I’m a very lucky boy. I had all four of my grandparents until I was 25. And I had one until this year when I was 41. Now that they’ve all passed away, I feel different. I’m a grand-orphan. Now that they are done teaching me, I wanted to honor their memory by reflecting on the lessons they’ve taught me. To paraphrase the great physicist Richard Feynman, “By the time they died, a lot of what is good about them has rubbed off on other people. So although they are dead, they won’t be completely gone.”
My Bubbie died in January. A couple of months before she died, she told me, “I’m a fighter.” At the time I didn’t want to tell her that the fight wasn’t going well. That an 87-year-old with heart and kidney failure was not winning the battle to live forever. She could hold on a little longer but eventually, as with everyone, death will win. Looking back, I realize she was fighting for something else. She wasn’t fighting for everlasting life, she was fighting to live a good life. It would have been easy for her to just go with the flow and coast off into the sunset—being that woman who just plays bingo and watches Jeopardy until she dies. But to really try to lead a good life—that takes effort.
David Foster Wallace gave a commencement address called This is Water (or more fully This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life) where he tells the following story:
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?”
And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
To me, this story is about fighting against the current of the water to live a good life. All of my grandparents showed me where the water is, how to separate myself from it, and how to focus on what’s important.
Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned from my mother’s parents, Nana and Papa (Florence and Barney Liebman), and my father’s parents, Bubbie and Zaid (Connie and Norman Schlaff).