It's a Miracle

Day of the Dead as reminder for the living

As I write this, it is Halloween, the night before what many cultures around the world call the Day of the Dead--Hallows, All Souls, Dia de los Muertos, November 1st. In cultures that celebrate this day, it's a chance to reminisce about loved ones no longer with us, express our gratitude for everything they did for us when they were alive, and think about how much we miss them. It's especially important to remember those who have left us since last year at this time.

It was a beautiful day in Portland today. My little daughter Josie and I took a stroll through our neighborhood, looking at the falling leaves, watching the squirrels build up their winter caches of nuts. Fall is one big ending, I thought--the deaths of plants, the falling leaves, harvests of all kinds. It's probably why people started commemorating their dead around this time. And as we trundled along, I found myself thinking about the loved one I lost this year, and how much I miss him.

My grandfather was a man named Frank Webster. He was my dad's stepfather, but he was my "real" grandpa; I never knew another, and he loved me as if I were blood kin. I almost wrote "his own," but I couldn't have been more his if I had been blood kin.

Much of what I call good in myself, I owe to my Grandpa. My love of learning, and especially the written word, comes directly from him, transmitted not through genes but enthusiasm. My Grandpa taught me to read him the sports page when I was three. That same year he took me to the library for the first time and got me my first library card, which he kept for more than 30 years.

Grandpa gave me the run of his bookshelf. I always teased him that every other book started with "How To": "How to Improve Your Golf Swing." "How to Win at Bridge." "How to Invest Smartly." "How to Analyze Handwriting." The joke's on me; almost all of my books now that I'm an adult are "how-tos" of one kind or another, and of course there's this website, one big how-to.

I always thought Grandpa was the smartest guy in the world, and when I asked him what college he went to, I was shocked when he reared back angrily and accused me of mocking him. Of course, like a lot of men in his generation, he hadn't been able to go. But it didn't stop him; whenever he ran up against a gap in his knowledge, he tracked down what he needed to know and by golly he learned it.

Grandpa taught me that learning and education don't have much to do with each other, and that if you have a need to know, nothing stands between you and learning it but your willingness to find out. He taught me never to be ashamed of not knowing, only of not wanting to know. He was proud but never arrogant about his "smarts," because as he told me once, they didn't come naturally; he had to earn them the hard way.

Toward the end of his life, age inflicted its cruelty on Frank by gradually taking the mind he was so proud of. Dementia brought on by strokes eventually forced my family to place him in a secure facility, after he wandered off twice and was nearly lost for good.

I got to see him one last time almost exactly a year ago, with Josie, who was then 14 months old. Grandpa hadn't seen her yet. I was afraid that when we got there he wouldn't know who we were. At first, he said I was his niece, but I'm pretty sure it's because his stroke-impaired brain couldn't immediately find the word for granddaughter. I could see on his face he knew who I was, and soon he called me by my name and said "granddaughter."

I introduced Josie to him. She had just started walking well, and was dashing up and down the halls staring curiously at the other old people in the residence. Grandpa just watched her, clutching my hand. "It's a miracle," he said, tears streaming down his face. I thought he meant that I finally had a child and family at age 37, after years of loneliness, or maybe that he finally had gotten to see me, and Josie.

We visited for an hour or so, walked him to the lunch room, and then said goodbye. I walked away quickly so he wouldn't see me cry.

When we got back to my parents' house, I told my mom what Grandpa had said. "Oh," she said wearily, "he always says that, honey. Everything's a miracle."

Four months later, she called to tell me Frank had finally died.

I was not the best granddaughter. I regularly forgot birthdays, didn't call enough, all the regrets you have when someone you love isn't there any more. But in the end, as I felt more fiercely than ever holding his hand that last visit, my grandfather and I knew each other, in a deep way that can only be called a miracle.

My grandfather was right when he frequently said "It's a miracle." We're surrounded by them, and we don't even notice. It's a miracle we're all here. It's a miracle that we can learn something new every day and know we'll never run out of new things to learn. It's a miracle that we bring these bright little lights into this world, and that they love us so completely even when so often we do not do the right thing by them. It's a miracle we can know each other in profound ways that have nothing to do with words, or logic, or even blood ties.

Right now, as I type, Josie has just handed me two books. So I have to stop writing now. It's time to pass on the miracle.

For Frank Silas Webster, April 12th, 1918 to February 25, 1999.

Lynn Siprelle learned to read thanks to Frank Webster.