How My Grandparents Changed My Outlook On What’s Next

It’s time we had a real discussion about our grandparents. Let’s be honest, we don’t talk about them enough unless it’s “Oh, Memaw and Peepop send me awesome gifts on my birthday!” As we come into adulthood our relationship to our grandparents is changing, and it’s up to us to figure out what that means.

“I hate when people give me gifts for my house,” my grandmother said a few years ago in the most matter-of-fact way possible. “It’ll just be more hassle for you all to sell off in my estate sale one day.” Though my first reaction to this comment was utter horror, I can’t help but appreciate the practicality of my grandmother’s point of view. I can see where she’s coming from; my grandparents’ home in Chattanooga, Tenn., had been accumulating décor items and keepsakes for years. Some of these items my grandparents have been slowly dispersing to family members, like my great-grandfather’s beloved book collection. They haven’t said it outright, but I won’t pretend this isn’t a sign that my grandparents are preparing for when they won’t be around anymore.

I grew up incredibly lucky (for many reasons), but in particular that I got to know all four of my grandparents. Not to mention that they’ve generally all been healthy and sprightly for their age. So much so, that strangers have mistaken my grandparents for my parents. Longevity runs on both sides of my family: My dad’s grandmother died only a few months shy of her 100th birthday in 2011, and my mom’s grandfather passed away at 96. So it’s been fairly easy to put off thinking that my grandparents won’t live forever.

My maternal grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s when I was a sophomore in high school, my first year at boarding school. I bawled my eyes out at the news, delivered over my dorm room land line. If you’ve ever had a family member afflicted with the disease, then you know that it’s a slow illness that has long plateaus punctuated by severe dips. It’s been eight years since my parents broke the news, but every time my parents call to let me know about a change in my grandfather’s health is a tense moment (do I book a flight home this time?). When you know that someone has the disease that will eventually kill them, it’s hard to not start mourning when you should be embracing the life that’s still there.

What’s more disconcerting than their declining health and increasing age is my grandparents’ acceptance of what’s to come. My mother’s mother, a devout Baptist, has been preparing her soul for years now. My father’s parents have outlined yearly monetary gifts that we’ll receive as they prepare the affairs of their estate. It’s as if they’re beginning to say goodbye, despite the fact that it’s impossible to know how long they’ll be saying it. Even more frustrating about the overhanging reminders that my grandparents’ days are numbered is that it’s only become more difficult to appreciate them during this time. The guilt eats away because they are so understanding. They come to me when they can and tell me profusely how happy they were to spend even a bit of time with me when I have to leave the family reunion early to catch the cheap Sunday crack of dawn flight back to New York. Where I’m selfish, self-centered, and a quintessential millennial narcissist, they’re generous and understanding, they’re a mirror reflection of my psyche. When I’m thinking, “What’s coming next?” they’re thinking, “What can we do next?”

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Though I’d prefer not to be reminded of my grandparents’ impending deaths, their outlook has given me perspective too, and it’s not just to appreciate my family more. The problem is my life is so full of nexts that it’s easy to take them all for granted—next apartments, next jobs, next city, next bar, next school—and expect that they’ll fall into my lap which leaves me static. My grandparents’ rational and methodical approach to living is a testament to what happens when you’re faced with fewer nexts. You become proactive. For my grandparents, that means making sure the important items in their house go to the people who will care for and cherish them best, and engineering family events that I won’t fully appreciate for years. For me it’s having that awkward conversation with my boss when I think I deserve a raise instead of hoping one will come just because I work hard even though my instinct is to complain, stress, get distracted, and become paralyzed in my fear that as long as I remain the same and unchanging, so will the world around me. In my grandparents’ act of leaving keepsakes and money behind, I’ve found another inheritance, one that won’t pay my rent or keep my fridge stocked with wine, but that’s arguably more important—to embrace the next I want instead of waiting for the one that inevitably lands on me. I’m not suggesting that realistically facing that they’ll die one day will stave it off or even make it easier when it comes, just like having talked to my boss wouldn’t make it easier if a promotion isn’t available, but it will definitely ensure that I remember my grandparents for the poise, humor, and thoughtfulness for which they faced “the next.”

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