My grandfather, Everett Lee Kolling, passed away on November 20th, 2018. He was 85 years old.
I was asked to speak a eulogy for my grandfather. This is what I wrote.
No one knows what to say when someone you love dies.
Human beings are marked by our amazing capacity for empathy, for love, for grace. For our ability to reach out and touch another on an emotional level, and to try to lift the burdens that we all share. Yet, in a deep and personal way, we know that even our most eloquent words mean nothing compared to the specter of death and loss. We give it a good try, certainly! “We’re here if you need anything, anything at all.” “He’s in a better place now.” “You have our condolences.” We say these things in a futile effort to make things a little bit better, even if we know it won’t. That’s why I always think that there’s a looming aura of awkwardness surrounding funerals and visitations. It’s a group of people dealing with their grief, yet NONE of us know the right things to say, and the entire thing tends to devolve into a shuffling mix of conversation about the weather, and reassuring hugs between….conversation about the weather.
With all that being said, I want you let you in on a small secret.
No one knows what to say when someone you love dies…least of all, me.
When I heard that my grandfather had passed, I knew that I wanted to give him a tribute worth remembering. I’m not a man of many talents, I’ll admit. I can’t paint or draw, nor am I gifted at organizing some larger effort of remembrance. I can sing just enough to be considered “good” in my own shower and the occasional karaoke spot; but to be honest, I didn’t trust my voice not to devolve into sobs by the second verse. However, the one gift that my family, my grandmother, and especially my sister has in spades is our ability to TALK.
With that, I thought that I would stand up here and give you a clinical accounting of Everett Kolling’s life. That I could tell you about his humble beginnings in Abilene, KS; about his loving family, and the one that he raised; about his time in the Army, on the railroad, and on about every commission and school board in the area. But as I began to gather information and write, everything felt…insincere. Shallow. Emotionless. I’m no historian, and I truly was only around for the last quarter of a long, rich time on this earth. There’s no way I’d be able to accurately convey the journey of a life that Everett Kolling led. I couldn’t even start to try.
So, I’m not here to tell you about Everett Kolling. I can’t.
I’m just here to tell you about my grandpa.
My grandpa liked ice cream.
Some of my earliest memories of my grandpa come from before I even started elementary school. My mother worked at the local doctor’s office here in Herington, and she would drop me off at my grandparents every day. And every day, at 3 p.m., my grandpa would take me to the local Dairy Queen, and we would get a treat. Some days, he would have a Buster Bar; other days, it was the standard hot fudge sundae. We would sit, and we would eat, and we would have a small, frozen moment in time that was just for us. Lots of people would come and go, and most would say hi to grandpa; now, I realize it’s because he personally knew almost every person that would walk into the store. To me, it didn’t really matter. I was with grandpa, and I had ice cream, and everything was right with the world.
My grandpa was Santa Claus.
When I was in the first grade, I remember telling one of my friends that I knew a secret. I said that there wasn’t only one Santa Claus; we had to be smarter than that. One guy, giving presents to everybody, all in one night? Come on. “No,” I said, “I know the REAL secret.” See, there’s actually a NETWORK of Santa’s, all around the world. Every one of them hears the wishes of every kid in his area, and he reports it back to the head honcho, and then they ALL give away the presents. It’s basically a Santa Mafia!
I felt quite accomplished to have figured this out.
You see, I was so sure about this theory because I KNEW Santa. Or, A Santa, at least. He had his day job as my grandpa. This is the way that I could explain how, every fall, he began to grow a bushy white beard. It’s why there was a red velvet suit hidden in the back of his closet. And it’s why he knew every kid that passed by! Or, at least, he seemed to. Even when he wasn’t in the red suit, every baby, toddler, and child that he was close to would get the same, mitten-shaped wave. Some of the older ones would give him a shocked stare; he would respond with a knowing smile. It even seemed to explain why my grandpa was one of the kindest men I knew, that ANYONE knew. I just figured that was the rule for Santa’s.
When I think about it, I still think that I was right.
My grandpa liked to give.
All of my friends knew my grandpa; he was the one at every single wrestling match, football game, or awards ceremony that I ever had. They would see him during their presentations to the local Kiwanis club, or when they saw him volunteering at the local recycling center. He was a regular at every local blood drive; if I recall correctly, he had given over a hundred pints in his lifetime. If they made it up to Salina, they may have even saw him leading the YMCA in the middle of the floor during a Cagerz game. Every time, I’d nod my head proudly and say, yep! That’s him. That’s my grandpa.
Now, even though I had started to grow up a little, I still didn’t consider these things “special” in my mind. I just thought that’s what grandpas DO! They volunteer at every pancake breakfast, food drive, and fundraiser in the area. They take time out of their retirement to serve on different commissions and councils, and they take even more time to go see their friends. They lead the prayer at every family reunion, and they give out scratch-off lottery tickets to the entire family at Christmas, just in the hopes that one of us would someday strike it big.
I didn’t think it was something out of the ordinary. I just knew it was my grandpa.
My grandpa knew the meaning of unconditional love.
It was easy to stay connected with my grandpa when I was in high school; I was the on-call service technician for when something would go wrong with grandma’s computer or the television. If there was a week that went by without seeing my grandparents, I knew that I was sure to see them twice the next. As I moved away for college, though, things changed. I’d only see grandpa at Thanksgiving, or after a concert that I was performing in. I would be around my mom when they would call, and, at her urging, would say a few words. Christmas and Easter would fly by, and five months may go by before I would give grandma another “Chance hug.”
When I moved to Kansas City to start a career, these calls and visits became even less frequent. No matter what, though, on the rare occasions when I did see grandpa, I could count on the exact same response. It would be a big smile, a “hey, kid!”, and a hug. Grandpa would ask me about what was new in my life, and would congratulate me on any tidbit of success that Mom had mentioned to him. He would never once mention any of my numerous failures, or that I had gained weight since the LAST Christmas, or that he thought that I should have been doing more with my life by now. He wouldn’t ask when I was going to stop “messing around and find a nice girl,” or when I was going to start going back to church. My grandpa never was there to judge me, or to tell me to point myself in one direction or another. He wouldn’t do these things, because it wasn’t his way.
All my grandpa knew how to do was love, and he did it so, so well. He loved his wife for over 60 years, and he loved his children from before they born. He loved his seven brothers and sisters, and his four grandchildren. Somehow, he still found the love to spread amongst his friends, and his other family members, and amongst the people that I see here today. He had extra little sprinkles of love that he would give to the world through his service, and extra twinkles of love in his eye when he asked so many children what they would want for Christmas.
I learned a lot from my grandpa. I learned how locomotives sound when they’re churning down a track, and what kind of knot will keep a tire swing secure enough to ride. I learned how to play three different kinds of pitch, and why overalls are a fantastic fashion statement. But the most important lesson I tried to learn, and that I will do my best to remember, is how to love.
My grandpa was the best man that I knew, and I’m going to miss him everyday.
Love you, grandpa. 143.