I’m currently northbound by train to New York on my way to see my grandfather for what could be the last time.
I imagine what I’d say after he’s gone.
“He was a great man.”
And anyone who knows him would say that. In fact, when I texted my best friend to let her know what was happening, that’s exactly what she said.
He’s a great man. Present tense. Because as I write this he is still alive.
He has the innate ability to share his love and affection equally—among all of his children, his grandchildren, my grandmother, along with many other extended family members, students, and neighbors.
I want to say it was just us that had such a special bond, but he had that with everyone.
We all felt like the favorite.
I can imagine my grandmother saying my name now, in quiet surprise to see me. “Em-au-ly,” she’d say in her German accent, like there’s a marble in her mouth.
My love for and with my grandparents is the truest and purest form of love I’ve ever had the privilege to know—unconditional and without judgment. I remember showing up at their house as a sophomore in college, reeling from my first heartbreak and prescription anxiety meds I had my first panic attack. No questions asked we just sat and looked out at the mountains.
I started to learn how to deal with anxiety naturally after that.
For most of my life they resided on top of a mountain in upstate New York with only a wood stove for heat, and an ever revolving door of dogs, cats, and the birds their feeders would bring. Even the occasional bear would grace their property.
I think that’s where I first learned about inner peace, or the act of striving towards inner peace. There was one spot on the property, a small clearing amongst greenery and moss covered stones the size of a perch.
He called it Eden.
My grandfather taught yoga right up until his kidneys started failing a few days ago. He kept up with his classes as best he could as his health deteriorated. The last class of his I took was a year ago and he no longer did the full postures. His students followed his voice while he stood there. I remember laughing during the class—he always reminded me of some ancient eastern mystic. We called him Mr. Miyagi despite his being a Brooklyn Jew. After the class I commented on how his teaching style had changed and he said, “now I just walk around like a little emperor.”
Back in my late teen years my grandfather got a gun, a six shooter I’m not sure he ever used. He’d theatrically reach for his hip to pull a gun he never actually kept there. That’s where he earned the nickname Pappy Greenbacks, a name that stuck long after he laid down his right to bear arms. I think at one point he even joined the NRA, adorning his garage with one of its stickers, despite remaining fiercely liberal.
He’s been a medicine man for as long as I can remember. Room full of homeopathic tools and remedies. Dedicated to self improvement and reflection. He is the person who first taught me about remaining in the present moment. A few years ago a cousin and I laughed about being on his email list of new age spam. Blasting off weekly articles about the vagus nerve, benefits of meditation, deep breathing, and other mental health solutions. I’d laugh at these emails and barely read them. Now, I find myself searching for and needing them more than ever.
One of his dreams before he died was to go sailing for the first time, but logistically we never swung it. He did however come and see my boat when I was on the Hudson River. He came aboard and pretended to talk into the VHF radio, he called my boat utilitarian with a nod of approval, and said he couldn’t wait to shit in my bucket one day.
On my twenty-eighth birthday he left me a voicemail misusing sailing terms. Saying he hoped I was tuning my sails, and enjoying the perfect cut of my jib. I wish I still had that voicemail.
My first tattoo was in honor of him. He had a snake on his forearm. Faded and torn from the 1950s. I wanted the same, only the stick figure version, as a testament to his unfading greatness.
Every time I visited I wanted something to take with me that was his. A CD, a hat, a pair of socks, his old bicycle, his old tent. He’d always say, “You’re not getting another thing out of me this time! You’d take the shirt off my back.” And it’s true, I would. But he always gave in, shaking his head and handing over his possessions.
He is a published writer, fantastic storyteller, and giver of the most sage advice. He is a guru, a chief, and a rock to many. He used to tell me that he always reads my writing, and even if he doesn’t comment to just know that he is always there, reading it.
When I was working as a waitress saving tips to buy my first boat I waited on an eccentric man who turned out to be clairvoyant. As I began to walk away from his table he grabbed my arm and asked me in a dead serious tone, “do the names Cynthia and Robert mean anything to you?”
“Why, yes,” I said rather confused. “Cynthia is my aunt and Robert is my grandfather. They are two of the dearest people to me. My grandfather is my favorite person. ”
“Ah,” he said rather satisfactorily. “They’re with you always.”
I’ve always held on to that sentiment
As time goes on, the older I get, the darker the world seems to become. Climate change. Injustice. Someone dies. Another breakup. More lights go out. My grandfather has always helped remind me of who I really am. Beneath anxiety is a true essence he could always extract.
“You’ll do anything for a laugh,” he’d say, reminding me of my sense of humor.
But soon I won’t have that on the physical plane. I can’t just show up on my grandparents doorstep anymore when I need some no strings attached, unconditional support. It’s time to grow up. I’ll have to turn inward to access the infinite source of my grandfathers love and wisdom because soon, that’s the only place where it will exist.
When I’m feeling low and I wish I could just have some of what he’s got I’ll have to remember that I do.
That he is, quite literally, with me always.
That he was a great man, and I had the great privilege to feel like his favorite.
It is always hard when someone you are close to passes. In my case, much older than you, my grandparents and my parents have all passed. I still remember them regularly, and the lessons they consciously and unconsciously taught me. I see the ways that these lessons have influenced who I am today. In the same way I am sure your grandfather will still remind you who you really are long after he passes. I enjoy your writing. Thank you for that.
You made me cry with this one, Emily. A beautiful tribute to your Robert ‘Pappy Greenbacks’ Greenberg. Lucky you to always have him with(in) you.
Wonderful writing, and great writing style.
What a testament of you, being able to see all that he offered and how he was able to love you in such a profound way. I think we all want to love and be loved like that. In an ever changing world, never underestimate the power you have to leave your impression on others, like he did to you.
incredible piece, em! love you
You are a wonderful person and a terrific writer, Emily. Thank you so much for sharing those thoughts and feelings. I hope I can write something even a hundredth as touching and beautiful as your piece when my grandma (93) nears the end of her way among us.
I wish you the best from Spain.
Your biggest Spanish fan,