Last week, when the family could all be together, we honored my grandfather’s life. Arlington National Cemetery’s pageantry, the respect, the history, the 21-gun salute, the bugler on the hill . . . it all got to me. It was one of the most significant experiences of my life.
Just before our grandfather died in August, my sister Sara Johnson Allen wrote about her last time seeing him:
“The other day I may have talked to my grandfather for the last time. He is in his 90’s and he has lived a good life, and until very recently, he was able to read the Washington Post every day, which I think was our family’s litmus test for his true well being. So I guess I should be happy that if he goes soon, he will pass at home surrounded by family. As with all things, only time will tell.
Given his declining health, my mother and I coordinated a time for me to have an opportunity to do what so many people can’t do, which is to say goodbye. Of course I didn’t say those words. I made small talk and said inane things like, “How are you doing?” and “I hope you aren’t giving the nurses too much trouble.”
He mostly responded in a whisper and in his customized cliches like, “If only I had 12 more like you.”
And at the end of the conversation, I said that I loved him which wasn’t as important as what he said back to me. My mother had to translate since I couldn’t make out his hoarse whisper.
Me: I love you.
Him: That is just an echo of what I say to you.
I keep thinking about that line. That is just an echo of what I say to you.
And now I guess I’m thinking about echoes. For some reason I also can’t forget a line that my mother reportedly said to my brother as she danced with him at his wedding a couple months ago. “I’m thinking about when you were a baby,” she said. I keep thinking of that line too over and over, and every time it floats through my mind I well up with tears. Partly because my mother beat an aggressive cancer to be on that dance floor. Partly because my silly baby brother is enough of a man to marry a woman.
But mostly because I have a baby of my own and maybe if we are both very lucky, I will whisper something like that to him one day on a dance floor, and then someday hopefully many years after that, I will whisper my love through an inflamed and failing wind pipe, and then one day I hope many, many decades from now, he will whisper his own goodbyes to people I will probably never meet.
It is devastating to think about it for too long, so we don’t. We shouldn’t. I suppose the inevitable trajectory of our lives is not meant to be deeply examined, but rather glanced at only briefly enough to remember that we can pay the bills or check the email or wash the dishes later.
Tonight, as I have done every single night of his 381 days on this planet, I went to check on my son and placed three fingers on his abdomen to ensure that he was still breathing. The SIDS threats have mostly passed, but I still do this every night, not so much from paranoia or fear, but from the connection I feel to his life when I do it. Without the teetering steps and the whining cries and the shrieking laughter and the hilarious expressions and the constant patrolling for doggies, without all of those things that make Jack Jack, he is just the next life in a line of Hackens and Johnsons and Allens. A very sweet life, I will admit.
But tonight because I cannot shake the echos of my grandfather’s and my mother’s voice, as I felt his chest rise and fall, I said to him, “I’m thinking about you when you were a baby.” And then, “Goodnight, Beloved Echo.”
I can’t think of a better way to put it all into context, Sara.