Today’s my Grandpa’s birthday. He would’ve been 86 today.

I always feel a little torn on the days of milestones for the people I’ve lost. Do I celebrate the day? Do I mourn? I think the obvious answer is both – and though I error on the side of celebration for the light those people brought into the world, I mourn the hole they left behind as well.

A hole that only time can fill. A hole where empathy and joy and kindness once occupied. A space that will remain vacant so long as I live.

But that’s the beautiful part about death as well. It’s helped me recognize the ways new people come in and stand in the gaps of where our cherished and loved ones once stood. A familiar feeling that “someone has stood in this place before” – someone no longer with us, but always there. They teach us what to look for, and how to decipher who’s worth allowing into their footprints.

I think about the life Grandpa lead and I’m left with overwhelming gratitude for the ways he taught me to pay attention. To the joys and sorrows of people. To the ways watermelon can fill up an empty stomach. To the moderation I need to eat cherries with.  To the understanding that there are no strangers – only friends. To the promise that good things really do happen to good people, and taking care of another will always come back around. Driving around his crystal clean white F150 that he’d wax weekly, Grandpa was a sight to behold when he rolled through the streets with 3 or 4 of us piled in the front seat. He always had fresh sticks of wintergreen extra gum in the cupholders, too.

I think about the ways he taught me to pay attention to the spoken and unspoken needs of those around us. How he could light up a room with his humor and make up stories on a whim, leaving everyone awed.  How he would ALWAYS pull over the truck to talk to the people on the corners of the road and explain how “a few bucks can’t hurt anyone”.  All I can hear when I think of those moments are his famous words, “you can’t outgive, Shalers. It always comes back.” I loved watching the way my conservative father would cringe at gestures like this that Grandpa would make, and how little Grandpa seemed to mind. How he would smirk and laugh with his belly and fuel conversations with wit and comfortability.

Grandpa had a biiiiiig table. He knew no outsiders. Anyone with a heartbeat had a seat at the table. Each time we frequented The Chalet he would ask each server their name if he didn’t know them already, and address the rest on a first name basis. He filled rooms with color and welcomed in whoever walked through the door. His table was full of the misfits and the outsiders; those on the outskirts got brought to the inside when he was around. He made everyone feel like someone. A really important someone, truthfully. From the Goodwill workers to the diner servers to my friends growing up, Grandpa understood the importance of calling people by their name.

In the later years of his life, Grandpa loved talking trains and cars, guns and civil wars. He had an ample supply of books on each topic and a stacked collection of prototypes from knives to knick-knacks. His speech started slowing along with his hearing, but Grandpa was witty up until the day he passed. He loved learning new things and understanding the way machines worked — humans included. I remember holding his hand in hospice and thinking to myself, “this might be the first time in Grandpa’s life he hasn’t had something to say” as I continued talking while he rested his eyes.

I know everyone says this about their Grandparent, but Grandpa really was everything I could’ve asked for in a role model. He was kind, he empowered me to become who and what I wanted, and he taught me that the world really does get a little darker when someone like that passes away. I hope I can continue his legacy of loving people the way he did so effortlessly, but I got a long way to go. A lot more car rides without the horn, a lot more bike rides without the bird, and a lot more conversations that create space for connection.

You taught us well, Gramps. And I miss ya every day.

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