It was just before 9:00am on January 31, 2017. I was sitting in my truck waiting for my mother to arrive at the title agency to complete the sale of my childhood home (with me, in my other profession, acting as real estate agent). My phone rang and, predictably, it was my mother. Figuring she was simply telling me that she was on her way and giving me an ETA, as is her wont whenever we're going to meet, I picked up the phone. There was a pause, along with a deep and shaky breath on the other end, and I didn't even need to hear the words, "Grandpa died," to know what the purpose of the call actually was.
There admittedly wasn't a lot of shock. My grandfather had been in decline for a while, the effects of Alzheimer's and dementia eroding everything that made him the warm, intelligent, and bright man I remembered in my youth. The whole family knew it wouldn't be long. He'd been in hospital care for the majority of the last 6 months and we had even made the plan to all get together, my mom and step dad, my grandmother, my aunt, uncle, and cousin and her husband, and say our goodbyes later that very day. My mother and I just had our business to conclude first. And even with the death of our family's patriarch, we still did. I can only imagine how cold I must have sounded when I took my own breath and tried to remind my mother that we had a contract to fulfill and I needed her there as soon as I possible. I was a grieving son and grandson, yet I was also a professional who needed to stay composed for everyone else: A theme that would repeat until the day of my grandfather's funeral.
I've never been someone who is comfortable with death. I'm not good at memorial services, especially if there's an open casket. All I can think about is how generic and stilted my condolences sound to those I am offering them to, whether that's true or not. I can sympathize with how I imagine others must be feeling, but as someone who notoriously internalizes his own emotions, I do not pretend to empathize. Because I know I don't process identical stimuli in the same manner as others. Expressing my own grief is also a problem for me. Underneath (at least until I softened after marriage and having a child) I was a roiling sea of feelings, but on the surface: stoicism. It sometimes make me come across as callus. But, it seems that it also gives me an air of strength to my more outwardly emotional family, which came to bear on that day.
After I managed to keep the closing on schedule, I made my way down to the hospital. There, I was left alone by my family to say my goodbyes to my grandfather. I can still remember seeing him lying on the hospital bed, physically in front of me, but somehow not there. I sat in a chair at the bed's foot, for a while simply staring, waiting to maybe see his chest rise and fall and somehow make this whole thing not real. Eventually I began to speak aloud, though quietly. I talked about how much I'd miss him, how I wished he could have hung on long enough to see me get married later that year, how I was sorry that I couldn't bring myself to visit more, that I'd let myself drift away from the otherwise tight-knit core that was my mom's side of the family. I talked about other things that we'd usually talk about when he was himself: the prospects of the Brewers and Packers on the upcoming season, mostly. I kept rambling for so long I lost count of the minutes. I was searching for tears and silently cursing myself that I couldn't cry like the rest of my family.
Finally the rest of the family came in and we talked and reminisced. As time wore on, though, it became apparent that we were stalling what we knew had to come next. Eventually it was stated, by who, I can't remember, that it was time to call the funeral home to take the body. Almost immediately seven pairs of eyes were upon me. I knew what was in the collective mind of the group: Rob is the one who will have the strength of will to pick up the phone. The number and instructions were already on a piece of paper, waiting for me to dial. Dutifully, I did what I was expected. *Sigh* What was expected. I'd crafted my facade so well that to break now would make me feel like I was letting down my whole family. It wasn't until we had all left the room and were well down the hall that I managed to pull myself away and stand alone, staring back through the half open door into the room that contained the bed which held the vessel that was once my grandfather. At that moment, the reality that this was to be the last time I'd set eyes on him finally came to the surface and my eyes finally released their tears. And still, even to the last, I made certain I stayed turned from the rest of my family and only returned to their company once my eyes were dry again.
As part of the funeral preparations, I was determined to give my grandfather's eulogy. Truth be told, I had be thinking about his death for a while and had even begun early drafts of the speech I would give. I expected to be asked, feeling like my family would lean on my drama background and comfort with performing in front of a crowd to make a tribute worthy of my grandfather. And, in my private arrogant thoughts, I believed the same. But also, there was a desire to somehow making up for my perceived deficiencies as a grandson and mourner by exposing my feelings in a 4 page speech. And, naturally, I received acclaim for my words from a myriad of people I'd never met before and would never see again, but once my grandfather's ashes were interred (along with a copy of my eulogy), I was left with nothing but my thoughts.
