“Whales! Whales!” Someone shouts the alert and immediately the entire campsite is on its feet. Nappers are roused from sleep; likely, the cry has saved them from burning to death inside their inferno-like tents. Disregarded books are not so lucky: their spines break as their owners abandon them. Children throw down their bikes and balls, their rocks and sticks. Camp stoves are left unattended. From all corners of San Juan Country Park, campers careen to the waterside to watch the passing killer whales. I am swept up in the stampede.
The whales are not particularly close to shore, and they are moving quickly, but I manage to take a picture with seven fins in it as the creatures surface for air. The excitement of the morning carries my friends and me through the day. I am elated. Elated, that is, until my mom returns from picking up my dad at the ferry. I can tell that something is wrong for both of my parents are solemn and do not smile as freely as usual. Soon, they pull me aside and present me with the news: Grandpa has died.
As wave after wave of differing emotions flood my brain, I hug my dad. I had not known Grandpa well. I only had two memories of him from before Alzheimer’s Disease took his mind. Now, he no longer suffered and was healed in heaven. Surely that was cause for celebration? Yet, my dad had lost his father. My grandma had lost her husband. Even if I did not remember Grandpa, they did. Surely, then, that was cause for sadness.
A new, selfish thought streams into my mind. Did Grandpa’s death mean that we would have to cut our camping trip short?
My dad tells me no; we will stay the remaining few days at the campsite and then go to Canada for the funeral. Over the next few days, I watch for whales, play Mad Libs around the campfire, and enjoy the company of my friends. Behind the fun, I feel dejected.
When we arrive in Canada, I learn that my aunts, uncles, and cousins gathered the night before to remember my grandpa. I feel badly that I missed an opportunity to get to know Grandpa.
Before the funeral, however, the family visits Grandpa’s body, which is on display at a funeral home. The funeral home wanted to put him in a casket, but that would have cost money that an economical Dutch family such as my own did not want to spend. So, Grandpa is lying on a white sheet, his head on a pillow. One of Grandma’s quilts covers his legs and torso. Grandma tells us that she did not have any pants to dress him in, so he wears only underwear under the quilt. With horror, I recognize the white quilt with the patch-worked diamonds: it is the same quilt that usually covers the guest bed where I sleep.
The family trickles by the table, touching Grandpa’s shoulder or cheek.
“It doesn’t even look like him,” says one aunt.
Of course not. The people at the care home shaved his bushy beard when he could no longer take care of it.
“His soul is in heaven. His body is just an empty shell now,” says another relative.
We stand in a circle and share a few memories. We comment on how unnatural he looks with the undertaker’s makeup on his face. We sing a hymn. Then, we go to McDonalds.
Our group of twenty takes over all of the tables except for one. A homeless man with a beard reminiscent of Grandpa’s finds himself surrounded by Stellingwerffs. He, alone, of those in the fast food joint sits in solemnity without a smile and with his head bowed over his Big Mac. I still do not know how to feel. Am I to take my cue from my family and be joyful, or am to be sad that I never knew my grandpa?
The next day is the funeral. Grandpa’s paintings and sculptures are scattered throughout the room. Friends and family from all over the United States and Canada have come to remember my grandpa. I love hearing the testimonies of those who knew him since I only have two pre-Alzheimer’s memories of him.
The first memory takes place in winter. Grandpa is pulling me through his mountainous estate on a sled. I am only three or four years old, very shy, and very attached to my parents. I wonder who this strange man is and why he is pulling me on a sled. The ride is fun, but I would rather have Daddy pulling me.
I do not know when the second memory takes place, but there is no snow on the ground, so it must not be winter anymore. Grandpa has taken us on a hike through one of the trails he’s forged in the mountains of Lumby, British Colombia. Like usual, he is far ahead of the rest of us, lost in the beauty of God’s creation.
“Grandpa, wait!” I cry, in an effort to slow him down.
The memory ends. I do not remember if he heard me or if my voice slowed him down.
My memories of Grandpa after his Alzheimer’s set in are clearer. I remember Grandma helping him to wave goodbye to us as we drove away from their townhome in Pitt Meadows, after the mountain estate became too much for them to take care of. I remember Grandpa lining up my stuffed animals on the back of an arm chair in order of size; I remember being afraid to move them in case it would upset him. I remember my cousin Luke bringing some of his stuffed animal monkeys to the care home; Grandpa latched on to one and would not let it go. He walked in his familiar way with his hands clasped behind his back, only this time he clutched a monkey in a steel grip. I remember how, near the end, he would sit with his eyes closed, unresponsive until a spoonful of food pressed against his lips.
From the eulogy I learn that Grandpa was a draft dodger far before the Vietnam War started, that he blazed the trail for fitness freaks wanting to climb Grouse Mountain instead of riding the tram to the top that he recycled before “going green” was a movement, and that he biked to work before it became mainstream. I learn that Grandpa loved to create; he loved carving, painting, and music. He enjoyed hiking, biking, and his work as an engineer. I learn that Grandpa remained stalwartly faithful to his family and to God throughout his life, even after Alzheimer’s took his memory.
I look around me and see Grandpa mirrored in the personalities, interests, and faith of my family and in me, too. David and Luke inherited Grandpa’s quiet thoughtfulness. Pete has inherited Grandpa’s artistic abilities. Harriette, Rachel, and I have inherited Grandpa’s musical talents. Nearly all of the family enjoys hiking, biking, and enjoying God’s creation.
Some of my sadness evaporates. I know more about my grandpa now than I ever had before. I come to realize that death does not always have to be sad. On the contrary, when someone has such a terrible disease and such an incredible trust in God, death is a blessing. Those left behind on earth are joyful because, rather than suffering, the sufferer is in the arms of Christ, healed of all earthly illness.
My mixed feelings are reconciled. I feel peace.