I try not to dwell on the what ifs in my life because it can lead me down a crappy road. But sometimes it’s interesting to think about how one small change early in life could’ve set me up in an entirely different way than what actually happened.
One of the biggest what ifs that I think would’ve been huge for me was my grandfather living longer. He died of a heart attack about two months after I turned 5. He was 41 when my mom was born, which made him a really old dad back then. So he was an old grandfather when I was born. He turned 70 the year I was born.
While I do have a few memories of him, mostly I remember the way he made me feel. He was gentle and kind and patient with me in a time when people weren’t patient with me. My parents were working hard to break me down in that “children should be seen and not heard” mentality. My grandmother was also working on me to be more tame, quiet, and gentle.
That’s not me. It never was and it never will be.
But my grandfather seemed to enjoy everything about me, including my noise and enthusiasm for life. He was always overjoyed to see me and I remember that. He napped a lot in his special chair and sometimes when we went to visit him, he would be snoozing. The first thing I would say when we got in the house was “Where’s Grandpa?” My grandmother ALWAYS said “He’s resting. Please be quiet.” And from the living room, he’d say “I’m awake, go get a book-one book!” And when I showed up with a stack from the pile in the back room, he would laugh and read as many of them to me as we could fit in. He never ever made me feel like I was too loud or impatient or too much, like everyone else did. He was patient and kind. I remember the joy I felt when he would scoop me up in his lap and hug me tightly. He loved me and I loved him.
I remember one specific time I had this magnetic alphabet board and each letter fit perfectly into its place. I was sitting on his lap, putting the letters into place. I put the O into the Q spot and was trying to fit the Q into the O. I kept turning it around and around with no luck. Then he finally moved the O and put the Q into the right spot. I was mystified. How did he do that? And he laughed a deep belly laugh when I took the Q out of its spot and put it back in myself. I did that three times to help me remember that it went there. He laughed the whole time. I remember being frustrated and angry, but he kept me calm when I was struggling to make it fit. When I got angry at home with my parents, they didn’t know how to calm me down and I spent a lot of time hyped up and frustrated. My grandfather was so calming for me. I felt all my frustration melt away when I was with him.
I’ve seen pictures of us working at our camp. He was stacking up firewood and I helped him, bringing him one at a time. He never got impatient with me and was content to stack the wood one at a time at my pace. He didn’t yell at me, rush me, or make me feel like I couldn’t help him because it was extra work for him. He would fill his big wooden wagon with wood and I would put two pieces in my tiny red wagon and then we would drag our wagons over to each wood pile we made. My parents said I would work with him all day, not caring that it was a lot of work. I just wanted to be with him and it never bothered him to have me around.
There was no one else in my childhood that accepted me just as I was like he did. I was never too much for him. That acceptance and unconditional love was lacking for the rest of my childhood and most of my adult life until my wife and I got close as friends a little over two years ago. I spent decades of my life hyped up and frustrated because I didn’t know how to calm myself down. I wasn’t good enough or I was too much for everyone else. After he died the rest of my childhood, teenage years, and young adulthood were just a barrage of criticism about every choice I made.
But what would my life have been if he had lived just 5 or 10 years longer? What if I could remember more about his calming ways and how he accepted me? What if he had been able to teach me how to calm myself in that time? Would the anxiety that started destroying me at 8 years old have stayed away? Would I have believed in myself because I had 10-15 years to soak up the validation and unconditional love he gave me? What if I had been able to use that validation to know that I could handle chemistry with more work and some extra tutoring instead of just giving up like I did. Could I have been a doctor like I always wanted to be if I had grown up with him in my life longer? Would he have defended me when my parents told my relatives what a brat I was? Would I have had less back room spankings? Would he have kept my grandmother from criticizing everything I did wrong in her eyes? Or would he have grown tired with my endless energy and high volume?
I don’t know the answers to any of those questions but I do know that five years of his love, acceptance, and patience wasn’t close to enough. I know that the pain I felt after he died was not something I could verbalize and for years I would just burst into tears because I missed him so much. And now as a healing adult, I have learned why it hurt so much. It was so much more than just the loss of someone close to me; it was the loss of what every human needs to be happy-unconditional love.