When I was six, my grandfather sometimes watched me over at my house. One time, I went downstairs to play. The first time I heard him walking down the stairs, I thought I could hide from him for fun without him knowing, so I scrambled to the corner of the room and hid behind the drawer. After he left, I emerged from my spot. The second time, I hid again. After the third time, I wondered if he’d ever find me. The fourth time, two policeman walked into the room with my grandfather.
I realized immediately that he thought I’d gone missing. I jumped out and ran upstairs, guilty beyond belief that my grandfather had become so worried he felt he should call the police.
I lay face down on my bed as the policeman tried to explain that everything was alright.
“Did you make this?” he asked while looking at my Lego structure. “What’s it supposed to be? It looks really cool.”
After I didn’t respond, he walked next to my bed and knelt down. “I know you’re upset,” he said. “But your grandfather loves you very much. He’s not mad at you. He’s just happy and relieved that you’re okay.”
Before I was born and my mother was still in high school, my grandfather was an alcoholic. He never hit any of his children or my grandmother, but he sometimes became detached. After dinner, he would sit at the kitchen table with his head in his hands, often not saying a word.
One night, my Uncle Dave was arrested for underage drinking. When he was brought back home, my mother overheard the heated conversation he had with my grandfather. The shouting intensified until my uncle lowered his voice and said to my grandfather, “You have no right to tell me not to drink.”
After that night, my grandfather never drank again. He remained sober for the next thirty years of his life. He cared so much for his family that he stopped immediately.
My mother told me that he did the same for smoking. Once his first child was on the way, he quit.
While my mother was growing up, my grandfather had a vegetable garden in his backyard. From what my relatives have told me, it was extraordinary. He grew pumpkin, squash, you name it. He took care of it each day and guided it into a flourishing patch of land.
At one point, he eventually had to stop tending to the garden. The passage of time was starting to affect his physical abilities, and he could no longer adequately take care of it. Yet parts of the fence remained until I was ten, and I had a glimpse from the remnants of how extensive and remarkable the garden must have been.
One time, he told me and my family at dinner that to take care of the slugs, he’d put a container of beer in the garden. The slugs, attracted to the liquid, would climb into the trap and not be able to climb back out, so they’d drown in the beer.
My grandfather, grinning slightly, explained, “At least they’d die drunk.”
Throughout his life, my grandfather dealt with depression. I don’t remember noticing while I was younger, which is as depression tends to normally work. It can feel as though you’re drowning while to an onlooker everything seems alright.
Yet going through my memories, I can remember bits and splintered moments of where the depression manifested. I think now that I’m older, I’m more aware of how the emotions can take control of people and cause them to shut down, even if they don’t explicitly express it.
I’ve dealt with depression since middle school, and it’s never really gone away. For me, depression can be debilitating. Over the years, I’ve tried to learn how to cope with the feelings of despair, even when it feels like I’m being eaten alive from the inside. Because depression can make you think you’re worthless and that your existence is incompatible with life itself. It leads to a cascade of countless thoughts until you sometimes find yourself seriously contemplating whether you even want to keep living.
Through my struggles with depression, I’ve over time been able to more deeply appreciate how much my grandfather loved his entire family. Despite his depression, he found meaning through every one of us.
Evidently, I cannot understand his pain to its fullest extent, for adversity is a very personal experience. Yet I can work with what I know.
I know my grandfather as the bearded man who used to pick me up and swing me around when I was still young and he was still able. I remember him as the man who loved history and even taught it as a high school teacher. I can picture his smile, which was as modest and warm as he was.
I remember him too as a man who, when looking back, dealt with emotional pain. Yet my grandfather is one of the bravest and strongest people I know.
I look up to him with the deepest sense of admiration, and I see him as a role model from a very personal perspective. Even though he dealt with depression, he found ways to experience meaning and never failed to show his love for me and for others.
I’ve discovered that even if I can’t find a stable meaning for myself, I can try to help others on their journey. My grandfather loved others and gave them a sense of meaning even through his sadness, and he knew not just how to show love but also how to receive it.
My hope, for as long as I live, is to do the same.