If There Is a Heaven

It’s the two year anniversary of your great-grandpa’s passing. He was the first significant person in your world to die, and it was my first taste of having to talk to you about hard things, something I’ve had to do a lot in the time since. I thought in memory of him, I’d share a letter I wrote you at the time. I didn’t know it then, but it was kind of an early version of what this blog would become. (Love you, Grandpa.)

A couple months into Catholic school and you are full of questions about religion. You recently lost your first pet, a Betta fish you named Lovey. As much as we tried to care for him, Lovey only lasted a few weeks in the Webster-Kim household before succumbing to an untimely fungal demise. Even before we laid him to rest under a few inches of dirt in our front yard, you started asking us about Heaven. I always try to answer your questions as honestly as I can, but it’s not always so easy to know what to say to a grieving 5 year-old, especially about something as heavy as death and what comes next.

And now, your Great-Grandpa has died at age 91. It was both unexpected and something we knew was coming for the past decade while his health slowly failed. His body started to give way to old age and Parkinson’s; he lost the ability first to do yard work and go fishing and, ultimately, to live at home at all.

He was so many things to me, and to many others. His loss is hard to absorb, especially since our opportunities to see him and Great-Grandma these past few years had been so rare. I’m still working over what to say to you about it all. But, for now, as I think about the giant impact Great-Grandpa has had on my life, this is what I’d like you to know about The Great Beyond:

If there is a Heaven, son, then it is chock-full of liars. There are men there who always seem to nab their biggest hauls of rainbow trout when no one is around to verify their claims. They delight when they tell their grandchildren a story, and hear them run off to the kitchen, shouting, “Grandma, did Grandpa really catch a fish so big it sank his boat?” Their best and most embellished whoppers involve their kids and grandkids and great-grandkids, like the one about the carp I once caught that weighed 17 pounds on first telling, then 19, 21, and 23. Who knows how big it finally ended up being when the final story was told?

If there is a Heaven, it is full of stubborn old sonsabitches. There are men who decide they aren’t going to let a few broken vertebrae keep them from living long enough to see their grandchildren meet so many milestones: graduations, marriages, having children of their own. Sometimes they open bottles of beer with their teeth when they can’t find a bottle opener nearby, even if it costs them an incisor in the process. To the very end, such men resist going to hospice care because they don’t want to forfeit the little freedom they have remaining in life.

If there is a Heaven, it is full of guys whose smarts can’t be measured by how many diplomas hang on their walls or how many letters follow their last names. They might have played hooky to go fishing, enrolled in the army out of high school, and then gone straight to working construction once they came back from duty. And yet, up until their shaking hands made it too hard to hold a hand, they could count every card in the deck and know the suit and value of every card you were going to lay out before you did. “Now play that Ace of Diamonds,” they’d say, and you would because it was the right card to play. They would track their harvest from the garden each year in a well-worn spiral-bound notebook so they would know how much of each crop to plant the following year, and on what day. They would come up with the most simple, genius inventions for holding fishing poles and being alerted when a fish was nibbling on the other end of the line. They remembered the price of gas at every store in town and the miles per gallon of every car they’ve ever owned.

If there is a Heaven, it is full of lovers and fighters. There are soldiers there who fought bravely in the Korean War. Like so many men and women in combat, they witnessed a host of evils in battle, then came home and gave meaning to their hard-earned freedom by building safe and steady homes. They became loving husbands and fathers. Over the years, they might have had some different opinions than you or I on matters of politics, and they never could quite figure out how to be politically correct, but they didn’t really see why any of that should be a big deal. They loved and accepted who you loved, because you’re family and that is a big deal. At times, they might have seemed tough, but if you looked at the way they lit up when they held their great-grandchild for the first time, you’d have seen the depths of the tenderness they held inside.

If there is a Heaven, it is full of men who are terrible with words. In all their heartbreak after losing their only son, they could never find anything worth saying about it to anyone, as much as they wished they could. Especially not to the loved ones around them who shared in that loss. So instead they built dog-proof fences for their daughter-in-law, took their grandkids hunting and fishing, and went to all the sporting events, plays, dance recitals, and school events their son would have been attending himself if he was still alive. They cherished all the more the time they still had to spend with their daughter. They choked up at graduations and weddings, and their fought-back tears said more than a thousand words ever could.

If there is a Heaven, it is full of men who make mistakes. Men who took us fishing on days when the fish weren’t biting. Who would tell us the same stories over and over. We didn’t say anything because we loved to hear the magical repetition of their words. They would call us “Mike” from time to time because we reminded them of their dead son, of long-lost days fly fishing with him when he was young. They would catch themselves immediately, embarrassed at the error, but you and I knew that being mistaken for our dad or grandpa is about the biggest honor we could imagine.

If there is a Heaven, son, I’m telling you it is filled to the brim with grandpas and great-grandpas.

Yes, if there is a Heaven, Great-Grandpa Kapptie is there, glad to be out casting a line again with Grandpa Webster. And when you and I get there someday many years from now, we can ask them how many they’ve caught and what the fish are biting on. But don’t believe a word they tell you, because Heaven is full of liars.

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