What would you accomplish in your life if you knew you had nearly 93 years to live? Can you imagine all that you could achieve, and the good work you could do if you were promised that time?
For my grandfather, that meant raising a family and breaking down racial barriers in the Minneapolis Public School system in 1954, eventually holding a position as assistant principal at Roosevelt High in 1968. He was No. 800 of the Montford Point Marines, one of 20,000 African American soldiers who were allowed to fight for our country during World War II, even though the military was still segregated at the time. (Learn more here.) In 2012, he was the recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal for his service.
Ninety-two years also meant welcoming grandkids and great-grandchildren, and building a community of support and friendships that would last most of his life. There were hardships, saying goodbye to two daughters and his wife before him, but he remained, in my eyes, the epitome of perseverance.
He passed away last week, peacefully at home, surrounded by his children and my cousin. He would have been 93 in January.
These past five years, he had been residing alone in the home he had shared with my grandmother in Phoenix. His niece nearby would check in on him, and his kids would stay for extended visits. For some time, he even drove his car to various appointments and church. Two years ago, he got a knee replacement. He’d make his own meals, get the mail, and check Facebook and email for notes from the family. The steadfastness of this man always bewildered me: Would I be so brave on my own at that age?
As difficult as it is to say goodbye to him, to think of all that’s lost — that history from an entire generation, that knowledge, those stories, the guidance from our elders — I’ve found peace in thinking perhaps he’s reunited with my grandmother. He isn’t in pain, his body no longer his; his spirit is free. What he has imparted on his family will never be forsaken, and we will carry on his legacy to speak for justice and equality, to find unity and love with each other, and to encourage every one of us to pursue an education.
His death also comes at a time when other family members are ill, when the year is coming to a close; and even with endings, there are beginnings, as we welcomed a new baby nephew last week and celebrated my daughter’s 2-year birthday recently.
I’ve been more reflective, and it’s had me thinking about the time we have on this Earth together. It’s so fleeting, and, to me, it’s the most sacred.
I cherish my time more than ever now, as I see my child grow so quickly before me. I care more than ever about my work and what good I’m doing in the world. I think about my relationships and what value we bring to one another. And I question my purpose and my role in this world in a whole new light. Am I a good citizen, and do I offer worth, as my grandparents would want for me?
Time hadn’t always been sacred to me. I remember being young and thinking that I just wanted to grow up. Or feeling bored in lectures thinking, I just have to make it through this. I heard a dad once say he was finding ways to “kill time” with his kid, which seemed like a waste to me.
Shouldn’t we be honoring time?
This idea starts to shift at some point in adult life, and, of course, not for all of us. But I’ve felt it as I’ve hit milestones — marriage, ages 30 and 35, the birth of our child, the death of grandparents, and the aging of parents — and no longer do I think about having to just “get through” something. Even when life isn’t pretty, and there are bound to be plenty of those times, I try to do my best to respect every minute, every hour that I’m afforded.
When I was reading our cover story on Dani Shapiro, “Write of Passage,” by Heidi Wachter, last year, a quote she said really rung true for me. She shares how a passage in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath resonated with her, in his thoughts on the Sabbath as “a cathedral of time”: “Time itself is a cathedral,” she says. “You don’t need four walls surrounding you. Any place can be sacred.”
I, too, found this sentiment beautiful, and a message I had long been searching for as I don’t belong to a particular parish or religion. I promptly purchased a copy of this book, devouring and earmarking it, and read passages aloud during my daughter’s blessing ceremony last year. To me, honoring time seemed so crucial.
From Heschel’s book:
“A moment of insight is a fortune, transporting us beyond the confines of measured time. Spiritual life begins to decay when we fail to sense the grandeur of what is eternal in time.”
I realize now, even though my grandfather departed us from another state, even though I wasn’t in his presence, the grandeur of the time we shared together is, and always will be, eternal.