What Sacrificial Love Looks Like
I was just a little girl yesterday, it seemed.
Long, dark-blonde hair. Terrible bangs. Navy eyes. A gangly little thing.
Every summer, from the time I was a baby until I was a junior in college, I spent a couple of weeks at my grandmother and grandfather’s house.
My grandparents lived in the Mississippi Delta, and it was truly what one would call a homeland, considering tons of aunts and uncles, “aunts and uncles” (what we called our older cousins–there were quite a few), and younger cousins lived there.
My older brother and I spent many mornings watching the old cartoons on Cartoon Network. We’d eat my grandmother’s homemade biscuits or a bag of powdered donuts from the Wonder Bread Factory.
Then, we’d get dressed and head outside to play. My grandmother’s backyard was like an enchanted wonderland. A master gardener, she’d spent what little money they had caring for the many plants and flowers that grew alongside the fence.
There was a small plum tree on the side of the yard. She used to to make homemade plum jelly, and it was the best I’d ever tasted to this day.
In the middle of the yard sat a swing I’d lay in, listening and laughing to stories my dad would tell about his three brothers and the shenanigans they all found themselves in.
We might drive to the Sack and Save for groceries, then visit my grandmother’s very best friend, my “Aunt” whom she’d spent every day with since birth.
That aunt had given birth to a child late in life, so we were close to the same age. One of my favorite people to this day.
Behind them lived my dad’s best friend, my “uncle.” His daughter and I were also the best of friends. That’s what cousins are for, after all.
I was blessed. These people, they provided a great deal of shade and stability when I needed it. As my childhood fell apart, they remained.
One of those in particular was my grandfather.
Radio Joe* was what we called him growing up, because he was always telling stories about inventing this thing or that. The radio, the airplane, MTV. He supposedly invented them all.
He was a tall man and strong. He’d spent his married life working in other countries for a construction company because he could make three times what he made at home.
By the time I was in high school, he’d retired from construction and had gone into the electrical business. He was smart and he was talented in music. I’m blessed to have a creative family, in that regard.
When I was in college, I attended a school not too far away from them. Every Sunday, before I went back, my grandfather would grill a steak for me and my grandma would make her famous potatoes. I was filled with good food and even better love.
The older I got, my grandparents seemed to stay the same, at least for a long time.
I got married and they were there.
I gave birth to my children and they were there.
We would visit and they were there.
They were there. Same house, same furniture, same town, same people.
They were there.
Until one of them wasn’t.
I’ll never forget the day I received the phone call telling me my grandmother was gone.
I’d recently moved about an hour from her, and all she’d talked about was coming to visit.
She never got the chance.
We thought surely my grandfather wouldn’t make it long without her.
The first year, he had a heart attack on the day she died.
But now, it’s been almost a decade.
He’s lived alone with little to no help.
The man is immortal, we always said.
Except, he’s not.
Yesterday, I received a phone call that he’d had a heart attack.
He’d been taken to a hospital near me.
I jumped in the car to see him.
Because of Covid, we haven’t visited in a few months.
So when I walked into the hospital room, I couldn’t believe how old my grandfather looked.
He was not my Radio Joe. He was just a shell.
My strong and funny grandfather couldn’t go to the bathroom and he needed my help.
With no shame, he took off his gown. He was in that much pain. He was that desperate.
I immediately jumped into to caretaker mode without a second thought. This was my grandfather. I’d once needed him to help me, and now he needed me.
With the nurse’s help, we got him to use the bathroom. She laid him back down, and I remained.
We talked for almost two hours.
I asked questions about his childhood, his early marriage, his family.
He told me funny stories about my Italian relatives, all twelve of the “originals,” we always called them.
It was a good visit.
When it was time for me to head home, I kissed the top of his forehead.
We said our I love yous. Only God knows if it was the last time.
And as I walked to my car, I thought about being a little girl, how fast it had all flown by.
You blink and your life is halfway over.
I thought about a conversation I had with my mother-in-law the other day, where she said she hoped she had “ten good years” left.
I can’t imagine what it’s like to get to the “end,” and to know it’s coming faster than you ever imagined.
But here’s the thing: we’re all actually at the end, every second of every day.
We never know when we might draw our last breath.
This year has made us all realize that a little more, I think.
So while I have that breath, I plan to use it wisely.
Forgetting the old…
Putting on the new…
Loving my neighbor…
Caring for the widow and orphan…
Loving my Earth…
Respecting my elders…
Honoring my parents…
Valuing my life and the blessings I’ve been given.
If you ask me, sacrificial love looks a whole lot like real love, true love, lasting love.
The kind of love that remembers the little girl who once thought of her grandfather as immortal.
And chooses to believe she will see them both, little girl, strong man, again.
Have you lost a loved one? How did it make you feel? Did you realize anything about life that you didn’t know before? I’d love to hear from you.