In the intervening years since his death, the thoughts of my grandfather have come, I would judge, less often than I would like, and not always in the best ways (in my assessment). Sometimes it's in the context of feeling cheated in a way, lamenting that my cousin got to have him dance at her wedding and I carried a vial of dirt from his memorial garden at mine. Or that he met and held her kids, but my son will only know him from pictures and stories. Sometimes I'll hold a little conversation with him when I'm out for a walk. And then there are the times that I'm going about my day and something suddenly reminds me of him and I remember that he's gone and I'm brought down by the idea that I didn't miss his presence in my life until the moment I missed it. I guess, even though my life in many ways has moved forward by leaps and bounds, a part of me is still mourning him.
I don't know if writing this entry has done anything but give me permission to share parts of myself that I usually keep inside. I don't know if I've learned to grieve like others do. I can't decide if what I do is right or wrong, or even why I should care how others look at how I handle my feelings. I just do the best I can. And in the spirit of that, I give myself permission to transcribe the eulogy I wrote for my grandfather 5 years ago. Because above any novel I completed, above any blog post, tweet, card, story, or text, this remains the epitome of anything I've ever conferred from my mind onto the page:
It’s often easy to convince yourself that there is comfort in knowing that the end is near and in having a certain amount of time to prepare yourself for the hole that a loved one’s death will invariably leave. However, when the time comes, it’s clear that there is no preparing for that loss, especially when that loss is someone like my Grandfather. Personally, I spent weeks, months even, galvanizing myself against the coming grief, preparing to take on a mantle of stoicism, which I conditioned myself to believe would lend strength to the rest of my family. So when I received the inevitable news tearful phone call from my mother, instead of reacting, I was silent, numb. And what followed after I hung up the phone was the type of internal beratement that the conscious decision to internalize one’s grief has the unfortunate habit of leading to. I was going to visit this afternoon! I yelled at myself. Why didn’t I visit yesterday when I had the chance? Why didn’t I call more often? Did he know how much I loved him? Does my family know? Was whatever was going on in my life really more important than spending one more day with my Grandfather? It was only after the family gathering at the hospital later that day, after the tears finally came and I resolved to give this eulogy for him, that I realized how foolishly had handled the situation in the time leading up to this. When I finally opened up my eyes, my ears, and my heart I could only conclude that internalized emotion and the type of silent suffering that I forced upon myself in the effort to limit my own vulnerability was not the way to honor a man who proved that love, compassion, empathy, and patience in no way convey weakness, but rather immeasurable strength. Knowing and embracing that, I feel I can make a far better account of Bob Rohleder, my Grandfather, than I ever could have otherwise.
I believe there is a cyclical nature to life and as such certain things happen from time to time that they can’t possibly be coincidence. The last time I attended a church service here at St. Mark’s was nearly 11 years ago and I was here attending the funeral for my grandmother, that is to say, my father’s mother, Joy (whose ashes rest in that very columbarium). That day, as this one, was full of both grief and remembrance. But one thing that stands out about that day is that the celebrant was of course my Grandfather. Not very cyclical, maybe, until you consider that at this point in that service, he was standing in this very spot giving the eulogy for her. The years that have passed in between have dulled much of that day in my memory, unfortunately, except that I can still remember very clearly my grandfather’s assertions that she did not fear death, rather that through her faith my grandmother instead looked forward to her reunion with her husband and two of her children who were tragically taken before their time. At the time, I don’t think I truly possessed the necessary awareness to understand the true meaning of what was occurring in that moment. Some would be tempted to see this as a clergyman simply performing one of his duties. However, looking back, over all my years I recall very few instances where my grandfather and grandma Joy spent extended amounts of time together, owing to the fact that, at least over the course of my lifetime they rarely even lived in the same state as each other and visits were especially rare in those last years of her life. And yet here was my grandfather, commemorating her as lovingly as she were a beloved sister. That may be the first time, though I had known the man for over 20 years by that point, that I began to truly understand that he was more than, well, than simply “Grandpa”.
