How cultivating love can eternalize relationships
I’ve been afforded many privileges in my early life, none of which I could necessarily control, but all of which I recognize and am thankful for. To begin, I was born to parents who prioritized my education from a young age. I can remember a time where this felt like a betrayal, where I thought I was being used to represent my family in ways I didn’t feel I wanted to present. I was pulled from my middle school, where I had a young lifetime of childhood friends and comfort, and was gifted access to a college-prep education. At the time I saw it as my parents taking away my life, but it was the right choice and one that ultimately steered my life towards better years down the road. I also know how privileged I was to never know true hunger for much of my life. When I ultimately faced it, it was from my own doing and not from any lack of love or privilege. I had just hurt myself and felt I needed to continue hurting. I am also privileged to be a white man in a country that unfortunately still, and always has, muddied paths for those different than me. I know many complain in my position, declaring that the mistakes of past generations have flipped the script entirely on white people, and have made it easier for diverse populations to succeed in America than us, but I greatly disagree. If anything, it is now an invitation for white people to begin to earn their seats at the table. To stand out, not only from one denomination of people but from out of everybody. Only then will we be equally as gifted in representation.
But above all else in my privilege, I find myself at 21 years old with both sets of my grandparents still alive.
I realize this is a great rarity for people my age, and I am cautious even writing it, as if by putting it in words I unearth some curse hellbent on stealing away this great honor. But it is, in some ways, my greatest miracle. My family has had its fair share of close calls, namely struggles with heart attacks and cancer, now revealing themselves as dementia symptoms, diabetes, and the returning of those difficult cells, but, at the time of my writing, I still see them often and love them daily.
Though I know the severity of my love for all of them, I hardly consider myself the favorite of the grandchildren. My father’s parents (Grandma and Grandpa) live in Florida, where my cousins also live, and I’m sure that their involvement in my cousin’s lives has carried them further in their hearts than I could ever wish to permeate. It’s a similar scenario on my mother’s side (Nana and Pappy): middle Ohio near cousins in middle Ohio. But my adoration is not contingent on being favored, it is hardly even reliant on being known.
I often wish my grandparents were able to keep the version of me from my childhood. Where the name Sammy fit me better, where they didn’t feel a need to observe my happiness carefully, where I was pleasant and always light in their waxing retirement. Where I came with the joy and all the nostalgia of encountering a young person in the swing of their childhood. But now I must act jokingly as they worry, and watch, and remark at how in my writing I use the name Sammy over Sam; a name not typically meant for an adult, they remind me. I don’t have words or poems to articulate the embarrassment I feel when they ask me about my writings. It is as if the poet label brands me, and I work to defend the way I scarred. I feel no pride in being a writer. I act as if it is only a job for me, that I have other hobbies and that they don’t need to worry because I’ll have plenty of ways to feed myself and raise a family. I’ve written times before that in any lifetime this is all I could be, and it feels in desperation that I hide this fact from my family members.
But it is in the same desperation that I aim to explain it to them. I have written my grandparents many poems, and find my visits with them some of the most productive ways to drum up new lyric and copy, but I have never shared any with them. I often find my writings repulsive when I approach a time of sharing, and the times where they have taken the first steps and crack open a magazine that I’m featured in, I dust it away like it was something I wrote in the back of a dull class period. No mention of the toil, trouble, or craft.
But the true privilege of their being alive is my ability to still try.
In my recent studies, in the burial of books by Thomas Merton, Rainer Rilke, William Styron and my beloved Toni Morrison, I have found myself with a new contribution. If not a contribution, this is a belief. And if not a belief, this is a practice. My writing of it goes: Death doesn’t exist for love grown entirely. My grappling with this idea is that I do not believe that the relationships with my loved ones will ever have a chance of ending if I explore and understand them fully before they leave their bodies. It goes like this: If I were to lose my girlfriend tomorrow, I would not feel like I had lost her. Yes, I would be devastated. Yes, I would lose my mind and my motivation and all else that I know as good and lovely, but I wouldn’t lose her necessarily. I have been with her for six years and we have spent every night of those six years talking on the phone and nearly every day interacting. I know her front to back, up and down, inside and out, and I know, with upmost certainty, that I could mentally talk to this version of her for the rest of my life, even if I were to live to be 103. The relationship wouldn’t end. My half could carry forever. My love for her is so internally understood that it could last me my entire lifetime. I know what she would say, how she would respond, and how she would sound with anything I do or wonder. But this took time, thousands upon thousands of hours of study and realization, and I only have one more relationship like this: My mother. I know that if my mom died tomorrow she could still lead me through the rest of my days, but the list stops there. I have yet to cultivate this type of eternal relationship with my father or sister or any of my grandparents.
But I wish to. And I hope I’m gaining ground.
During my last visit to my mother’s parents, we were struck with some difficult news. My Nana’s best friend was dying quickly, and due to Covid, she hadn’t been able to physically see her friend for a few years. My mom and I could feel how heavy the day was becoming, so we took them both to a flea market, and then out to lunch, but by the time my mother had gone to bed in the evening I had become sickeningly aware of how quiet my grandparents had become.
I realized a long time ago that the kind of faith that I have is very different than that of my grandparents. They, to me, represent the lives of dedicated Christians, filled with days of church, reflection, restriction, prayer, and study of the Bible. My faith is much looser, rooted in the actions of the individual, and I know that that worries them. They often remind me that they pray for me daily, but they are unsure of what to pray for. They tell me they pray that I am able to find Christ someday, and I feel the comment confusing, not quite sure what they think I’ve yet to find.
