Healing from grief comes in small steps. Sometimes it comes from small people. Like on National Grandparents’ Day.
I never knew there was such a day. The push to recognize us old folks began with a letter from 9-year-old Russell Capper, written to President Nixon back in 1969. Russell was unsuccessful in his bid to get a special holiday on the calendar, but others picked up the ball and forged ahead until President Jimmy Carter signed a declaration in 1978 proclaiming forever the first Sunday after Labor Day as National Grandparents’ Day.
This has resulted in setting aside at least one day each year when all grandchildren should give special hugs to Grandpa and Nana, thus giving little people everywhere the right to drink large quantities of milkshakes against their mother’s better judgment. I am in favor of this holiday.
My surprise day started when I arrived at church. My daughter had pulled into the parking lot just ahead of me. My granddaughter, Zelda, who is six almost seven, is bouncing and waving wildly. “Grandpa, Grandpa, Grandpa!” She is shouting loud enough to disturb the entire neighborhood. She thinks she is a Cheetah, evidenced by the spotted dress she is wearing, and the stuffed Cheetah clutched under one arm.
She attempts to run for my truck, but Mom grabs her by the arm and gives her a firm reminder as to why small children shouldn’t run like Cheetahs in a parking lot.
By the time I get parked and get to the front door of the building, she runs up to throw her arms around me. This alone could have been the highlight of my day, but there’s more.
“Grandpa, did you know that today is National Grandparents’ Day?” She is almost uncontrollable with excitement. Long dark hair. Deep brown eyes. I am kneeling so I can be eye level with her.
“I had no idea there was such a day.”
“Yeah, yeah. It’s real. Can you and me go out to lunch today? Just you and me and nobody else. I want to ride in your truck and go to lunch. Not Mama and Daddy. Just you and me. Can we do that? Can we?”
The Cheetah juices have taken over her body at this point.
I have been around long enough to know that six-year-olds can come up with ideas on their own without having parental approval. One of the sacred rules of my job as Grandpa is never to agree to these plans without first checking with Mom.
“That sounds like fun, but I’ll have to ask your Mom first. Maybe we can do that.” She is satisfied with my response and is gone in a giddy flash.
Somewhere between services I check with Emily. She is supportive. “Gosh, yes. She hasn’t talked about anything else since yesterday. I’ve got to go into work anyway. Brandon will be around the house, and you can drop her off on your way home.”
As soon as the last Amen is spoken, Zelda hunts me down in Cheetah fashion. “Can we, can we go, can we?”
“I would love to go to lunch with you.” Followed by extreme bouncing and bobbing. Her, not me. “Where do you want to go,” I ask. She didn’t hesitate. “Can we go to Steak & Shake? I love that place.”
We step out of the truck, and she immediately takes my hand. “Mama says to hold hands in the parking lot.” She does pay attention to some lessons.
We find a booth against the window. She points to the menu. “I really want a Coke, the 100 calorie kind, not the 0 calorie kind, but Mama doesn’t let me have that.” Well, she’s with Grandpa on National Grandparents’ Day. “I think we can get you a Coke today. I’ll explain things to your Mama.”
When the food comes, she spreads out a napkin and loads it up with ketchup for her fries. I’m surprised that she can tear open the little packets. I always had to do that for her before. She’s growing up so fast.
We’re eating. Burgers and skinny fries. “You can use my ketchup if you want.” She has learned to share. Then out of nowhere.
“Do you know how to shop big?” she asks. I was confused.
“You mean, like grocery shopping?”
“Yeah, yeah. Some people shop small, but Mama shops big every Saturday and she’s worried that you don’t know how to shop big.”
“You know, I used to go grocery shopping with Nana from time to time. I bet I can figure out how to shop big if I need to.”
For the first time in this strange journey of mine, I am aware that this little angel is concerned about her Grandpa. Her little mind is working. I can tell by her eyes and the look on her face that she has thought about her Nana being gone and what that might mean for me.
She got even more serious. The Cheetah bounce was gone. She smushed a fry in the ketchup pile, leaned back and gathered herself. “I don’t think I should ask this. I’m not sure how to say it.” She had my attention. “Do you think you’ll marry again, or are you just gonna stay home by yourself?”
Let me just say, I wasn’t ready for that one. She made me laugh.
“Well, that’s a very important question, I guess.” This level of conversation with a six-year-old was new territory for me. “Honey, I think I’m gonna just stay home. I have no plans to marry anyone else.”
Her reply was spot on. “Okay. Can I have a milkshake? One with M&Ms in it?”
There have been so many who have offered their support and understanding in a lot of different ways. But none quite like this. The heart of small child is so full of hope and wonder. I think the first time I ever saw her pour out the crocodile tears was at the funeral. Oh, she has cried before. Skinned up knees. A black eye one time. But these were tears of a broken heart that she had lost her Nana.
I also realized that lunch today was not so much about her and milkshakes, as it was about her making sure that I’m gong to be okay. Her simple little heart was healing mine.
“You stay here at the table. I’m going up to the counter to pay the bill. I’ll be right back.” I told the cashier to add a kids M&M shake to the bill have it brought to our table.
The waitress came over and picked up our baskets. “Do you need a refill on drinks before you go?” she asked. “No, we’re waiting on a milkshake. We’re fine.”
Zelda’s eyes are huge. The Cheetah bounce is back. “Did you order me a shake?”
With elderly authority I said, “I’m Grandpa ain’t I?”
She stood up in the booth and tackled me with the best hug I’ve had in a long time. “This is the best day ever, Grandpa,” she whispered in my ear.
Me and my heart couldn’t agree more.