Up until recently, I’d never experienced the death of someone very close to me. I often wondered how I’d react. Now I know. My Grampa, James Letniak, passed away at the age of 94 on August 15, 2012.
James Stephen Letniak was a character…with character. I wish I remembered him better. In his later years, I saw him too little. What I remember always makes me smile though.
I’ll miss his hearty laugh, it was a wonderful laugh, full of life and earthiness.
I’ll miss the stories he loved to tell, the crooked index finger he’d use to emphasize his points. I’ll really miss those stories. They always reminded me of the tenacity and perseverance that pervaded his every waking day. When I think about the difficulty he faced in his life through the Great Depression and many other struggles that farmers face, I’m always encouraged by the strength and creativity he used to overcome each obstacle.
I learned what real intelligence was from Grampa. It’s not something you get at school. It’s how you live. It’s unrelenting curiosity. A mind fully and completely engaged with life.
I remember sitting in his living room listening to his mind work out loud, marveling at the intensity of his intellect. If he had an idea in his head, he was like a dog on a bone. He often said he couldn’t sleep because he couldn’t turn his mind off. I’m like that sometimes. Maybe that’s where it comes from.
I remember the pride and awe I felt when I first saw Grampa’s tractor-mounted post-pounder. I’d read about inventors like Thomas Edison. But now, I had one in my family. It wouldn’t win any industrial design awards, but in my little eyes, seeing fence-post heads submit to the weight of that hydraulic-powered guillotine as the old tractor bounced back and forth was a sight of beauty and grace.
Grampa was creative in the shop and on the farm but also in music. He was a guitar player and when I took up the guitar he immediately pled with me to avoid “tearing at the strings” like modern guitarists. Instead he suggested I learn the melodic picking-style of Wilf Carter his favourite guitar and yodeling virtuoso. I will Grampa, that’s a promise.
Grampa didn’t seem concerned with what others thought of him, but he was always concerned what his family was thinking and doing. I always knew that talking with Grampa wouldn’t be idle conversation. He would want to know what I was doing with my time and where it would take me. Those conversations weren’t always comfortable, but they were always valuable. I always knew he did it because he cared. He wanted the best for me and wanted me to make wise choices.
I’ll always remember his favourite question for me: “so….have you found yourself any two-legged deer?” I’d often respond that I was still looking and his smiling response was “Oh, well perhaps I need to get you some better binoculars to see with!” That whole conversation sums up much of what I love about Grampa. He was purposeful, he was creative and above all, he cared. He always wanted the best for me.
So how did I react to Grampa’s passing? Honestly, I was most emotional when I considered the joy of seeing him again. I’m a Seventh-day Adventist Christian, so that means when I think about death, it’s simply a sleep. And people who sleep, are at peace…which can only make me happy. Also, when I think about death, it’s temporary, to be overcome when Jesus returns to earth.
And now it’s personal.
At the funeral, the picture below was enlarged, framed and sat on a pedestal at the front of the church. As I stared at the image, it transformed. Grampa’s smile remained, but the skin smoothed, his back straightened, his muscles rippled, his arms flung wide as his long, strong legs ran towards me. My tears were real then, though it was an image. My tears will be just as real again when the image becomes reality.