Two years ago my grandfather died at 87 years old. On our last visit to his house, he was so alive. He had retiled their bathroom floor and refinished the kitchen cabinets. He complained about a pain in his side and waved it off as he embraced my four-year-old daughter. He lifted her up, spun her in the air, and then looked for the nearest table to hold onto because his blood pressure probably plummeted to 50 over 20. But he was SO ALIVE. Until he was a memory.
I didn’t think I’d be flooded with as much grief as I was. He lived a proud, respectable life. It was an expected death, but it wasn’t tragic, it was quintessential humanity. At the funeral, I was hyper aware of the traditions connecting it to a life cycle event, like a baby naming, a bar mitzvah, a wedding. We wouldn’t be dancing the hora, but we were closing a circle.
A side effect of death is a clarity of priorities. What matters comes into focus and the superfluous details fade away into the fuzz of peripheral vision. Ultimately we are specs on this planet running upstream against time. Until it’s our turn.
I watched my grandmother bury her husband of 61 years. She was instructed where to stand, where to sit, which prayers to recite in the Hebrew she never learned. She obeyed every command. Shoveling dirt onto the coffin is the final ritual act of honoring the dead.
I anticipated this heavily symbolic moment.
We covered our husband, our father, our grandfather with the earth. My grandmother, with her own sack of illnesses, and terribly swollen legs could barely stand, but she took the metal shovel and with a lifetime of love and strength, dug the heavy steel into the ground and scooped the dirt into the hole. Once. Twice. Three times. Then she sat down on the white folding chair and stared ahead, in a trance, as the rest of the family took turns emulating her fortitude. No matter how much dirt we filled, we’d all have a permanent cavity in our hearts.
Titles define his life on his tombstone: Husband, father, grandfather. As the light goes out, love is the energy which lives on, deposited in those we leave behind.
My husband and I had been dating for 9+ years when he stood beside me at the funeral, holding the official title of “boyfriend” and behaving like the epitome of a man who wears a husband badge. As I watched my grandmother bury her beloved, I looked at my boyfriend and it became clear he deserved the title.
Over nine years, there were many romantic moments when my boyfriend proclaimed his undying love and said, while he didn’t “need marriage,” he would be happy to marry me every day.
My grandfather was a traditional man with old fashioned morals. Over the years, he asked us if we would get married – especially after the birth of our daughter. Or after we bought our apartment together. I always dismissed him. I told him I didn’t need that. We didn’t need that. I had been married before; I had worn the ring and wore it out. I no longer believe in the ancient contract. Instead, life showed me true love and connection and commitment have nothing to do with a ceremony, a party, or a ring. It had to do with finding a mate for your soul; someone who will validate your days.
When you’ve gotten divorced, it’s easier to linger in a protected, “never going for that title again” state. I always said something major would have to happen to shift my entire outlook on the marital establishment. I just didn’t feel like I needed the title or the validation.
Until I did.
Until I realized if husband and wife are the titles our society bestows on the highest level of loving commitment, then I wanted our love to wear it. Our love was worthy of it.
That’s death. Uncertainties become irrelevant. Instead of being an end to my grandfather’s life, I was inspired to formalize the family tree he planted.
On the ten year anniversary of the day we met, I married the man who made me believe in second chances. At love. At marriage. At life together.
PS: I connect to this quote on marriage in an intense way and we included it in our wedding programs.
“We need a witness to our lives. There are a billion people on the planet… I mean, what does any one life really mean? But in a marriage, you’re promising to care about everything. The good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things… all of it, all of the time, every day. You’re saying ‘Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go un-witnessed because I will be your witness’.”