Mimetic Reflections on the Death of a Loved One

My grandfather died last week.

My memories are scattered fragments, shadows, half-imprints like stamps never fully inked, leaving bold impressions of part of a picture and then fading to nothing.

A few scenes are etched so clearly in my mind. A montage of hugs at the front door of his old house in Kansas when we would arrive for family visits. Hearing him make spoonerisms and puns, like the corny joke about the mama bird who laid an orange, shocking her young son who flew to his father crying, “Daddy! Daddy! Look at the orange mama laid!” Seeing him perform a minor but memorable role in the community theater production of Gypsy. The incalculable times he recited the signature family story “Ladle Rat Rotten Hut,” a parody of the classic fairy tale told entirely in word substitutions that my grandfather memorized from an issue of the “Ladies Home Journal.” Over the years, I remember him telling it to my friends and then to my husband. If you were lucky enough to hear it from his lips, you were family.

The titles he held over the years run through my mind – teacher, preacher, potter, artist, actor, poet, father, grandfather, great-grandfather – all thin shards of mirror reflecting slivers of his essence. The memories and words and feelings swirl like a slow-motion cyclone churning up regrets that blend with the happy sounds and images spinning in my brain. I wish I had called and written more often. I wish I could have had one last visit. For all he gave the world, for all he did to build and teach and nurture and love his family, I feel like there’s so much more to him I never knew, conversations left unspoken, dimensions left unexplored.

But my heart calms down and the pain of all that was left undone dissolves in relief washing over me as I consider something that mimetic theory helps me articulate. This theory of what it means to be human can be complicated in its application, but it highlights a simple truth that many know instinctively, a truth that can embrace and comfort us when a loved one dies: We are our relationships.

We are not individuals, but interdividuals. We are the unique compositions of all who have influenced us, along with our own experiences and choices and consequences.

What this means to me, as I think about my grandfather, is that I carry so much more than his DNA. I carry his inspiration. At least some of his dreams, his ideas, his passions, have either been passed directly, or filtered through my family, to me, and blended with the dreams and ideas and passions of others into what I call my own. I think about my love for sketching and watercolor, and how I painstakingly strive to form my lines into shapes and mix the perfect shades of color. How much of that love was inspired by Grandpa’s painting of the Smokies that hung above the fireplace of my childhood home? I think about my affinity for reading and writing poetry, and wonder how much of the rhythm and rhyme in which I revel comes from the clever twists of language and wordplay in which my grandfather delighted. My father inspired much of my pacifism and rejection of war, but my grandfather first inspired him as the first conscientious objector in the family. When I think of everything I love, everything that inspires me, the values that motivate me and the activities that bring me joy, I see my grandfather’s spirit as a part of the picture, and I feel a surge of gratitude. But that’s only the beginning.

I can find my grandfather in all of his loved ones, for every life that he touched, he changed. This is true of all of us. Though my memory of his words may be vague and incomplete, I can learn so much of him through my father, my uncles and aunts, my mother, my brother, my cousins. All of their memories and experiences of him can fill the gaps of my understanding. All of their interactions with him have had an impact upon who they are, which in turn will continue to shape their lives and the lives of those with whom they relate, including me. Influence and inspiration pass through family and friends on networks of love even after we’re gone.

My grandfather loved beauty and put great care and effort into creating it. The world was his canvas and his toolbox. From the clay pots he shaped and molded to his sketches and paintings, from his woodcarving to his gardening, as he gently tilled the earth to grow the most gorgeous flowers I think I’ve seen anywhere, he put his heart into everything he touched and left it more beautiful. Now his hands will no longer plant or paint or sketch or carve, but I can see his appreciation for beauty, and the discipline he took to create it, continue to manifest itself in many forms across the generations. My aunts play for their local symphony, and while their musical skills come more from their mother, part of their dedication to creating beauty in musical form no doubt also comes from their father. Grandpa’s eye for detail and framing a picture shines through the spectacular photography of my uncle. His woodworking craftsmanship has inspired my uncle and my father and my brother. More than one cousin has been inspired to follow in his footsteps in teaching and performing arts. I see his hard work and yet also kooky and irreverent humor throughout the family. My grandfather’s influence on his loved ones is one of many, but it is unmistakably there.

This is all in addition to raising five children and all of the love and intangible blessings that he and my grandmother put into that vocation. The care and compassion, hard work and sleepless nights, the wisdom and the humor and the values he embodied… all these have shaped the people who carry on after him. There’s no way to measure or quantify the love that has spread throughout the world as each of his children grew to touch more lives and have children of their own.

I can no longer see his face, but I can see his light continue to shine in so many people, people I can still come to know better. I can still draw upon his influence and stretch it to reach my own children.

I take so much comfort in knowing that my grandfather’s love, his spirit, his wisdom, have been diffused throughout the world in all he left behind – in his art and writing but most especially in the people who knew and loved him. Through them, I can spend the rest of my life continuing to learn more about him and coming to know him better.

And yet there is still more that no one but Grandpa himself can tell me. I long to learn more about his winding faith journey, his ambitions and dreams. My faith gives me hope that I will see him again one day, and we’ll be able to make up for lost time in eternity. But if that is true, then Grandpa is now learning all the things he never knew from all the loved ones who went before him, and continuing to grow in his heart and mind! For one thing mimetic theory teaches is that as long as we live, we will learn and grow from our relationships, and if life is eternal, then so is growth!

Farewell, Grandpa. I know I’ll see your light in everything and everyone you’ve touched until we meet again.

Image: Photo of George Paris and painting of the Smoky Mountains by George Paris.

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