I spent last week on a trip to Connecticut. We drove 18 hours straight each way and boy, my age is sure showing. I am still exhausted. But it was all more than worth it.
Our trip was not a festive one. It was not a vacation or a respite of any kind. Our last minute travel was due to a sad event, the funeral of my husband’s grandfather. What I learned about Grandpa Jerry during those 4 days was inspiring to say the least. And it was clear that the family is, indeed, experiencing a great loss.
Jerry Shaff was a father, husband, grandfather, great grandfather, uncle, brother, inventor, writer and a man full of lessons, humor and morals.
Jerry had five children, four step children, 19 grandchildren and three great grandchildren. When we visited with his wife of 30 years, Carole, on our day of arrival, the first thing I noticed was a home filled with family. Children were running around with playful innocence. Friends and relatives filled the rooms with pictures and stories. There were many tears, but also laughter and hugs. There was no denying that this was a man who was loved and respected.
Jerry was a Mount Pleasant native who was employed by Walker Manufacturing for many years and worked his way up to Executive Vice President of Marketing. He was the inventor of the aftermarket catalytic convertor during his many years in the automotive industry. He authored and published a novel called If My Boss Calls…Get His Name. And Jerry owned and operated a rewarding business in Connecticut prior to retiring in 2009. He was a hard-working and dedicated employee and a caring and successful boss.
If a family member or friend came across hard times, he would do what he could to help. There were many times he and his wife would take families into their home. Whether it was a ride to choir practice or money for college, Jerry was generous with his time, money and heart.
Spending time with his family was very important to Jerry. Carloads of kids to Great America or to a cabin in Spider Lake are fond memories carried by his children and grandchildren. Attending plays, concerts and musicals with his kids as they were growing up was an effective way to pass down his love of the arts.
I have unfortunately been to many, many funerals in my 38 years. This service was very different than any other I have experienced.
The most moving and heart breaking part of the day was during the procession. Jerry loved his beautiful Connecticut home and his wife wished to drive by the home on the way to the gravesite. As we slowly drove by, all the younger grandchildren stood in the drive way and waved. Tears streamed down my husband’s face and I knew he was remembering the days of being one of those young grandchildren playing in his grandfather’s driveway in Mount Pleasant.
It was a Jewish graveside service which paid honor to Jerry’s Russian Jewish heritage. His wife and children were given black mourning ribbons which the Rabbi tore to represent a broken heart. Some of the service was given in Hebrew. And the immediate family placed dirt onto the coffin with an upturned shovel.
Later, there was a celebration of life brunch at a lovely restaurant. During this portion of the events is when I truly became impressed. People were invited to stand before the crowd and speak about Jerry; share stories or simply say how much he meant to their lives. Again, I have never witnessed this before. Person after person walked up to the podium and through tears and laughter spoke of this man so eloquently and heartfully. We can all only wish leave a legacy such as his.
We are always reminded of our own mortality when someone in our lives passes away. For a few days, if we’re lucky, we hold this reality close and appreciate all we have in each moment. But then this mentality slowly reverts back to our daily lives and we continue to live as though we are given forever. This is natural for most of us, I think. If we lived in constant awareness of our fate, we’d likely not be equipped to deal with our day to day existence. And trust me, as a person with a pretty significant death phobia; it’s not healthy for mortality to be in the constant forefront of one’s mind.
But I notice, as I grow older, these realizations creep in more often. I look at the life Jerry led and I contemplate how I can manifest a life that would create such pride from my own family. I look at the grief in my husband’s eyes and look forward to the kind of grandfather he will, with all hopes, one day become. I see the pride Jerry’s children have when they speak about him and their experiences and I can only hope to leave in my wake just a smidgen of that kind of admiration.
Losing someone is always painful. And while that pain may fade with time, it never disappears completely. But as sad as death can be – it also serves as a harsh reminder of how little time we truly have, how we can use each day to build the legacy we will one day leave behind and how very important it is, in this moment, to love and acknowledge those we cherish in our lives.
My heart goes out to my extended family and my hopes are that they are comforted by love and memories. I wish I had known Jerry better and for longer. It is clear that having known him at all was a treasure for which to be grateful.