This evening, in New Hampshire, surrounded by singing members of his family, my grandfather breathed for the last time.
I was able to visit him back in the first weekend of February. For the first time, I told him I loved him and he said he loved me. Both of my grandfathers were members of what my mother once called the "silent generation" of men. Sitting at the kitchen table or in his room with him, struggling to think of things to say in this last visit, I realized for the first time that this silence between us, which had been a hard thing for me, was also hard for him. We sat in that silence, suffered it, and struggled with it, during the weekend I was there. But in the end, all the needful words were spoken. And, co-existing with the pain of the silence, was the peace of it.
This year I prayed a novena to St. Joseph, leading up to his feast day as husband of Mary on the the nineteenth of March. I prayed an old formulaic novena, but I also prayed one my sister shared with me a couple years ago. Each day you pay four "visits" to St. Joseph. During the first visit you think of Joseph's fidelity to grace. Then of his fidelity to the interior life. Of his love for Mary. Of his love for the Divine Child. My grandfather's happy death was one of my main novena intentions. The more I thought about St. Joseph the more I saw of the beauty of my grandfather's life.
It started with thinking about fidelity to the interior life. I realized how profoundly this virtue shaped my grandfather. His fidelity to the interior life went hand in hand with his silence. Yes, it impoverished his exterior life, but in the sense of making it simple and essential. My grandmother is a storyteller, who passed on to us her rich impressions of an important past, World War II in Europe, the occupation of Lithuania. But the glimpses we got of my grandfather's past were few and far between: once he recalled a leather coat he had, the way the buttons squeaked. He told us about an exam he took in high school. About ordering a bouquet of lilacs to give our grandmother in winter. One amazing afternoon, when some of us were sitting around after a big dinner with extended family, he talked about cycling across Nazi-infested Europe with his brother, the beauty and the fear, while we sat enthralled, hardly able to believe that we were getting to hear it all. His silence though, spoke even more than his words. I remember knowing sometimes that he was thinking sad, unsharable things. It was impossible not to realize that sometimes when he was silent, his soul was with God. But I think none of us fathomed just how often that was true.
Then I think about his love for my grandmother. Their marriage, I realized as I got older, was not an easy one. When divorce became popularized in America, many older couples took what they saw as a way out. My mother said my grandparents must have been tempted. But unlike my father's parents, they did not divorce. And so the two of them remained for their children and children's children a source of stability. Throughout my childhood, we visited them, for long and short visits, at the house where my mother and her brothers grew up. With all their personality conflicts, my grandparents made in their quiet corner of Brockton a place that even as a child, I thought of as a garden of Eden. They cared for trees: evergreens, oaks, birch stems growing among the rocks, a single pear tree. For flowers: rhododendrons, lilac, forsythia, wistaria, impatiens. For vines: tomatoes, grapes, and roses. They took care of each other all their mutual lives. I remember my grandfather washing the supper dishes, every single night.
I think of his love for us. And here I think of fruit again, because I remember how he would call us from whatever we were doing and have us sit around the dining room table. I remember always feeling a reluctance at these times, similar to the reluctance I had as a child about going to church. What he was teaching us was meditation, attentiveness, gratitude. And joy. He would select a fruit from the bowl on the side table. And we would all sit in silence and watch him cut the apple, the orange, the pear, the banana. He silently admired the beauty of the fruit as he cut it -- and we all admired it too. Then he would pass the fruit slices around the table, orange pieces always arranged in their own peels, like little boats. And we ate in silence and tasted the fruit in a deeper way than if we'd just grabbed an apple at home. It had something to do with receiving it, rather than taking. (This is what I mean about the way he spoke with silence.) Often he'd call me and spread the comic page of the newspaper in front of me, and give me a pen to do a word jumble puzzle. I would sit there for a long time, struggling with it, wishing I were playing with the other kids. Hurting his feelings, refusing him, though, was unthinkable, so I would puzzle on. He played chess with my father and brothers. He loved word games, number games, and telling jokes. He knew seven languages. I remember asking him once: "Tetukas (what we called him), are you the smartest man in the world?" He answered, "Second smartest."
And lastly I think of his fidelity to grace. Once when my sister and I were spending a few days with my grandparents, I stood with her in the door to my grandfather's bedroom. I think we were waiting for him to take us somewhere. He was kneeling next to his bed, praying the rosary. His face was so beautiful, so radiant, and not just young, but boyish. He looked like a boy on his first Communion day. It didn't seem right to watch but it was impossible to look away. Afterward, I remember him coming out of his room and catching up my hand with a special joy in his smile. I wanted him to know we'd seen him so I asked, "Tetukas, did you pray a *whole rosary*?" And he smiled deeper and said, "Just a decade." His faith was both Charismatic and deeply traditional. He and my grandmother went to two prayer groups every week, a Charismatic prayer group and a Lithuanian rosary group (and they took care of their friends in the aging Lithuanian community of Brockton for many years before they moved in with my parents). When we were there, they took us with them. My grandfather had studied for the priesthood in his youth and that priestly formation never left his soul. He wrote the Lithuanian homilies for the pastor of their parish who didn't speak the language very well. When I prayed the St. Joseph novena, I came to see that though my grandfather was clearly holy, we had no idea how holy. God allowed his holiness to be somehow simultaneously evident and hidden. But in his last days, I saw his soul as an unimagined treasury of grace, the myriads and myriads of graces corresponded to throughout his life like the snowflakes of a winter.
Before suppers at his house, he would lead us in grace and then lead us in song. The old charismatic songs mostly, and hymns, and alleluias. (I know he had nostalgia too for the Latin of his youth, I remember him fondly recalling the "Asperges me.") At my parents' house too, he would often begin a song after grace. The last time I was there, it being Lent, we sang not alleluia, but "Holy God We Praise Thy Name." This evening though, my family sang "Jesus in the Morning": "Love Him, love Him, love Him when the sun goes down," and then began an alleluia anyway. It was when the alleluia started that he stopped breathing. And now he goes where alleluias never end.
His death coincides with the end of my long childhood. For those who can pray, please pray for me. And those who cannot, please, desire my joy. As I desire yours.
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