I saw the text from my sister the minute the plane landed, “Grandpop passed away.” My eyes lost focus and glazed over as I processed the information. He had been on kidney dialysis for almost a year, but I did not think he would be gone so soon. What made it worse was that we were supposed to visit him the next day for his birthday. My mom, sisters, and I were on vacation in Florida visiting my other siblings, so we figured it would be fine to celebrate his birthday a day late. Now I knew we would never get the chance.
I felt dizzy and unsteady as I got my bag from the overhead compartment. Meanwhile, my phone ceaselessly buzzed as my family group chat went off. I didn’t bother looking at any of the messages because I couldn’t help thinking about my Grandpop.
My grandfather, Robert Webb, was always an influential figure in my life and many others’ lives. He lived in Northfield, New Jersey with my grandmother, Eleanor, for about 58 years. Living there for so long, I knew that the news of his passing would spread quickly because he knew almost everyone in the vicinity. However, the person I was most worried about was my grandmother. I was not sure how she would take the loss of her husband.
My Grandma had been taking care of my Grandpop for a few years now as his health started to decline. It wasn’t always easy for her to make sure he had everything he needed and to take him to all of his appointments, but she had always been a selfless person. After sixty-three years of marriage, I knew she would be lonely without him. Even though he could be demanding at times and had bouts of depression as he got older, my Grandpop never failed to show his wife appreciation. Every year he would buy her flowers for her birthday and spent hours looking for gifts for her for Christmas. They truly loved each other despite all of the challenges they faced and I knew that my grandmother didn’t actually mind taking care of my Grandpop. In fact, she would probably miss it.
As I exited the plane, my sister whispered to me, “Mom doesn’t know yet.”
I began to sweat as I thought about how we would tell her. She had been saying all week that she wanted to leave Florida early because she knew her father was in bad condition. However, my siblings and I kept reassuring her that she would get to see him when we got home. Unfortunately, we were wrong. For now, she was too tired from our late flight to notice my and my sisters’ unusual solemnness. As much as I was concerned about my mom, I knew that the rest of my family was dealing with the news too.
When my brother came to pick us up at the airport, his eyes were downcast and he was very quiet. I had not seen him look so serious before, but his face matched the rest of us.
We all loved our Grandpop and admired him dearly, because he always acted as a guide for us while we were growing up. He was seventeen when he joined the United States Navy, and ever since then he always had a very strong sense of patriotism throughout his life. While we did not always see eye to eye, I always loved him and appreciated his service. He certainly had some more traditional views than me and was never shy about sharing his opinions, like his distaste of tattoos, even though my siblings and I have quite a few. Nonetheless, he accepted all of his grandchildren for who they were and always supported us in the end.
He was particularly there to support us when our parents got divorced. Knowing that my mom had seven children to take care of on her own, my grandfather stepped up to take on the role of a father figure in our lives. I especially saw him as a kind of father because I was only seven when our dad left.
Living in a single parent household from a young age, my grandfather gave me the extra support I needed. One of the things that I could not have been privileged to have without him was the kind of education I received. Since all of my siblings went to private high schools, my mom didn’t think it would be fair if I didn’t get the chance to do the same. When it came time for me to choose which high school I wanted to attend, I had my heart set on Nazareth Academy. However, it was too expensive for my mom to afford. Luckily, my Grandpop stepped in. Throughout my four years of high school, he helped my mom pay for my education. Through his compassion, I was able to get the same high school experience as my siblings and will forever be grateful for that.
I knew that the same thoughts about my Grandpop’s selflessness were probably running through my siblings’ heads as we sat silently in the car. We would have to tell my mom. As the minutes passed, her phone finally rang. We all knew who it was. I could faintly hear my Grandma’s voice on the other end, but couldn’t make out what she was saying. I knew she had told my mom the news when I saw my mom freeze. She held it together until the end of the call, but immediately started crying the second she hung up.
It’s strange seeing your parent in such a vulnerable position. I had never seen my mom cry before and it made me uneasy. My brother patted her on the shoulder as he continued to drive.
Through sobs she said, “I knew we wouldn’t make it back in time.”
