Grandma and Grandpa

Grandma and Grandpa

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Pat McGill, Jr. of Wisner, Nebraska always entered a room smiling.


Pat fathered eleven children, including my mother, and had over fifty grandchildren, including me. Even though my grandpa and I were not all that close, I admired and respected his kind and gentle nature. He passed away in the summer of 1996, and I didn't get to say goodbye to Grandpa Pat McGill before he headed up to heaven with all the other saints.


All but one of the McGill grandchildren were at my grandpa's memorial service. I held my mom's hand as all of the children and grandchildren lined the aisle and acted as an "honor guard" for the casket. We both sobbed.


At the end of the service, the priest announced that there would be an all-night vigil in the church for my grandpa, and they needed volunteers to sign up to stay with him in the church. I didn't think much of it, assuming that townspeople and family members would flock to the signup sheet.


Apparently EVERYONE made this assumption. A contingent of my cousins went out to the bars to hold "an Irish wake" and lubricate themselves with alcohol. The residents of Wisner mostly went home to their beds. It turned out that no one had volunteered to stay with my grandpa from the hours of 2:00 AM to 6:00 AM, and hysteria broke out.


My grandma was heartbroken. My mom was scrambling to solve the problem. Then I spoke up: "I'm used to staying up all night. I can do it."


Everyone looked at me and blinked. "Really?" they said. "All night?"


I took my notebook to the church and sat in the front pew. I worked on a short story called Mushroom until I was alone in the church with my grandpa's open casket. It was impossible to distract myself from this situation anymore. I approached my grandpa and looked closely at him. I started talking to him about the things I had been doing in Massachusetts. I sang songs to him. I asked him if I would ever find a way to stop loving the girl who broke my heart a year earlier. I cried for a little while. I touched his hands. I realized how much I admired the power of his smile and his capacity for joy.

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Two of my cousins took my place at the vigil at around 5:30 AM and I went back to my grandma's house. I slept soundly.


That night, my grandpa became my own personal angel. I trusted him to show me how to chase my dreams and learn how to love again. My eyes were red and dewy when a hundred McGills began crooning "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" as my grandpa's casket was solemnly lifted into a car and driven away (he donated his body to science!) but I wasn't truly sad. I had learned a lot about him that night. About him, about myself, and about life.


Always enter a room smiling.
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