Since his passing last week, a lot of words have been used to describe my grandfather. Gentle, loving, kind, and faithful just to name a few. And I agree with all of those. But it was something my father, said which became the catalyst for how I chose to shape this eulogy. It was a few weeks ago and we were running our dogs at the exercise grounds in the Kettle Moraine. I had been on the phone earlier with my mother, who informed me that he wasn’t doing well in the hospital and the doctors had informed her and my grandmother that it the end was coming soon. My father was quiet for a moment and then simply said to me, “Your Grandfather was a great man.” Those six words mean all the more when you consider that the last time I remember them being together in the same place was at his mother’s funeral, which I have just mentioned. It therefore speaks volumes of my grandfather’s ability to bring people together that, though my parents divorced years ago, my father would not only still be able to say that about him, but would wish to come here today and pay his respects. At the risk of embarrassing him, let me just say I don’t think anyone can understand just how much that means to me and I think I speak for the whole family when I say thank you for being here.
Since that day, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a man “great” and after a lot of thought I’ve concluded that I actually disagree with that assessment. There have been many in history who have been given the moniker of “The Great”. This is usually a term associated with some form of monarch or other figure raised high in the esteem of the general public on the basis of their accomplishments. I wonder, though, how many of these, if we had to go back and assess everything they did and why they did it, accomplished the things they did for no other reason than for the betterment of the people around them. To put it another way, they did well, but did they do good? It’s for this reason that I consider my grandfather to be more than just a great man. For, as we all know, he wasn’t the least bit concerned with his own accomplishments. He was a man who lived to do good, a man who would rather here all about you and what you were doing that talk about himself and only wished to be rewarded with the satisfaction of making a positive impact in people’s lives. At least that’s what I believe, because, obviously, he was too modest to tell anyone.
It’s impossible to summarize a man’s life in a few pages. Eighty-five years gives you a lot of material to use. There’s that home birth on Valentine’s Day of 1931, father Wally coaching wife Maeda through the delivery under the kitchen table because there was no room at the hospital. See what I did there? Okay, that last part was that obligatory clever remark everyone was waiting for to add a touch of levity. We could talk about the 1949 high school state championship baseball team, if I remember his stories correctly he was the starting left fielder, his marriage to his one and only sweetheart, my grandmother, before they shipped out together to Pearl Harbor in 1951 to serve his time in the Marine Corps. We could talk about his 14 years as a detective on the South Milwaukee Police force, and I’m sure my mother and aunt have their own stories about what an amazing father he was. If I spent the next year interviewing everyone in this room I could probably write a book and I’m sure it would tell the tale of a man who was probably intelligent enough to be a doctor or lawyer, if money was of paramount interest to him. It might tell the story of a man whose report with people could have seen him in public office, if he had anything more than this relatively apathetic view toward politics. But obviously this was not my grandfather, who was all these things, intelligent and congenial and more, but above all, as I said before, he was a man who served in more ways than one. And that desire to serve led him to his true calling and passion in life.
It was 1977 when my grandfather was ordained as a Deacon. 3-week-old me was baptized by my grandfather, and 3-year-old me knew that “Grandpa stood at the alter with the priest during church, but wasn’t quite the priest, more like the priest’s helper.” 31-year-old decided to research the history of the office and found the most appropriate description of my grandfather in the word itself. Greek in etymology, the word deacon takes its root from the word diakonos, which scholars translate to either mean “servant”, “messenger”, or perhaps more appropriately “through the dust”, in the context of the dust raised by a busy servant or messenger. This last translation is what I find most appropriate, because as most of us know, even before he retired from his professional work, being the Deacon of this parish was more than just a Sunday morning obligation for my grandfather. A true ambassador of his faith, he spent countless hours visiting the sick and infirm, fittingly most frequently at the very hospital which took such great care of him at the end of his life. He was a fan of the little things, from leading morning weekday prayer groups to giving the family prayer at our Thanksgiving dinner. He was always willing to share his faith freely with everyone though was never gregarious about it, and indeed never begrudged you your difference of opinion. I don’t stand up here before today as someone who professes to be an expert in all things ecclesiastical. My personal belief is that no person’s faith in God is the same as another’s. In my adult life, I’ve tried to make it a point to try to gain at least a basic understanding of a variety of world religions, from my roots in Christianity to Taoism and the writings of Lao Tzu, to Buddhism, to Islam and Judaism. And the more one reads on these matters, the more it becomes clear that at their cores, in the purest form, they’re all the same. There is divinity in every human being and that it is our selfish desires which separate us from God. And that when we seek to do good in this world in whatever small way we can, that is when we truly touch the divine. That is the moment when God truly shines in us. And I need to look no further than the example of my grandfather for that. We’re going to hear two different readings from the bible today read by my cousin, Vanessa, passages chosen from my grandfather’s bible in which he highlighted his favorite passages. One reading from _________ and the epistle from Romans Chapter 8. These are perfectly wonderful passages to remember my grandfather with, but when I think of how to summarize him, I actually circle back to the two other passages that not only embody the way he lived his life, but also fittingly form the foundation of my own faith. The first is probably very well known to most everyone here and that is 1 John 4:7 which states that “love is of God and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” The second, more obscure to some, was actually introduced to me by my father, who actually has it painted on the spoiler of his Fierro backwards so he can read it in the review mirror and I find it happens to also fit my grandfather to a T. Romans 12:18, which paraphrased says “whenever possible, live at peace with all men.” I don’t think I need say more.
