My Dad's Diagnosis Highlighted the Importance of the Grandparent-Kid Connection

The loss of his father taught one dad the importance of making memories while you still can—a lesson he passed along to his own son.

Grandfather with grandson having fun while relaxing on a picnic
Photo: Getty | Mixetto

My dad passed away about a year ago. He had idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a fatal and incurable lung disease. Newly developed IPF medication was able to extend my dad's time from diagnosis to death for about three years, and he dealt with the whole ordeal with his textbook dry, Irish sense of humor. It meant he had ample time to say his goodbyes, get his affairs in order, and drop plenty of his wisdom bombs on us.

This temporary reprieve was a blessing in some ways.

When I heard the news, I knew it was essential for my teenage son Sutter to spend more quality time with his "Big Grandpa." His two older sisters were busy starting a career and finishing college in faraway parts of the country, but I was determined to make sure grandson and grandpa found time together.

I knew my son would never forget the time he spent with his grandfather. I still haven't forgotten mine.

I never knew my maternal grandparents or my dad's mom, but I did know my Grandpa Willie. With six brothers in a busy house, I never got to spend much quality time with my dad's dad when he visited us in California, but to this day I remember him and his thick, Irish brogue fondly.

He was a retired New York City cop, and I remember the time he taught me that the "hand was quicker than the eye" as he disarmed me of my squirt gun faster than I could pull it away. I recall the spaghetti and meatballs he made for me and being utterly puzzled by the three massive meatballs—each bigger than a baseball. I vividly remember watching him playing "Danny Boy" on his accordion, his blue eyes tearing up. Despite the fact that these fleeting experiences were few in number, they've stuck with me. I feel lucky to have them tucked away.

It's my hunch young kids don't remember all the birthday parties, holiday celebrations, and big family barbecues—those become foggy with time. It's the one-on-one moments, playing or palling around with a grandparent, finding those special little connections, those are what make the long-lasting memories that endure a lifetime.

My newest picture book, The Treasure Box, illustrated by the amazing Rahele Jomepour Bell, was inspired by watching my kids with their grandparents. This sweet-but-sad book crystalizes this notion about the importance of connecting with grandparents one-on-one. I'm so proud of this book, and not just because it's my most personal and heartfelt, but because it celebrates how those quiet times together—even reading books together!—really matter, and it's on all of us to make sure they happen.

My father-in-law Bob passed away five years ago from cancer. But when my kids were young, they had ample time to putter around one-on-one with their Pa because he and Grandma lived only three blocks away. Whether it was making homemade bread, reading books together, or "helping" Pa change the oil in the car, these special times will remain tucked away in their hearts for a lifetime, a cherished connection to those who came first.

It's hard to know what kids will remember when they reach adulthood, but since my wife and I only had fleeting contact with our grandparents, we probably recognize the importance of this connection with grandparents more than some do. Whether it's just a ride-along to the hardware store, a walk along the shore, or a lesson in how to play poker and the value of strategic bluffing, any of these little moments can become that cherished memory that provides comfort and solace for decades.

I have a pretty good recall of things from a young age, although I have difficulty remembering what I did just last week. Those long-term memories are different. They make us who we are. They connect us to where we came from. They give us an invaluable sense of belonging. And if they involve a grandparent, that makes these times all the more precious.

Since he got out of school at noon on Fridays, my wife and I made sure our son Sutter spent Friday afternoons at Grammy and Big Grandpa's house. If I couldn't get out of work to drive him over, I'd order him an Uber, which my parents always thought was a little extravagant. But I knew it was well worth the investment. The Friday afternoons spent hanging out with his grandpa in the backyard discussing what he was learning in school, politics, and current events were something he would remember for the rest of his life, long after his grandpa had passed.

These backyard bull sessions became so regular, that if my son missed a Friday afternoon, my dad would call and complain, saying he was disappointed he didn't get to chew the fat with his brilliant grandson.

My wife Christine and I had often discussed what a blessing it was for our three children to grow up knowing their grandparents and what a gift it was to have all four of them living nearby. That isn't the case for everyone, and it certainly wasn't for us growing up, so we always made sure to be grateful for it and make the most of it.

I am certain these memories of their grandfathers will remain with our kids for a lifetime. And more importantly, Grandma and Grammy are still alive and well, ready to hang out, to chat about the good ol' days, and to putter around with. Now the first thing we tell our adult kids when they come into town is, "Go see your Grandma and Grammy."

My wife and I are acutely aware that the opportunity will someday no longer be available, perhaps more so than children ever can, so we should never take that chance to connect for granted.

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