On February 02 at 11:55 pm Alvaro Valencia Sr. passed away at the age of 85. He was cremated today in Toronto, Canada. Alvaro was my grandfather. Today my immediate and extended family all came together to assist his coffin to the cremation.
Abuelito, as we grandkids and great grandkids affectionately called him, used to run errands for my grandmother’s family as a kid. He’d eagerly arrive and assist at all he could for the family. One day, one of my great-aunts slyly said to him, “You come to see Alfonsina don’t you? A-ha!” Thus, the great romance of my grandparents began.
Alvaro and Alfonsina raised their four children in a very traditional Colombian household. They’d attend church every Sunday, all children did their chores and all meals were family meals. Abuelito was soon given the nickname, “El Pollo” (the plucky chicken), by his co-workers at the bank, for having four children at what seemed like a young age. This was just one of the many stories that was told to me about this nickname. As far as I know, only his brothers, grown children or his wife called him “El Pollo”.
Abuelito was also an avid runner and cyclist. Ever since I was little I always knew my grandfather would take some time each day for his running or cycling. Unlike his brothers, he was never much for races, but he did love to play, watch or listen to soccer games as most South Americans do. Throughout my knowing him and in conversations this week, he’s been called a simple man with no frills, a polite and faithful man, a hard worker, a dedicated husband, a strict, but great father and some say, a man who not only impressed others, but inspired humbleness.
My experiences and times with my grandfather were many, but they are scattered. There were a few summers in my teenage years that I helped run errands for him and my grandmother, translate for them and, during school times, I’d go over to their house for lunch. My grandfather was always grateful and although quiet, he wouldn’t hold back in passionate conversations. Once in a rare while you’d have to stop and ask, “What did he just say?” Then you’d look into his eyes and as much as he would try to hold a straight face, the crescent moons of a laugh in his eyes would give him away.
What I have written above sounds so matter of fact. The truth is there is nothing that I can say or write or do that can sculpt for you a semblance of what my grandfather was or meant to us or to me. Even in the decade of suffering that had him losing his memory, his motor functions and losing essentially what made him Alvaro, he was still a rock in the lives of all he touched. Alzheimer’s is not a kind disease. It’s a slow torturous journey to the inevitable. My grandfather would say, “So is life.” (He was also that guy who would appreciate the sun because you know you’d have to pay it back with black clouds later on.) On the day he was diagnosed, he started to give up on a lot of things. Little by little the things that mattered to him were taken away: the running, gone, the cycling, gone and eventually even our faces were gone. I can’t imagine what that was to lose activity in his life. I get depressed when I can’t run for a week due to a sore knee and I can’t imagine what it is to lose all that and millions of things more, forever.
Abuelito was not a complex person, but he was a very religious man. He wasn’t someone to say he was sorry if he did wrong or tell you if he was proud of you. It was implied. Honestly, I know my grandfather was very proud of his sons and his daughters regardless of arguments or drama. I’d see it at our gatherings where he’d sit or stand somewhere in a corner or by my grandmother’s side and observe. His eyes would twinkle at the approach of his grandchildren or great grandchildren and if you were one of the ones he caught, he’d gather you up in his arms and rub his stubbly chin to tickle your cheeks.
It isn’t so much the horrible way he died or the fact that he is gone, or the fact that he isn’t coming back that’s angering to me. No. The reason it’s hitting me hard is because when I looked around the room at all my family in mourning this week, thoughts that I would have to replay this same scene with these same people came to mind. The impermanence of life isn’t really ingrained in you until something like this slaps you hard in the face. I mean, we as a family prepared ourselves for many years for this day. We talked and debated about what he would want. There would be times that some of us would hesitate before picking up a ringing phone thinking that today might be the day. We even thought guiltily that relief would overpower any feelings of grief for him. Honestly, I have to admit, nothing prepared us for losing him in our lives.
In reality, nothing prepared any of us, our parents, our cousins, and all of our other collected familiars for the finality of it. As a pallbearer I helped carry his casket to the chamber today and in bearing his tragically slight weight I started to lose my bearings. The sights of my uncle and aunts saying goodbye to the pillar in their lives, my grandmother rightfully losing her calm, and finally my dad’s reaction to it all was that big slap in the face. My dad, Alvaro Jr., kept peering inside like a little boy into the small window to watch the flames light up. His curiosity at the buttons and readings got the better of him and then he turned to me and said, “It’s all a torture.” I hugged him tight, more to keep myself from seeing him cry than to comfort him.
Daddy, please don’t ever go.
Funerals are such selfish occasions. The dead don’t care because they’re dead. The services, the drama, the sombre celebrations, they’re all closure inspiring events for the grieving. The little closure I felt was in the realization that in the end, we all get put in a box and set on fire and that’s it. Who you were goes away and life goes on for the living.
After the gathering today, my parents, my sister and I went out for a coffee. Humor cut through a bit of the sadness and we sat closer while we chatted. I’m not the first person in the world to lose a grandparent and I’m lucky to be surrounded by a big family. That also means to me, at this moment, thoughts that one day I will be saying goodbye many times and I don’t want that. I have great parents, an amazing sister, a loving husband, two wonderful children and close friends that I consider family. I consider myself very fortunate in this. For some reason however, the whole buddhist ideal of non-attachment seems like paradise right now. What did I do, but let in future suffering into my heart?
I’ve had three deaths in the family and all of them were quick passings. One of them was the death of my cousin Fabian that hit us all like a thief in the night. The pain of his death was huge to me because I spent I good part of my childhood running around at his house. When it came time to speak of his early passing I also had the comfort of losing myself in my newly born children. Now I can try to do the same or lose myself in my studies, my writing or whatever. I can try.
I don’t know if my grandfather was proud of me even though he listened to my show every day. I’m the opposite of a religious person and in that revelation I might have disappointed you. I know you would probably tell me to get over it and not to let your passing keep me down. You have kids to raise and a future to live.
I don’t know, grandpa. Life is torturous and it’s unfair. I run and cycle like you used to, but for what? So that one day I’ll end up incapacitated in a bed watching my children suffer as they wait until I die? Love and raise my kids so they can feel the way I do now? I live life now so I can live nothing later? I’ll never let my head puzzles keep me from my children because I’ve worked too hard for too long to make it stop. However, it’s still this unfair maze and I just don’t get it.
May be I just don’t get it right now.
Something Darren Wershler said on twitter (@alienated) yesterday gives me something to meditate on: “As far as the photon is concerned, it has always been right now.”
I’m sure my grandfather would have a hilarious, but dry response to that. I wish I could hear it.
You get put in a box, set on fire and that’s that. Get over it.
“¡Dejas esas pendejadas que ya me fui! ¡Se acabo!”
Abuelito, damn, I miss you so much. We all miss you so very much.