my oldest younger brother, who never was his student. Go figure. Anyway, because Dutch Chicago is the context of my upbringing and my grandparents’ entire social life they knew each other from volunteering at the thrift store (which supports the Christian school where all Dutch-Chicago kids go). “Once your grandpa couldn’t move the furniture around anymore he found an old desk and chair and put himself in charge,” said Mr. Meyer. “Nobody told him to, he just did it,” he said grinning.
Nobody ever thought he was as old as he was. He’d come over for dinner every Wednesday night for a while after he was widowed. The neighbors would see him out playing with us kids and be shocked that he was my dad’s dad. “We thought he was Bob’s brother,” they’d say. At the wake several people mentioned to me that he never got old and its so true. He never lost the twinkle in his eye, never stopped winking or cracking jokes, never bothered to start complaining about his age.
In May, after his cancer diagnosis and 3 month prognosis he started telling people that he was glad to live on the fourth floor. The chariots won’t have to swing down so low to pick me up, he said. During this time we all got more reflective about his life, even him. I realized that he’s been more like a grandpa+ since 1987 when our sweet Grandma Ruth passed away of ovarian cancer at age 60. He spent more time with grandchildren and took on more roles than married grandfathers do. He babysat my cousins. He always gave birthday cards and Christmas gifts–even little outfits to the new great grandbabies–all of which he picked out himself until about 10 years ago (and he had surprisingly good taste). Intentionally or not he slid over and learned to cover both bases. It must have been a lot of work with 15 grandkids, but it also meant he got all that love, all those hugs and kisses from all our adoring little hearts over the years.
My father-in-law asked what my first memory of Grandpa was. I remember him taking care of Grandma in her last days. He was so attentive and so gentle with her that it has stuck with me all these years. His love was incredibly evident as he carried her to the toilet and stayed at her bedside. It was my first experience of watching a loved one suffer but its effect on me was slightly tempered by seeing such beautiful care given to her by Grandpa.
It was either while she was sick or shortly after Grandma passed away that we were introduced to Bear. Bear was a brown bear hand puppet that slept on a blanket in a low dresser drawer in Grandpa’s bedroom. The bear didn’t say anything. Grandpa presented it as a baby bear, a cub. He held the puppet in such a way, tucked under his other arm, so it wasn’t obvious that it was a puppet. There was no funny business, Grandpa played it straight. I, being 7, knew it was just a puppet but my younger siblings and cousins had no idea. Their belief became part of the show, attracting the attention of older cousins and grownups. I was just as spellbound as the little ones as my imagination could suspend disbelief for minutes at a time. Did someone suggest this as a way to connect with grieving grandkids? I don’t know. But given how much we all love to talk about it still shows just how brilliant of an idea it was.
When my dad visited him in his last week of life he was getting weaker and sleeping a lot and fully dependent on his caregiver Rudy. “I’m tired,” he told my dad, “I’ve been chasing Rudy around the block.” Good one, Grandpa. Just as he was leaving that day Grandpa gathered all the strength he could muster and gave my dad, this youngest of his three sons and baby of the family, a wink and a handshake. My dad was a state away when he took his last breath and couldn’t make it to the bedside. But he didn’t feel bad about it, he said, because he was pleased with how their last time together had ended.
It had been a while since I had been to a wake. I wasn’t sure what to wear. I opted for something less dark, plain, and stuffy. This was partly because it was a long hot drive to the funeral home from Kalamazoo. But also because our grief was joyful, not angry or confused or questioning like it was when Grandma Ruth died. I was grateful to God for his full and blessed life, for how many good days God had given him and the things Grandpa chose to do with those days. I stood in the closet facing my clothes. I imagined showing up in a somber black frock and Grandpa giving me a big bear hug and saying with gentle cheer, “Heeey! What’s this you’re wearing? Don’t be sad. I had a good life.” And so I wore a relatively loud striped maxi sun dress, a hand-me-down from my neighbor, and didn’t feel bad about it at all.
Grandpa wanted to be the best at everything, my dad told my sister a few weeks before Grandpa died. Even in dying, he wants to be the best, he said. I’m not sure how that was supposed to be taken–if that was a compliment or a critique about his competitive nature but it was true. Grandpa did dying like he did the “feats of strength” at Christmas parties. He wasn’t going to look weak, in fact he would try to be the best and make it look easy. In a way he did win. He gave us the best example of how to leave this world leaning on the everlasting arms, giving God the glory, with heavy doses of humor and gratitude.
Dying well also meant planning his own funeral details. He arranged for my cousin Jeff, a pastor, to collect our memories and share them at the funeral “so there won’t be a bunch of people up front blubbering,” he joked. He planned the songs for us to sing and the scripture to be read. The events honoring his death bore his signature. I half expected him to be standing in the back by the organ, hugging us on the way out.
Burial day was a hot and sunny Saturday morning. The body of Don Holwerda, the only son of an only son, born in the bleak midwinter, was laid to rest at midday in midsummer before all of his offspring, including three sons, ten grandsons and 6 great grandsons–his 19 namesakes. His body was placed beside his beloved Ruth Adelle in the shade of a wild mulberry tree.
The honor guard, comprised of retirees, was already standing at attention when our funeral procession arrived. Dead ash trees dotted the backdrop of this cemetery that in this now-obsessed, death-fearing culture sees few visitors. These people and trees were in their prime decades ago. Together they lent a cliched, forlorn, almost insulting tone that got under my skin. I wanted everything about this to be vibrant and lush, to testify how great my grandpa was in life. Then the two young active-duty servicemen in uniforms and white gloves, looking as classy as Marines on a billboard, ceremonially folded the flag. They presented it to my uncle, also a veteran, who accepted the flag with a salute. One soldier stepped back to play Taps and the honor guard fired three volleys. We female descendants were invited lay red roses on top of the casket before it was lowered.
Then I was satisfied. That was the proper punctuation: a bugle’s cry, rifles’ fire and thirteen crimson flowers. Together they proclaimed with reverence and vigor to any person in earshot or in view, and to all of heaven that this was the end of a beautiful earthly life, not because of what he did, but because of who he was–to use the words of his own dinner prayers–in Jesus’ precious name, Amen.