My maternal grandfather was my last living biological grandparent. The night before his death, I ironically found myself reminiscing on my childhood and how I desperately missed out on knowing my grandparents. I was sad they were unable to attend Grandparents’ Day when I was in elementary school, were absent at my high school and college graduations, and would never be present for my wedding or the birth of my children.
I grew up very distanced from my grandparents. In the early 90s, my parents made the decision to stay in the U.S. and not return to our country of origin the Democratic Republic of Congo (the DRC). The DRC had become increasingly unstable and my parents felt and were advised by our family that it was in their best interest to stay in the states. Staying has afforded me and my siblings endless education and career opportunities that were not available to our cousins. But we forfeited the ability to have deep relationships with our grandparents and extended family members.
As a child, communicating with my grandparents was almost impossible. International calls were expensive and sending mail was a mission. On the few occasions that I had the chance to speak to my grandparents, I tried to avoid it. I was embarrassed by my inability to speak Swahili or any of the other languages they understood. Connecting to my roots felt awkward and it was a painful reminder of my otherness.
Still, I longed for the closeness of grandparents’ presence. I often fantasized about what life would be like if my grandparents were present. I dreamed of sleepovers at their homes, special recipes cooked by grandmothers and strong allies against my parents’ efforts to be joy-killers. I wanted to hear all the embarrassing stories they had regarding my parents and learn more about our family’s history. But most of all, I longed for the warmth of their hugs and the wisdom of their words.
I know my grandparents loved me. They would tell me in our brief talks and made sure my parents told me. I know they shared my accomplishments with their friends and anyone who would listen. They loved to tell people about their grandchildren in America. They were especially happy when they had the chance to see me. Last year when I saw my maternal grandfather, he was overjoyed that I made such an arduous journey just to visit him. We were both happy to spend the afternoon together in a place that was so essential to my existence.
The death of my paternal grandfather in 2014 came as a shock. I grieved his passing for months. While I knew the death of my maternal grandfather was looming, his passing still rocked me. It was the realization that I was suddenly grandparent-less, which hit me the hardest. The highlights of my future trips to Congo would no longer include visits with my grandfathers.
When your grandparents die, so do parts of your identity. Your present and future are suddenly illuminated by your past. You will find yourself having endless questions only they could have answered. You will regret not asking those questions. Mostly, you will miss every waking moment that you didn’t spend with them.
Our grandparents and elders hold the truths to our pasts. We should never take their presence for granted.
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