Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Geography of a Loss


My grandfather (my "Opa" as we called him in the German tradition), passed away last week, two months shy of his 88th birthday.

Although he retained a remarkable degree of vitality until a few months beforehand, playing golf and attending church services with regularity, he had become quite ill in the few weeks preceding his death and so when I my phone rang at 6:15am on Thursday morning, I knew, of course, the reason for my mom's call.

Although I was undoubtedly saddened to hear the news, my immediate reaction was not one of sorrow, but of gratitude that I had decided to fly back to Iowa two weekends prior, knowing that it would likely be my opportunity to say a final goodbye. 

In the hospital, he had reached out his hand for mine and, although it was clear his body and mind were shutting down, I was able to hold brief conversations with him. I showed him pictures of me hiking in Colorado with my husband. Knowing how much he appreciates a groan-worthy pun, I elicited a chuckle when I said, "Hey Opa, I know a little German," and held up a photo of my dachshund asleep on the couch.

I visited him in the hospital three days in a row. My uncle later told me that those visits were the last time my Opa held a lucid conversation. A few days later, he was moved to the nursing home in his hometown of Amana, where he passed away peacefully barely a mile from the house where he was raised.

At his visitation and funeral, I learned things about my Opa that I must've heard at one point, but that I'd never fully realized until I heard them eulogized within the trajectory of his life.

For example, I learned that during his service during WWI, while his ship was being prepared in Brooklyn Navy Yard for a voyage to the Pacific and expected invasion of Japan, President Truman announced the surrender of Japan whereupon he and many of his shipmates rushed to Times Square for a spontaneous celebration with thousands of others. In fact, he was somewhere among the crowd in the background of the famous photo that captured the jubilation of that moment. I tried to imagine him as a 19-year-old sailor, and how he must felt upon hearing the news that his ship would not be sent to invade Japan.

I also learned, as evidenced by the number of people at the visitation and funeral, how many people he'd touched with his good humor and generosity of spirit, and how they remembered him: with an ever-present twinkle in his eye, forever on the verge of telling his next joke, charming friends and strangers alike with an extroversion that rendered him larger than life.

Amana tradition dictates that the deceased are buried in neat lines, in sequential order based upon their date of death. There are no reserved spots: only the plot of land assigned to you upon your passing, made yours by some combination of destiny and happenstance. I noticed during the burial that my Opa's plot happened to be just yards away, albeit a few rows' distance, from my Oma's, whose death preceded his by twenty years but whose voice I remember clear as day, doting on me, her "little lamb," and singing German lullabies.

After the funeral and burial, my dad drove us around the Amana Colonies where Opa was born and raised. We drove past the farm where he worked as a boy, and the house where he grew up, which, at the time, also doubled as the town's post office. We drove past the house in Middle Amana, where my own father had grown up, and which is now home to a series of gift shops that sell traditional Amana wares to tourists.

In the end though, it's not the physical structures that seemed to define Opa's life, but the land itself. The part of Iowa where he spent most of his life is still largely agricultural. Rolling fields of corn stretch as far as the eye can see, punctuated by shady groves like the one that borders the cemetery where he was laid to rest. Watching the sun set here, casting its pink glow across lush fields of green, it's not hard to understand why my Opa returned to Amana following his service in the Navy, and, aside from various travels, never left. A gardener his whole life, he took a special joy in the beauty of the flora around him (a trait I believe I inherited as a perfect ranunculus or riotously colorful patch of poppies can move me to tears).

His life was long and full, and his passing was not tragic, merely sad in that ordinary way that all endings are. The only time I cried was when the bugler played "Taps" as part of the military honors at his burial, which also included a ceremonial folding of an American flag which was then presented to my father and uncle. Mainly I cried because it struck me how closely his life mirrored much of what was great about an entire generation, and a little bit because I would never know him as that jubilant sailor, or, as he became after the war, a teacher and baseball coach, or as a young husband and father to two sons, for whom he worked hard to provide the opportunities that shaped my father's life, and in turn, my own. I think the tears were also, in a way, for how his death felt a little like a formalized severing of ties to Amana, where I'd visited my grandparents so many times as a child, and for my own weakening connection to the nearby college town where I'd grown up.

I took this photo somewhere near my parent's house. It doesn't really have anything to do with Amana or with my Opa. But the scene struck me deeply for some reason, I guess because those fields are someone's fields, that barn is someone's barn, and that truck is, perhaps, someone's grandfather's truck.

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