It's been a year since my grandfather died. I thought I'd post this letter I wrote to Gus about his great-grandfather.
On March 12th at 1:31pm, your great-grandfather, Howard Lewis Hebert, died.
We are in the kitchen. You’re eating the bacon and eggs that I just fried up for you in our cast-iron skillet. The house smells smoky and salty. Our house always smells like that because we have bacon and eggs almost every day—especially Mom! I tell you that “Papa Hebert” has died. I get a little misty-eyed and I take off my glasses.
“Don’t be too sad, Dad,” you say. “He’s not all gone.”
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“Well,” you say as you smack on a bite of bacon, “His love will always be with us.”
I smile at you and you smile back and then I say, “You’re right.”
Gus, you’re wiser than you know. Even at seven, you have a wisdom about the world that often takes me aback. We should always listen to each other. Grown-ups often have that kind of wisdom worn out of them by the weariness of the world. Don’t you let that happen to you!
You continue to smack on your bacon and eggs and an apple and then some sour gummy worms while you talk to me about how your great-grandfathers are dead, but you still have two great-grandmothers left and maybe we will see them soon. Maybe we will.
Yes, death is an odd thing. Did you know that some buddhists sit and contemplate death for hours on end while staring at a corpse? Sounds so weird to you, doesn’t it? But it makes sense. They are trying to understand the impermanence of the body and the self so that they can appreciate each and every moment that they are alive. Nothing lasts forever, so let’s enjoy it while we’re here, right?
We should do that too, don’t you think? Appreciate each moment?
Let’s think about the moments that Papa Hebert enjoyed since he was born on 6 November 1933. He saw the Great Depression come and go. He saw World War II and Korea and Vietnam too. He witnessed the Space Race and Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon in 1969. He got to see the tragedy of the Vietnam War and the Cold War as well as several other major skirmishes and tragedies like Chernobyl and the first Gulf War and 9/11 and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. He saw 14 different U.S. presidents—Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump—and had the opportunity to vote in 17 different presidential elections beginning in 1952 (when I’m quite sure he voted for Dwight Eisenhower). When Papa Hebert was born, radio was king and television hadn’t really been invented. Yet, he died on the 30th birthday of the World Wide Web! What an incredible era of progress and change!
If we break down his time on Earth, we find that he lived for—
- 31,172 days,
- or 748,128 hours,
- or 44,887,680 minutes,
- or 2,693,260,800 seconds.
Each of those moments was an opportunity to live and laugh and love. While he saw so many important things and did so many important things working for Hughes Tool Company, I have a feeling that if we could ask him right now, he’d list these moments as among his most important achievements—
- Living with and loving his wonderful—and sometimes trying—bride, Ruby Montgomery for nearly 67 years,
- Being a good father to Terry, Gary, Bryan, and Brenda,
- Attending almost every one of my baseball games and doing the same for all of his grandchildren,
- Taking each of his grandchildren to dinner on their birthday to whatever restaurant they wanted,
- Playing Yahtzee, Parcheesi, Skip-Bo, Pente, and a host of other games before treating his grandkids to reruns of M•A•S•H before bed on sleepovers,
- Running around the make-shift basketball court in his backyard with his kids and grandkids well into his sixties,
- Showing me how to take apart the steering wheel on my “Oiler Blue” 1988 Ford Tempo because the horn was honking every time I turned the wheel a quarter-turn to the left.
Howard L. Hebert was a good person who cared for his family, did good work, and made the world a better place.
You finish up your lunch, Gus, and I say to you, “Do you know what Papa Hebert’s name was?”
You don’t know, so I tell you that his name was Howard Hebert. You say, “Howard! Like me!” because that’s your middle name. I tell you that we gave you that middle name in honor of him because he was a good person who laughed and loved and cared more about others than he did himself.
- Your great-grandfather’s name was Howard.
- Your grandfather’s middle name is Howard.
- Your uncle’s middle name is Howard.
- Your cousin’s middle name is Howard.
- Your middle name is Howard.
In name and in genetics, Howard L. Hebert—“Buzz” to his friends, “Dad” to his kids, and “Papa” to his grandkids and great-grandkids—lives on. Most importantly, as you pointed out to me, in love, he also lives on in our hearts.
May we live up to his continuing love!