An American flag lay draped over a black casket that held the lifeless body of a Korean War veteran. The mausoleum was quiet until people started to cry. I saw tears puddle around eyes and heard the mourning of aching hearts. As we sang “Amazing Grace” I began to cry. I felt death’s sting, and I knew that a loved one cannot be replaced. Reflecting on many memories of the man in the casket, I know I would have acted differently had I truly acknowledged that a day was coming for my grandpa that would be his last on this earth.
I was in my bedroom sleeping when I felt a hand press against my shoulder. As my eyes lazily rolled open I turned over on my mattress to see my mother standing beside my bed.
“Joe,” she said softly, “Grandpa died.”
“He did? When?” I mumbled, still waking from sleep.
“This morning. I am going over to Grandma’s house right now.”
“Okay,” I muttered as she walked out of my room.
After hearing those words, even though all of my family expected to hear them sooner or later, I knew I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep again, so I sat up, opened the window blinds beside my bed and looked outside. The sun was rising; the world was slowly awakening. When I first sat up I didn’t cry. We had prepared for this moment; his health had been declining steadily over the past couple of months. But as I started to reflect on my memories of him, my eyes filled with tears.
Some memories can never be forgotten, either because they are so terrifying or so beautiful. Most of my memories of Grandpa are beautiful. We used to go to his lakeside cabin in Apple Canyon in the summer, and he would take us to the beach where we would bury ourselves in sand and build sand castles to conquer the tide. When he flipped us off inner tubes attached to his speed boat, we would fly for a moment before gravity hurled us into the lake water. One night we sat in his boat and watched fireworks explode above the lake, the water serving as a mirror, doubling the colorful array. Grandpa had a big fire pit in the woods that we used to sit around in the cool of night and roast countless marshmallows. Sometimes he would take us on motorcycle rides as we sat in his side car. I smile when I remember my hand shakes with him where we would squeeze each other’s hand as hard as we possibly could before letting go. Whenever asked how he was doing, Grandpa would reply with a number on a scale of one to ten. One meant that you were doing terribly, and if you were ten it meant that you were in Heaven. Usually he was around seven or eight; his son said the lowest he’d ever heard was a two.
I remember that the last time I saw him at our family party he was happier than usual, and I still remember my conversation with him.
“Hey, Grandpa! How are you?” I asked.
“Hey, Joe! I am a seven,” he said cheerfully.
“Well I’m a seven point one,” I stated, always picking a number higher than he did.
“I am seven point five,” he quickly replied, smiling.
I don’t ever remember him rebutting with another number before as he did that day. He was steadily climbing to ten. I never said goodbye to my grandparents that night, and that conversation was the last I had with him. What if I had known that night would be the last time I would see him? Would I have loved harder? Would I have spent more time with him and thanked him for the glorious adventures we shared? Yes, I would have, had I known. But I didn’t know, and I took his life and smile for granted. I acted like life would never change, even though I knew deep down that it would. After his death I cried bitterly, not just because of the memories, but also because he was gone, and I wouldn’t be able to tell him thanks.
It’s too late to go back and alter past events. What happened cannot be changed. However, his death and every death remind me that we don’t have forever here. One day death will meet us and stretch out its gnarly hands to grab us. But this fact makes our fragile lives beautiful and worth living. When we truly realize that death is coming to us all, our souls are stirred to love deeper, to give more, and to make the most of our transient lives here.
I never really took these things to heart before Grandpa died. His death drove me to reflect on life. Now his soul has found eternal refuge, and though his body has returned to dust, his legacy lives on. He came to this earth empty-handed, and though he left it the same way, he filled so many hearts with love. Our family and many others have a blessed heritage from his life. The body in the casket is not only an ending, but also a beginning. A planted seed has to die before new life can spring up. I know I’ll see him some day, and then I’ll tell him thanks. For now, it’s up to us who still remain to build upon his exemplary life. He lives on, and if we could ask him how he is, I’m sure he’d say “Ten.”