But it was in spite of these abrasive areas that I broke our silent rumination by asking to pray with them. My Pappy sat up in his recliner with an abated excitement, my Nana seemed hesitant, but relieved to pray. Pappy asked me to begin. I deflected and asked my Nana to begin. I didn’t like knowing that my prayer was going to sound like me, and felt it better to try to rethink it before speaking.
Nana prayed for Christ to be with her friend’s family. She did not pray for the health of her friend, but for her comfort, asking that God be gracious to her and let her leave this world gently and without pain. My grandfather shared her sentiments, reminding the room that Christ foretold that this life was not the end, and that we are to meet our loved ones again in Heaven. He squeezed my hand to indicate that I was to begin. I felt myself start:
“I have been in pain recently. The older I get, the more I’m forced to recognize death and the fear of losing the love I have been blessed to experience around me. I am now constantly aware of how little I know about what death means, and what it ends, and how to pick up the pieces that are left in us. For Nana, I ask that her love is felt. For her friend, I feel I cannot ask for health, so I once again ask for comfort. I hope everyone I love is able to let go.”
I stopped and felt the shame again. Feeling I had said to much, or too little for her friend, I withdrew away from my grandparent’s hands and sat back against the quiet couch. My Nana stirred.
“Sam, I have loved you since before you were born.” I was surprised at this, and could feel myself wanting to cry. “You know, after my second heart attack, when I was going in for surgery, I remember telling God that I was ready to come home to him.” My grandfather murmured a prayer under his breath. “I remember waking up, coming out of the surgery and seeing all of you there and feeling almost disappointed.” She said this with a laugh. I was about 10 years old when she had her second heart attack.
I wanted to give her an answer for why she was still alive even after accepting death, while her friend was slipping away without any of her friends or family around, and most likely wanting to live to see them more. I attempted to explain to her my recent belief: That she was meant to stay around because, if she had died then, I never would have known her. I wouldn’t be able to carry her with me after she died, and any discourse I could have kept forever would have been lost. She seemed to like this thought. My grandfather chimed in, “Sam, we often ask God that he uses you kindly. You seem to feel things strongly, especially in other people, and we don’t ever want you to feel like that makes you alone, or holds you in a life where you can only help. God is often kinder than that.”
I went to bed shortly after, after exchanging goodnights that felt like placeholders for other things that could’ve been said, but not knowing what they were or how to phrase them.
I skipped my phone call with my girlfriend that night. I told her I felt like this conversation with them was too important to not think through thoroughly.
Constantly since then, my Nana’s line of “We have loved you since before you were born” has shaken me. It reminds me of a letter I found earlier this year, on the inside cover of a children’s bedtime stories book that my parent’s old neighbors bought for my first birthday right before we moved away to Cincinnati. I had never met or heard about them before discovering the book, and their message equally shook me. The letter reads:
Someday you’ll ask your mom who this book was from. I’d like to tell you.
We were friends of your mom and dad when they lived in Lancaster, and we went to church with them and prayed for you before you were even born. We love you and your parents very much and feel sad that you are moving to Cincinnati because we will miss them, and we will miss the privilege of watching you grow up.
But we will always remember you. You will always have a special place in our hearts. May God bless you all the days of your life—wherever he leads you—and we pray you will always grow in the love and wisdom and knowledge of our savior.
All of our love,
You can believe whatever you want, and I have believed many different things, but love like this is the most amazing thing I’ve felt myself encounter. When it comes without a presence. When it arrives to us through time and without a single contingence on our part.
I feel as humans, we are often unable to understand what comes after. What might happen when our loved ones leave us. How we will survive once the people we love are forced, in one way or another, to walk away, and we still exist with a pool of love for a body or mind that doesn’t exist anymore. But it must, and we need it to.
The love for the ones we’ve lost needs to be the same as our love for those we anticipate. That line, of loving before existence, is in the same plane as where our love is contained after a loss, but we treat as an absence instead of an expectation. In the same world where we paint rooms the colors we want our infants to like we must also choose the tombs, cremation jars, and funeral stationary that those who have left us would enjoy. I often hear funerals are for the living, but this is untrue, or at least, it needs to be.
I do not want my grandparents to die. I know the day that they do, I will remember writing this and curse myself, saying “Sam you asshole you don’t have a clue the loss you feel, they are gone. They have passed away and you have lost them.” But I pray I am able to heal into this feeling. I hope my grandparents talk to me and I hope I communicate back gracefully. I hope that this time I have left with them fills my soul with the words and lessons they have yet to teach me, and I must be patient in knowing that it may be many more years before I understand all that they have to gift my way. I will receive their love for decades more and they will always have mine.
I just hope I am never without them, and that my love for them carries past both of our lifetimes.
Only then will I feel I still have the privilege, and only then will I feel I wrote this right.
I often tell my girlfriend
That I will be a great husband
In three steps
At the moment
I live in threes
I wish to be a good grandson,
A good son,
And a good husband
I tell her,
When my grandparents die
I will split my mind
Between only two,
And when Mom dies
It will be
I tell her she will have all my focus
She reminds me that I’m wrong
You will be a father,
She tells me
And a grandfather
It is an ending that includes you,
And though I’d love your whole mind,
I am content with sharing love
It is an impossible thing to remember
But I think I solved it
All of these old souls
Are kids who’ve experienced a lifetime
My grandfather tells me children aren’t to be considered gifts
As gifts are owned
Children are trusts from God
To be raised in the ways that are needed
Samuel (Sammy) Taylor is a 21-year-old student writer studying at the University of Dayton in Ohio. Raised in Cincinnati, his writing, primarily poetry, focuses on living with and overcoming eating disorders in a midwestern climate. A breakout writer, his poems are set to be published in upcoming issues of New Reader Magazine, Orpheus Literary Magazine, Dreamer by Night, and elsewhere. He's hoping to fully publish his debut poetry collection, OAF, later this year.