July 2010 Archives

My Grandfather

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Grandpa Hilberg was always "old" to me -- he must have been in his mid to late fifties in my earliest memories of him, going to see Cubs games with him and my dad.  I remember his apartment on Ashland Avenue; its smell, and how it was filled with his model trains.  I remember the creaky wooden stairs in his building and their red stained wood.  I can't remember much else though, almost thirty years later.

He moved to Montana when I wasn't much older; I won't pretend to know why exactly, but after that I saw him less, when he would come to visit or on the rare occasion of a family gathering.  I would talk to him on the phone, I always intended to go visit him sometime once I started working but somehow it never worked out; the idea of going to see him without my dad always seemed awkward, and how many people in their 20s want to go hang out with their grandparents?  I always thought there would be time later anyway -- the mortality of Grandpa Hilberg never really set in for me.

When my mom's dad died on Christmas 2003, I seemed to make it through almost unfazed.  Maybe it was because I had just changed my name and his funeral would be the first time I would meet my mom's family as I am now, and selfishly I was more worried about their reactions to that than grieving over his death.  I hadn't spent as much time with Grandpa Schroedter either, since he lived further away.  For some reason, I feel like he had reach his time -- he had done what he set out to do and now he was done, and maybe felt a bit at a loss with what he was supposed to do now.

Grandpa Hilberg was different; there was always something childlike about him to me.  He seemed to have few regrets about his life and despite the fact that I don't think he ever really had a comfortable or successful career, he never seemed bitter or upset by that.  It seemed like every time I talked to him, whether in person or on the phone, he had some story to tell about his friends or his family, and nearly every single one ended with his laugh.  I don't think I ever heard him to tell a story with a sad ending.

For someone like me, who has felt world-weary and cynical since I was in my teens, there's something fascinating about a person like Grandpa Hilberg who could maintain that kind of point of view and outlook on the world for so long.  I never really thought about his mortality, I guess, because it felt like he would never really go -- how can someone like that die?  I figured when you see death coming that has to be the ultimate downer -- when the end is near how can you maintain that kind of outlook?

Yesterday, my dad called me as I was leaving lunch and told me that Grandpa Hilberg had died that morning.  He'd been in the hospital, and I knew he was sick, but still, I never thought he would actually die -- it just didn't even strike me a possibility.  I don't think it really settled in until last night, but for the first time, I think, I'm actually feeling a strong sense of grief over someone's passing in a way I've never felt it before.  Maybe it's the fact that I'm getting older, and my parents are getting older too; for the first time I am really thinking about what it will be like when they die and realizing what that will mean.

I'm filled with regrets now, about my grandfather.  I always told him I'd come visit, but I never did. He wrote me after the first time I went to Iceland, including an article he'd read on the place, and I don't think I ever wrote back.  I talked to him on the phone, sure, but now...I was his oldest grandchild, and I think he was trying to reach out to me, and I wasn't there.  I was always going to see or talk to him later, and now there's never going to be a later.

That is always going to haunt me I think, especially when I look at how his kids turned out -- seven boys and girls who managed to turn out to be pretty great people, one of whom I'm happy to call my dad.  Whatever he and my grandmother did to raise them, they seem to have done it pretty well, and they managed to pass those lessons on to their kids, because I don't think I could have asked for a better dad than I am lucky enough to have.  After all he's been through -- with me and my brothers, with my mom and everything else life has thrown at him, he's always been there for me.  And when I think of that, I wonder if that's how my dad feels about his dad, and I wish I understood that more.  I can't help but feel a bit of guilt that I am never going to have kids of my own so that I can pass those lessons on too -- and part of me wonders if I could have, even if it weren't no physically impossible.  I can't imagine it was easy for him or for my parents to raise their kids as well as they did.

So, this weekend, I guess, I say goodbye to Grandpa Hilberg, and sorry for putting off what is now never going to happen.  I hope that he passed peacefully and as without regret as he seemed, and I hope he knew how much he meant to those of us he leaves behind.

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This page is an archive of entries from July 2010 listed from newest to oldest.

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