I am unique among this assembly here today, as the only person who can view Bob Rohleder through the eyes of a grandson. To me, as a young boy, he was the smiling figure in the pork pie hat and brown striped tie walking down the street from the bus stop as grandma and I went to pick him up after work who stopped to give his wife her three kisses before giving me a big hug and cheerily greeting me with his customary, “Hey, Buddy!” A fitting greeting as I never knew him to greet anyone in any way other than as an old friend, though, to the best of my recollection, that particular nickname was reserved just for me. He was my monopoly and Yahtzee partner when I was little, and my card playing partner as I grew. He would spend countless hours with me just throwing the baseball in the back yard, and more time than I can count on a knee as my catcher as a 12-year-old me tried to perfect the pitching mechanics that I dreamed would one day take me to the big time. He was generous with his strike zone and never complained of fatigue, though he wasn’t the young man he once was. Though in these last few years, his mind became less sharp, I’ll always remember him calling out answer after answer as we’d watch Jeopardy together, believing in my youth that there couldn’t possibly be anyone as smart as him. And up until he has no longer physically able, there was no one I would rather attend a Brewer game with than him. Such was the simplicity of our relationship, for, though I never recall outwardly asking for any advice, I realize now that unconsciously for a long while, I have been trying to follow his example in the way I live and above all how I try treat those around me. I know I can never do it as effortlessly as he could, but then, I don’t know many who can.
It may well be that the reason we here today can celebrate with such great joy the life of my Grandfather is in fact the very same reason why his passing has left such a great wound in all our lives. In this world climate, where religion, politics, and personal ideologies still divide us, it's perhaps even more important to remember that we always have a choice to allow aggravation and anger to wrest control of our hearts, or to follow the example of Robert Arthur Rohelder and choose to reach for love instead. And simply put, that one powerful word is the greatest legacy anyone could hope to leave. He loved my Grandmother more deeply than I've ever seen a man love his wife. He loved his children, my mother and aunt, and grandchildren, myself and Vanessa, more selflessly than I would have ever thought possible, and he loved his fellow human beings more honestly than could be believed. That depth of love, that reflection of God, is what will keep him with us forever. And I for one, have found my greatest comfort in one small, yet a poinient final testament to my Grandfather's character: That even as age and disease wore down his body and mind, and slowly eroded his power to speak, the last phrase that he could consistently, coherently eloquate was "I love you."
I truly believe that everyone here today, if asked, would state unequivocally that they were blessed to have had Bob Rohleder as part of their lives, for any number of reasons, big or small. Maybe it was a kind word of advice or a poignant sermon. Maybe he once brought communion to a sick loved one or bailed you out of jail. Maybe it was because thanks to him you got to spend 65 years with the love of your life (love you, Grandma). For me though, I simply feel blessed because I called him “Grandpa”, and he called me “Buddy”.
Love you, Grandpa. Miss you always.
I don't just write novels. I just like to write. This blog will not be polished, it won't be edited closely. There will be spelling and grammar errors and it might drag on in places. But it will be fun, off the cuff, genuine, and hopefully interesting to read!