This week my heart has been full thinking of my maternal Grandfather, David W. Smith, who passed away on November 12 at the age of 89. It was a long and sad goodbye… I’ll get to that later.
One thing I’ve observed as a father, that’s become more apparent to me in middle age as my children grow older, is how I love them each in different ways. Similarly, I love and admire my siblings, parents, and grandparents in different ways and for different reasons. Love and admiration don’t seem to be zero-sum. The human heart seems to be a wellspring – capable of loving infinite number of others without diminishing returns.
Yet my Grandpa Smith occupies a very unique chamber of my heart. He is someone that I’ve quietly looked up to since my youth as he embodied a certain amount of humility, work ethic, and integrity, that I believe is exceptionally rare in this world.
Grandpa was born into circumstances that (particularly by today’s standards) would be considered impoverished. The family lived in rural Montana during the great depression and their home burned down at least once during those early years. His older brothers went off to serve in WWII. My understanding is the family raised livestock and for a time (during Grandpa’s teenage years) the family was responsible for running a harrowing mail route over the old Teton pass between Jackson, Wyoming and Driggs, ID. Grandpa’s father, Monty Ray Smith, died of a heart attack at 63… perhaps worn out after a hard life.
I imagine Grandpa’s youth and upbringing played a big role in him becoming the man I knew. He was someone that never complained, didn’t raise his voice, worked hard, never sought praise or recognition of the world, and wasn’t distracted by money or career success. Grandpa served as Bishop for years during the 1970’s and served others throughout his life. When I hear the 13th Article of Faith or read D&C Section 121… those scriptures with a laundry list of qualities that we should seek after (honest, true, chase, benevolent… gentleness, meekness, love unfeigned)… I think of Grandpa Smith.
There’s a term… “What Would Jesus Do” that is occasionally heard in today’s world. Sometimes individuals wear bracelets with the acronym WWJD to remind them to act as Jesus would act when faced with a tough decision. For whatever reason, I can’t quite wrap my head around the concept of WWJD. My mind has never quite been able to imagine Jesus transposed in my same situation to make a decision. However, there are 2-3 people in my life that I greatly admire and (during difficult times) I will ask myself, how would they behave or act in a given circumstance. Grandpa Smith is at the top of that list. His demeanor, his integrity… and the very knowledge that he’s my grandfather and some of his DNA must run through me… has been an inspiration. I say this with the awareness that my own personality and tendencies are very different than his… I’m grateful that he’s long been my good conscience (Jiminy Cricket)… the better angel over my shoulder.
Layered on top of the integrity and Christlike attributes were a thick coat of sweetness. There are surely good men in the world, however there are few with such a fun and delightful personality as Grandpa. Grandpa was in his mid-forties when I was born (almost exactly the age that I am now). During most of my youth, I remember Grandpa as willing and wanting to wrestle with me and the other grandkids. When we were young, he would throw us on top of the refrigerator and make us jump down to his arms… the top of a refrigerator to a 3-year-old kid is something like 30 feet high!
I have vivid memories of watching Grandpa shave when I was a kid. When it was time for me to shave, I always decided to use a razor and shaving cream rather than electric shaver. This was in large part because I thought it was cool that Grandpa used a razor (and it smelled good). Our shaving preferences aren’t the only thing we share… looking back at pictures of him from a few decades ago… it looks like we share a similar hair line as well… he surely wore it better than me.
Just before I served a mission in the mid 90’s, I went up to Idaho Falls to spend a week with Grandma and Grandpa Smith. I have fond memories of spending quality time with grandpa that week as we fished, went to the temple, and even watched VH1 together. He was surprisingly up-to-date on current events and pop culture.
Grandpa was also incredibly supportive of Grandma – content with letting her steer the ship and run things much of the time. I know he was especially helpful to her as she battled cancer, first in the mid-1980’s, then again in 2015-2016 until she passed away.
The kitchen table is where many of my best memories with Grandpa and the Smith family were made. It wasn’t uncommon for the family to be seated around the dinner table for hours after dinner sharing stories, lessons, and laugher. There were countless good meals and good times around the table… yet in retrospect, not nearly enough.
It should be told that the circumstances which Grandpa died are truly heartbreaking. Grandpa suffered from a severe dementia for the last few years. My maternal grandmother, Vivian Guest Ball, died in the same cruel fashion. The gradual goodbye is so unjust and so frustrating after a life so well lived. I am surely grateful for family members and caretakers that helped him during his cloudy mortal twilight.
I’m also grateful for a few specific memories to cherish. One occurred in August 2017 as my family and much of the extended Ball family made it to Idaho Falls to view the total solar eclipse. It was a remarkable event that we viewed together with Grandpa from the cemetery in Ucon, Idaho.
Perhaps the greater memory was made the night before as we played party games as a family. We all laughed and enjoyed Grandpa’s company for a couple of hours around the table. Someone even turned their camera phone and recorded a few moments. It’s a cherished memory in large part because it’s the last memory many of us have of him without being significantly impaired by the dementia which would, within a few months, begin eroding his mind.
The next time in saw Grandpa in 2018, it was apparent the dementia was taking its toll. Each subsequent visit the impact of the disease grew nearer as Grandpa’s consciousness more distant.
In summer of 2020 I visit Grandpa with my oldest Daughter (Abby) and son (David). It had been some time since I had visit Grandpa, due in part to COVID. I came prepared with some old pictures, knowing that – among some sufferers of dementia and Alzheimer’s (including my grandmother) – the distant memories from the past are the last to fade from the mind. My hope was that (even if Grandpa didn’t recognize me) he might recognize an old picture from 50 years ago.
As I sat down next to Grandpa he was expressionless. This continued as I showed him about a dozen pictures – no reaction or emotion whatsover. Soon he gazed down to the floor, and my eyes teared up. It was a hard moment for me, complicated by the fact that it was in a public room with my kids present. For a minute or so, I truly wept.
As I was crying Grandpa looked up at me – he noticed the tears in my eyes and soon he started to cry as well. This (of course) caused me to tear up a little more. It was a powerful moment that I won’t soon forget. It was also a fleeting moment that soon passed. A minute later we took a picture, but (by then) Grandpa’s face had lost all expression.
I don’t know if Grandpa recognized me, or even the family pictures I had brought to show him that day. But, there was a heartwarming knowledge… at least for me… that even if Grandpa’s mind was empty due to his terrible dementia…. the empathy and love in his Montana size heart was still very much present and working.
As I’ve thought about Grandpa this week, a distant memory came back to my mind. Sometime in my teenage years I remember having a discussion with Grandma and Grandpa in their home about the old love song by John Denver called Perhaps Love. The song must have come on the radio, and I remember Grandma and Grandpa explaining to me that they preferred the version of the song where John Denver and Placido Domingo were singing a duet. Just this week I listened to the song for the first time in a long while. It instantly reminded me of Grandma and Grandpa and Ican’t help but share the closing lyrics:
Perhaps love is like the ocean
Full of conflict, full of pain
Like a fire when it’s cold outside
Or thunder when it rains
If I should live forever
And all My dreams come true
My memories of love will be of you.
Grandma and Grandpa Smith… I hope that song is playing up in heaven… and you were right… the duet version is better.