I hate thinking about death. The idea of being separated from someone with whom I share my life closely is terrifying. But death can’t be hidden from, can it? Last year, my Grandpa Wally passed away after a long, bitter battle with Parkinson’s Disease, and he was the closest family member I’ve lost. Because of time and financial constraints, I wasn’t able to attend his funeral, and have as a result felt really separated from the whole thing. I think time away from routine to reflect on the life of the person who passed is necessary for real grieving and mourning, and when that time isn’t taken, one simply acknowledges his or her death and becomes removed from the relationship without any real closure. That feels bad.
Last weekend, I joined my husband’s family in Indianapolis to celebrate the life and mourn the loss of the patriarch of the Snyder clan, Jim. G-pa Jim, as I was instructed to call him early on in our relationship (complete with the hyphen), was a seriously loved guy. He met his wife, Jane, in line for class registration their Freshman year in college, and they remain one of the cutest couples I’ve ever met. After undergrad, Jim went on to Seminary and had a long career as a Presbyterian minister.
When Bryan and I got married in 2010, his wedding wish list included that his grandfather perform our ceremony. Jim’s health was deteriorating, so we lined up a backup officiant, but hoped he’d be able to travel to Minneapolis for the big day. When summer came around and he confirmed that he’d be able to do it, he came to Rochester and imparted as much wisdom to us as he possibly could in a series of short meetings over the course of a weekend and called it Premarital Counseling.
Cooperate on finances. Communicate openly. Maintain a sense of humor. Go to the doctor for regular checkups (yep, seriously). Find hobbies to do together. Pretty much, you’re stuck together, so get used to it, and figure out how to get through tough times.
He was a flexible minister; he had very few demands in terms of how the ceremony would go. He wanted to wear his robe and stole. He wanted to give a short homily (emphasis on short). And my favorite: “In this family, and in the ceremonies over which I preside, we do not give women away.” He suggested, instead, that we allow him to ask who would support us in our commitment to one another and leave it at that. At the ceremony, he spoke of what it means to “cleave,” which as it turns out, is to be stuck together. Lots of jokes there.
Jim’s ceremonial preferences say a lot about the kind of person he was. He loved tradition (and he passed that onto his kids), but he also thought outside the box and believed in equality for all people, regardless of race, socioeconomic class, disability, or gender on a very basic level.
The weekend of Jim’s funeral service was bittersweet, as they often are. The service was at the church he’d moved to Indianapolis to pastor almost 20 years ago, and it was filled with family, friends, and members of the congregation and greater community. We sang his favorite hymns, listened to his youngest daughter, Sarah, recount her memories of him as a father, friend, minister, and adventurer, and then we had a reception with his favorite snacks: brownies, cookies, cake, and chocolate. Later in the evening, one of his nephews had the whole gang over for a backyard picnic where we laughed, ate, and egged some of the grandsons on to eat pickled pigs’ feet “in Grandpa’s honor” because he ate them when he was a kid. They did it, by the way, and it was disgusting.
Since I’m a relatively new family member, I spent a lot of time watching his kids and grandkids, seeing him in them. The Snyders have some wonderfully obvious habits, mannerisms, and personality traits in common, and it was sweet to be able to appreciate the ones that were clearly passed on by Jim (adventure, stubbornness, and the tendency to be the alpha, to name a few). I also thought about the man that my husband is; I’ve always credited his kindness, social awareness, and sense of humor to his mom, Hope, Jane and Jim’s middle child. But what I realized is that who he is has been deeply impacted by more than just his nuclear family; Jane and Jim intentionally and passionately infused their family with love and compassion for all people, and Jim’s legacy lives on in that through not just his kids, but his kids’ kids and now their spouses, and and hopefully the next generation as well.
I’m so grateful to have known Jim and to have had the chance to recognize the continuing impact he has on my life through Bryan and the rest of the Snyders, my family not just in-law, but in spirit, too. Grieving the loss of a family member hurts, but I’m glad to be able to honor him by reflecting on his life and not just acknowledging his death.