Saying ‘I miss you’ without saying it
How a jar of coins and 50 questions became a familial lesson
50questions was what it took to get his attention. Whose attention, you ask? On a recent episode of “This American Life” entitled “Alone Together,” a daughter named Josie told a story about how pestering her father with questions made him finally talk to her. Of course he’d “talk” — as in telling her when to go to bed and go to school — but what she wanted was quality time and engaging conversations. But sometimes the questions that kids come up with are overwhelming and heavy. And Rosie pulled no stops with questions like “What is love?” and “Is Heaven another planet?” While I won’t spoil the ending, the story taught her father a valuable lesson about quality time and careers. It also made me think about my own grandfather — and a jar of coins.
I loved hanging out with Grandad— most days. If I visited him, it was almost certain that I would be at his house from morning until late evening. Entertaining as ever and living a full life, he was full of stories about being a veteran, retired postal worker, handyman, master chef, auto mechanic and a gardener. We could even sit in a restaurant and talk for hours about his life as a kid all the way to his senior years.
These never-ending conversations usually ended with him asking me to spend the night, but I rarely brought a change of clothes to my “second” home. Sometimes I would do it anyway, other times I wouldn’t. As I got older, I just wanted to be in my own apartment and opted out, but I did tend to spend the night more after my paternal grandmother (his wife of 49 years) passed away. I noticed he started buying extra toothbrushes and toothpaste (even though he wore dentures) and dressing up the upstairs bathroom and bedrooms even fancier than usual. I’d also grown quite amused checking out these stick figures he kept making out of random objects “to keep my brain sharp.”
Still though, sometimes we would bicker about politics (even though we were 99.9 percent on the same side), social justice issues (50/50 percent), women’s rights (oddly, he was more of a feminist than me) and health. Being from two different generations (the Lost Generation and blurring the line between Generation X and Millennial), there were some topics that we just never saw eye-to-eye on. Most of the time, we had healthy debates that taught me way more than I initially knew — and were beneficial considering I hadn’t completely thrown away my interest in law school.
(Side note: One of my former Girl Scout Leaders, who I visit every Christmas and checked on due to COVID-19, is still offering me $1,000 each month if I’ll go to law school so she can put me on her retainer. After she told me that a third time, I finally blurted out, “How many crimes are you committing?” She cracked up.)
But there were a few debates, especially as my grandfather got older, that would lead to one or both of us getting mad for real. I’d grab my purse and phone, and storm out. Somewhere around his 80s, we started arguing more so I visited less. Months would go by when our visits usually never went past a couple of weeks. I’d just grown tired of debating about everything and found it easier to get on the phone to say “Hi, how are you doing?” He’d talk for a few minutes, and I’d say, “OK, gotta go.” If we hadn’t been so close before, this might be sufficient.
But one particular day he wouldn’t answer the phone, and I knew his hearing was getting worse. He also hated telemarketers and would yell, “Call your mother, not me!” and slam down the phone, so I knew he would occasionally ignore the phone ringing. But something told me to visit him that particular day. I got in my car and drove straight to his house after trying to call him at least five times. He opened the door with a big smile, and I noticed he’d lost a lot of weight and grown a goatee. Considering he was usually clean shaven (with rough whiskers), it was odd to see him with a beard. He looked way more handsome with it and I blurted that out. He rolled his eyes.
I got comfy on his couch and immediately noticed a jar of coins sitting on his coffee table. To anybody else, this would have been nothing. But I knew he had a coin counter in his bedroom. Every day when he walked in the door, he’d sort his loose change in each slot. When the coin slots were full, he’d wrap up the coins and deposit them into a bank. So to see all of these mismatched coins in one big jar was out of character. He saw me look from the jar of coins to him and back again.
He responded, “I decided I was going to start putting my loose change in that jar for every day you didn’t come visit me. I was curious if the coins would reach the top.”
I bit the inside of my lip and fought back tears. It was passive aggressive, but he made his point. While we may have not agreed on all topics or joked around about the same topics, I realized how much I missed him (and his new goatee) after not seeing him for maybe a couple of months. From that point on, I never let him get those coins to the top of the jar for the rest of the year. Eventually, he recycled the jar. We never did stop bickering, but he did significantly stop instigating more controversial debates with me. It didn’t matter though. He was Grandad and clearly meant no harm. More importantly, I can say with a full heart that I was there the day he took his very last breath — as his jar-free caregiver.
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