Last week I wrote my grandfather’s obituary, and I loved doing it, even though he’s still alive.
I promise it was for a class and that the reason I liked writing it had nothing to do with death. Rather, I liked doing it because it forced me to explore his (and my) past, and get to know my grandpa in a way I never would have otherwise.
My grandpa is not one to talk, especially not about himself, but, in writing his obituary, I had an excuse to force him to do just that. Here are just a few of the things I found out:
He has a degree from Yale and two degrees from MIT.
He served in the United States Air Force for more than 20 years (including 10 months of active duty in Vietnam).
He taught at the Air Force Academy for four years.
He worked at the Pentagon for over 30 years.
I’d heard bits and pieces about some of these things from my mom, but she’d never sat me down just to tell me about his life. She had no reason to. That is, until I wrote the obituary.
While talking to her about my grandpa, I heard stories about when my mom grew up, including when she was dating my dad, which I’d never heard before.
In fact, the best part of researching for my grandpa’s obituary was talking to people besides him. They were the ones that told me things I would have never known if it weren’t for the circumstances. One of the people I talked to was the man who served as the high school pastor at my parents’ church while they were dating and later married them. He told me the story of how my parents pulled a prank on him every year for his anniversary as the high school pastor, which happened to also be April Fools’ day.
I know that for most people, my experience is not particularly interesting. Honestly, they don’t know me or my grandpa and don’t have any good reason to care. But the point of my story is not about what I learned about my grandpa or my parents’ lives, but what I learned about mine, and what anybody could learn about their own lives.
I grew up in Chicago, 700 miles from where my parents grew up and where most of my extended family lives–in Washington D.C. If I’m lucky, I make it there once a year, so finding out about my grandpa’s life was like uncovering a history of my family that I never knew about.
It used to be that families took care of their elderly, but now that’s not the case, and we have lost an understanding of our roots that only comes from being around the people we came from. For people like me, this is especially true because of how far away we grew up from much of our family.
That’s why, as strange as it may seem, writing about my grandpa’s theoretical death actually allowed me to learn more about his (and my) life than I ever would have otherwise. It also made me realize that there’s no need to wait until someone dies to find out about their life.
In fact, I think it’s a shame to do so.