The past two years, I’ve unfortunately been to a lot of funerals. I realize part of it is my age (mid-thirties), when the loss of people in one’s familial and social circle becomes more common, and that this will become more common is something to adjust to. But it was easy to begin to see death as always something that came too soon—particularly in the case of my niece, who did not see her thirtieth birthday, and I must be getting old because losing Aunt Judy at sixty seems so young to me now.
But my grandpa passed away early morning this past Wednesday, however, reminding those who loved him that death can also be the natural conclusion of a long life well-lived.
My grandfather, Clifford Charles Purdy, was born July 4 in 1914. And no, that year is not a typo; he was nearly one-hundred-and-three when he passed. He oversaw a century of change—not merely technologically but medically, his eldest child being crippled by polio just before the first vaccines were made available. (And to think in his lifetime he saw both vaccines rise in use and now fall again disturbs me often.)
While in recent years he had normal short term memory issues and various health issues throughout the years, there was no drawn-out illness that plagued him. Right up until he broke his hip last month, he lived by himself in his own home still (thanks in no small part to my aunt’s dedication in checking on him and his pets daily).
Grandpa was a true example that a sharp mind does not need to come from traditional education; during his youth, it was common for kids to not finish school (I’m not even talking secondary school; I mean eighth grade) for a variety of reasons, but that never stopped him from often being the smartest man in the room. He taught himself the fiddle in his youth, he debated politics with my father for hours. He was the only other writer in the family that I’m aware of, and had serialized short stories published in local papers in his youth, as well as poetry. (I have always wanted to read these, but if copies still exist, I’ve never seen them.)
His home was filled with artwork and needlework by his sister, with photos of his many grandchildren and great-grandchildren looking up from frames on most surfaces, and his bookshelves held copies of some of my books as well. He read an early copy of Solomon’s Seal in 2013, and said with a sigh that I was never going to be a bestseller with all the cursing in my books, but this is the same man who kept copies of newspaper articles I wrote in high school twenty years ago, so I’ve no doubt of his pride in me regardless of my frequent use of “motherfucker”. He had tremendous compassion for his grandchildren (checking in frequently when I was seriously ill three years ago), and was natural in his role as family patriarch.
For Grandpa, pride in his appearance—both physically and metaphorically—was paramount. He was always a snappy dresser, looking his best no matter where he was, and even in the hospital his first concern was whether his hair was combed and he looked presentable. (He, of course, looked fantastic, and still had great hair.)
He had been a church-going man most of his life—which might be why my mother gave up trying to take me to Sunday school as a kid, she knew what it was like to be dressed up and made to go every week, and took pity on me—and that continued even into his later years. I even remember his look of disappointment when I was in my late teens and explained that I didn’t go to church because I didn’t believe in that kind of thing.
Then some years ago, he and I were sitting at his kitchen table, discussing the paranormal and spirituality. If I recall correctly, there might’ve been beer—at happy hour. And he said when he was a young man—about eighteen—he read Darwin’s Origin of Species, and that made a lot of sense to him, and he decided that evolution was true and when we die we die.
And I looked at him and blinked for a moment, processing this, and asked him a few more questions. It turns out my church-going grandfather—who, at that point, still went every Sunday—had been an atheist for the past seventy years. But putting on his Sunday best, meeting with the community, and taking part in that ritual was very much part of who he was, even if he personally was highly skeptic.
I do believe this was one instance where my very smart grandfather was perhaps incorrect, though.
Shortly after his hip surgery last month, when he came out of the anesthesia, he described for my aunt the party he’d gone to the night before.
Grandpa had survived nearly all of his family, except for his cousin who was in a nursing home and also over one hundred years old (about one-hundred-and-five, I think?). And at this party, his whole family was there. His mother and father, his brothers, his sister with a cat under her arm (look, I told you I come from a long line of crazy cat ladies), his wife. Everyone there was already dead except he said his still-living cousin was in attendance.
Later that day, my aunt came home to a phone call, however, that said cousin had died in the night.
That dead people party (with bonus cats) has fascinated me for weeks, the idea that everyone has been waiting for him, and I hope on some level when he passed, he remembered that feeling of joy and sense of going home. And while his living family celebrates his life tomorrow at his funeral, perhaps everyone who has already passed is celebrating him as well. This is one death where it’s difficult to be truly sad, because he lived independently on his own terms, he lived an amazing life and passed peacefully, and he taught the people around him how to live with grace and dignity. His life is one I think we all aspire to, all wish our loved ones could have, a lengthy time in this world to do good and then get to rest at last.
I would say “Rest in Peace”, but I expect it’s now happy hour in the afterlife, and he’s partying instead.
Goodbye, Grandpa. Please ask Aunt Marjorie to bring some cats when the party eventually comes for me too.