It was November of freshman year when I was struck with the second attack of esophagitis. Like striking teachers, my stomach acids grew discontent with their position and sought a higher calling. Unfortunately for me, that higher calling was my esophagus. The muscles there, sensing the presence of lower class body functions, first tightened and then inflamed. The system was broken and it left me unable to eat, drink or even swallow without excruciating pain. Of course, providence is unkind to those already down on their luck; three days into my esophagitis my body spiked a fever. And the single remaining memory, the recollection of me sitting naked in the dorm showers, vomiting tears and bile onto the drain, has become holy to me, my own personal Gethsemane. But at the time it was not nearly so redemptive. After seven harrowing days, an ungodly amount of time for a six-foot-four-one-hundred-and-forty-five-pound boy to go without food, my body healed. On the first day of my resurrection, I marched into Wendys and ordered two baked potatoes. To this day I’ve yet to taste anything nearly as delicious.
I tell you about that experience not to gain sympathy, but to give you a point of reference. It is to help you understand the once most painful illness of my life has been replaced, not by cancer or Lupus or African sleeping sickness or any of the rare diseases I learn from House, but by something far more common. I call it Sansgrandparentitus. In layman’s term: I have no more grandparents.
For a myriad of reasons, outliving your grandparents is a thing most terrible to experience. You see, my grandparents were the buffer between my parents and death. And now that they are gone, my parents are taking their place in the eternal line. On the subway I watch the stops pass and realize that the greater part of their life has gone by. And as happy as I am when they come to visit, I am sadder when they leave. It’s not just the usual sorrow of a goodbye, but the recognition that the once limitless time with my parents has been reduced to a finite account from which I’ve just withdrawn. Though I try to resist, their transformation occurs right in front of me every time my sisters and I refer to them as grandma and grandpa. As much as I disapprove of my parents’ new title, it won’t go away.
I could live with Sansgrandparentitus if this were the only symptom. But it’s not. You see, my grandparents were the buffer between me and growing up. I find myself pained with jealousy as I watch my parents spoil my nephews with dollar store toys and McDonald’s happy meals. It makes me want Sunday morning walks to Smitty’s for breakfast with Grandpa or the words of approval from Grandma. Where have the phone calls gone? And the suspenders? The turquoise necklace? The homemade bread? The knuggies? Those small, immeasurably important interactions have been reduced to memories. My grandparents made me perfect, innocent, precious, and important. Now that they are gone, I am no longer immortal. The eyes in which I could do no wrong have closed and made me aware of my fallibility.
Mortality is a painful condition. But for those stubborn souls who refuse to grant weight to this issue, I invite you to think about the suffering of all humanity. Without grandparents, we are collectively robbed of wisdom. An entire generation of experiences has slipped by unharvested from society’s pool of knowledge. Without those roots, we are like trees waiting for that final strong wind.
I realize that for a great many this condition is regarded as incurable. Lives come and go as they have for millennia, leaving only the worn footprints in the carbon sands of time. I can’t empirically argue against their overwhelming evidence, I can only offer a simple belief: that a reunion lays in some far distant time for me, my parents, and my grandparents, that will outshine any Wendy’s baked potato.