As the holidays roll around and we spend time with our loved ones it’s hard not to remember loved ones who are no longer with us. We lost my grandfather last January. This time last year there was a lot of in and out of hospitals and that was something we went through together as a family. This weekend, I helped my grandmother go through her closet in the front hall of her house. Going through his was hard not to get emotional. Hard to know what to keep and what to give away to someone in need. I wrote the following earlier this year when we lost him:

 “I wonder what his favorite color was,” I kept thinking to myself as I watched my grandpa in his hospital bed taking breaths with his whole body. It was December–a week until Christmas. My grandmother sent me with some Christmas decorations for his hospital room.

I had just gone to the World War II museum the week before and I felt guilty thinking my grandpa looked as helpless as the people in the exhibits.

My grandfather was so many great things and he never bragged about any of it. I think that’s why I didn’t find out a lot about him until he passed away.

Nothing was ever about him. Every time I called him we talked about my classes, what I was learning or how my jobs and internships were going. I didn’t know my grandpa had a lunch group. I didn’t know he had been a lifeguard. I didn’t know he had a brother who passed away as a child. I didn’t know he swam competitively at the collegiate level.

I did know how much my grandpa loved his garden. And the newspaper. And French toast. I knew how much he loved House Hunters and PBS history specials. He loved saving money on things like pizza in a restaurant and on clothes especially when he was down to 120 pounds. He loved my grandmother. He loved the Wisconsin Badgers and the Packers. And he loved my brother and me very much.

He quizzed me on palindromes because my name is one. He told silly jokes and he treated everyone like a person.

He sat in chairs with one leg crossed over the other, his elbows bent and his hands folded. And he would have his fingers resting against his lips when he was thinking really hard.

He never showed weakness. Nothing was ever about him. He always encouraged us to be the best we could be.

“Grandpa’s moving to hospice. He knows where he’s going, and he’s okay with it.” And then it’s just done. You know you’re dying. My grandfather had been in and out of the hospital for quite some time. There were diets and wardrobes and fixed liquid intakes. Still nothing was ever about him. He still made fart jokes. I still woke up to him in his garden. No matter how bad it got. And now I’d never hear his voice again. The finality of it was too much for me.

I only got to see him twice while he was in hospice. They were brief visits but they meant so much to me. The nurse explained everything perfectly but I only remember bits and pieces. Every time we left I kissed him on the forehead. So if it was the last time it would be okay.

Once I went back to Chicago, I feared getting the call. The call telling me he had passed away. Every time my dad popped up on my phone I was afraid it was time...that the time had come.

“It was okay Hannah. He went peacefully. I found Amazing Grace, the bagpipe version, on iTunes. We all listened and then he was free.”

The following Friday, our family stood in the front of the Town Club and greeted what felt like the whole city. It was amazing. They closed his office early that day so everyone could attend. I couldn’t tell you how many people came through the line to tell me my grandfather gave them their first job or he was the first person to believe in them. That they’d seen my pictures on his desk and they loved his stories about me. The book club..the map society..all of his fellow board members came from near and far and they told us magical things.

When my grandpa was a lifeguard he saved someone’s brother from drowning. He was often more worried about his tan than being a lifeguard and we would all chuckle. My grandfather was always a friendly face to people who felt out of place or lost. There were so many people who came through the line telling me he was the first person who talked to them when they were new in town. He was the first to invite someone to be on his paddle tennis team or the first person to even say hello to them and remember their name.

The lunch group came too. They would tell me how, even at the end, when my grandfather had something to say, the whole room would quiet down and listen to him.

As more and more people came through the line I couldn’t help but feel as though I hadn’t even hit the tip of the iceberg when it came to my grandpa. There were so many things I never knew. So many things I never got to ask. And I wondered if I had made the most of my time with him.

And then I remembered watching him in the mornings through the windows while he tended to his beloved garden. And how he’d tape House Hunters so we could watch them together. Or how, when I was little, we’d all lay on the floor and play pick up sticks for hours.

And then I realized: all of the things that seemed like nothings, meant more to me than so many of the things that seemed like somethings. I always felt like you needed to know certain details about someone to prove you knew them. But all I had left was the feelings. The hugs, the smiles and the mannerisms.

You can find out facts after everything is said and done. I believe that would be my grandfather’s favorite subject: history.

But you can never replace the little things that make someone who they are in that moment and in your heart. You can’t replace the way someone makes you feel. So although I feel like I didn’t know enough about the “facts” of my grandpa, I have time to find those out. The “feeling” of my grandpa while he was here is the most important thing to me.

His favorite color is blue.

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