No one knew what to say. As she continued to cry, my brother kept patting her shoulder. After a few minutes, he was the one to break the silence. “I know you wanted to see him mom, but I don’t think he wanted you to see him that way. You know Grandpop, he does what he wants when he wants.”
His words helped my mom as much as they helped the rest of us. He was right. My Grandpop wouldn’t want to upset anyone by having them see him in such a bad condition. Although she didn’t respond, I knew my brother’s words resonated with my mom as she put her hand on top of his to lightly squeeze. We didn’t speak for the rest of the ride home.The next few days moved by quickly and, before we knew it, it was the day of my grandfather’s funeral. Part of me was shocked by the amount of people who showed up, many of whom I didn’t even know. However, I shouldn’t have been surprised because my grandfather was a leader in his town. He was Northfield’s Citizen of the Year in 2011 and helped to create the local Veteran’s park.
Aside from these accomplishments and several others, he was friends with many people and never hesitated to give them a hand when they needed it. It was consoling to see that they all showed up to honor him and be there for my family on the day of his funeral. However, they were not the only ones to show up. Active military members were there and turned the service into a commemoration of his time in the Navy.
Being in the Navy was a large part of my Grandpop’s life, so it was only appropriate that his time in the service be a central part of his funeral. It brought my whole family a sense of pride to see my Grandpop honored by the Military Funeral Honor Guard, Last Salute. I was heartbroken to have to say goodbye to my Grandpop. However, as I stood there watching Last Salute place his prayer card with the rest of the veterans’ cards that they had provided funeral services to, I couldn’t help but smile. It felt as though he would live on in a way and continue to be honored, along with all of the other veterans whose cards would be placed in that box.
I have been to many funerals before, but I had never been to one like this. It was the kind of grand send-off that was akin to who my grandfather was. A surreal feeling washed over me as I watched the long guns being shot into the air and a cannon fired in honor of my grandfather. As the sound of their blasts echoed and my ears rang, thunder roared in the distance and rain poured down without any sign of stopping. His funeral wasn’t a sad event, but almost like a celebration of his life, which was just what my grandfather wanted. He had always said that he didn’t want anyone to be sad after he was gone. Instead, he wanted everyone to have a party, which always made us laugh. Although I was not able to go as far as to say that the day of his funeral felt like a party, it was definitely a grand event that suited him. Despite all of the magnificence and honor bestowed upon him from the people at the service, my family and I still thought of him first and foremost as Grandpop. I could not deny that he was definitely an influential person in his town and got to know a lot of people, but no one knew him the way that my family did.
To me, my Grandpop was someone who told everyone like it was and never failed to show his authentic self. He was also always there when you needed him. I remember phone calls with him inevitably ending with the question, “Do you need anything?” Of course, I always responded, “no,” because he had already given me so much throughout my life, but he would triple check just to make sure.
With the loss of my Grandpop still lingering in my mind, I went to my Grandma’s house a few days after the funeral. I was worried about how she would be. She definitely seemed more down than usual, but she was hanging in there. When she hugged me after I entered the front door, I could tell that she was just grateful to have family there. What I didn’t account for was how being in my grandparents’ house without my grandfather there would affect me. The big recliner that he always sat in was empty and I realized that no one close to him would ever feel comfortable sitting there again. His absence was felt throughout the entire house.
As I walked to the backroom that he frequently sat in to let my Grandma’s dog out in the backyard, I felt unsettled. This was the space where most of his belongings were, like the model boats he always worked on. After I let the dog outside, I built up the courage to look around the room. My Grandma had not touched anything in it. I felt a pang of sadness run through me. Then, as I was scanning the area, something caught my eye in the corner of the room.
I saw a sign that read, “This is my ship and I’ll do as I damn please.” It had been there the whole time, but I had never noticed it before. The sign immediately made me laugh to myself because it was exactly how my Grandpop was. Unlike me, he never worried about what other people thought of him. At that moment, I was inspired. It reminded me of the lessons I had learned from him. It made me want to be more independent and not worry about the judgment of others. It made me want to be more like my grandfather. My Grandpop continues to contribute to who I am today and I will carry his advice with me and look to his life for guidance forever.
Sarah Schuck is currently a Junior at Holy Family University, and she is studying Secondary Education English. After graduating, her intention is to become a high school English teacher. One day, she hopes to teach at the university level.