My youngest daughter needs a backpack for preschool so I find myself searching the basement for a useable hand-me-down. Under a pile of stuff I discover a small pink backpack. My older girls used this one for play more than school, but the size is perfect and the clean up seems minimal.
I unzip the top and am surprised to find a bag of coins. Not just any bag of coins, but the coins my husband’s stepfather gave my daughter Jacey a month before he passed away.
I have not thought about these coins in a long time. The last time I saw them they were on a shelf in Jacey’s room. Several times we explained that they were a gift from Grampa Rich and were very special, but at some point they became toys and ended up in a backpack.
I walk into the next room where Jacey is playing and show her the coins. With a calm but obviously annoyed voice I say, Don’t you understand how special these are? Don’t you understand that these are not toys? We might have thrown this backpack away and never seen them again.
I proceed to tell her that I would be putting them away so it never happens again. Noticeably upset, Jacey walks upstairs and into her room.
I remain at the bottom of the stairs and instantly know that I handled the situation very poorly. Using don’t you understand? with a child is ineffective because if you are using the phrase, the obvious answer is already no. Unsure of what to do next, I start looking through the coins and begin to wonder: What would Rich think about this moment?
Rich never had children of his own and when he married my mother-in-law he embraced her children like they were his. They were young adults when he came into the picture, but he never called them stepchildren, they were his children.
He was all about giving. He gave emotionally and monetarily and all he asked in return was time together as a family. He loved holidays and events where he could grill dinner or take us to his favorite Italian restaurant.
He was a great gift giver, but he always seemed more invested in the occasion, the opportunity to have family moments. Sometimes I watched him look around the room at the people he loved, seeming so thankful just to be there. Like the rest of the family I appreciated him and his generous nature. We all loved him very much.
We were devastated when Rich was told that he had pancreatic cancer. He was given a grim prognosis, but somehow he defied the odds and made it to my husband’s brother’s wedding, our wedding, and he was able to meet Jacey, his first granddaughter, on the day she was born. He was quietly hopeful that we would have a girl.
When Jacey was 5 months old he came to our house with the bag of coins. He wanted Jacey to have them so she “would never be without”. I remember he cried
a little. He knew his time was limited and this was a going away gift.
To this day Jacey beams with pride when she sees a picture of Rich holding her as a baby. Her sisters know who Grampa Rich is and they know his importance in the family, but Jacey never misses an opportunity to say, “Grampa died before you were born, but I knew him and he knew me.”
This was most evident the night he passed away. In the middle of the night she woke up crying at the top of her lungs, very uncommon for her. Ten minutes later our phone rang and we were told that Rich had died 10 minutes ago. Their connection might be deeper than we can ever understand.
I put the coins back in the bag and walk upstairs to find Jacey crying softly in her room. I tell her that I am sorry for my strong reaction and I know it must be hard for her to understand why the coins are important to big people. I tell her that playing with the coins and putting them in the backpack was not a bad thing. Grampa Rich would have liked that she was enjoying them.
I suggest that we find a new home for the coins – a place that makes us both comfortable. Jacey’s tears dry up as we collaborate on a new location. This feels right and we both feel better.
The coins are meaningful and they carry significance, but they are not Rich. I don’t want any of my children to think that “things” carry that much power. I would rather share the coins, the pictures and the stories. I would rather embrace the message that Rich lived: Life is meant to be enjoyed and it’s much more meaningful when surrounded by the people you love.
Finding the coins was a gift, so with awareness I close my eyes and thank Rich. It’s been six years, but his generous spirit is still willing to send an important parenting lesson my way.
Check out www.lustgarten.org – a foundation to advance the scientific and medical research related to the diagnosis, treatment, cure and prevention of pancreatic cancer.
Did you know Rich or do you have a “Grampa Rich” of your own? Feel free to comment.