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Sara Whitestone

Sara Whitestone

Mountains and Water

This trip took place in 2013. As of publication, Grandad is 107 years old and says he is “winding down…” I wrote this, in part, as a valentine for him.

I had thought, all these years, my grandfather is a mountain.

I don’t know how old I was when I began to superimpose images of my grandfather onto Mount Rainier. Every long-distance drive, every cross-country flight, when, at its tired end, I am blessed with a view of the mountain, that supernatural feeling blends into the familiar. 

On this trip, as I fly into Seattle, the unusually clear view from the plane couples with my excitement to see my grandfather. I whisper the mountain names—Adams, Baker, St. Helens, Rainier, Grandad. 

I rent a car and drive to Grandad’s apartment, where he meets me in the lobby of his assisted living home. As I hug and kiss him, I tell him I have so many questions to ask. What has kept him so solid and strong throughout his long life? 

Grandad is well over 100, but he has changed very little since I last saw him. Maybe he is slower and quieter. On the way up to his apartment, he jokes with me that at least he is still walking on his own two feet.

“Look at that young woman,” he says with playful scorn while he points to one of the residents. “She’s 89. And she’s using a scooter.” When he’s with me, Grandad doesn’t even want to use his walker. He’d rather lean on me—if only a little.

Grandad’s reliance on me is new. In my lifetime, I was the one always turning toward him. When I was sad about my parents’ divorce and just needed someone to feel close to, Grandad was there. When he taught me to skip rocks in Puget Sound rather than to feel sorry for myself, when he took me on his errands in the car playing word games as we drove, when over and over he told me he loved me—it was me, relying on Grandad. Because Grandad was there.

I had thought, all these years, my grandfather is a mountain. Yes, he has been stability in my life. But on this trip, I understand there is so much more to him that I had not noticed before—there is a movement in him, a flexibility, an ebb and flow. And this, I want to emulate.

For three full days, we talk and share—mostly in small cafes where he is on a first-name basis with the staff. I drink tea; he drinks coffee. We share pieces of pie. “Grandad, how do you keep doing it?” 

He doesn’t have to ask what “it” is. He smiles, nods, and says, “I just keep on keeping on.”

“But, Grandad, how do you keep on?” I persist. How do you keep so positive? You’ve been through world wars and the Great Depression. You’ve lost so many that you love. How have you lived so long with such integrity?”

“Good, clean living,” Grandad jokes. But then he grows serious. “I guess I’ve been able to gain perspective after all these years—a perspective of looking back. Even though I can still look behind me at all the hard things I went through, I don’t remember how bad those times felt. I’ve learned that misery passes. Now when something happens that makes me unhappy, I remind myself that only a few days or weeks later I won’t feel that way anymore. In fact, I might not even remember the event at all, much less the negative feelings that went with it.” 

Grandad pauses to take a sip of his coffee. But I sit very still, not touching my tea. I’m drinking him in instead. 

“That’s part of what I mean,” Grandad continues, “when I say ‘this too shall pass.’ By understanding that bad feelings fade away fast, I can focus instead on what’s positive in my life.”

Our talk turns toward other things—the Seahawks game we’ll watch together that afternoon—and of Grandad’s hopes for a Super Bowl win. “It would be nice,” he says, “to live long enough to see the Seahawks earn the trophy.”

But then, as if he is reassuring himself, he tells me, “It’s a God thing I’m still here. When the turn of the century was coming up, I thought it would be great to live to the year 2000. Then after that, I thought turning 100 would be a good goal. But now, I don’t have any more milestones I’m waiting to pass. I’m ready—whenever I’m supposed to go.”

The turn of the century. The length of Grandad’s timeline stretches far, far back. And he has experienced so much change since he was born in 1909.

The small town where Grandad spent his first years, just east of the Cascade Mountains, only had a telegraph. But now Grandad surfs the internet and sends out emails. When Grandad was born, his father drove at the slow pace of his horse and wagon. But as an adult, Grandad has been on the move. He has flown on airplanes, sailed on ships—and once even rode on a camel in Egypt—pursuing his love of travel. 

“I think it’s flexibility that has kept me young,” Grandad tells me. “I’ve always wanted to learn new things.”

At his apartment, we listen to some of Grandad’s favorite songs. Music is something he has been learning about for years—first as a young boy taking piano lessons, then as a young man singing his own tunes, and now as an old man, keening to the metaphysical power of melody and verse.

“Whenever I hear a song more than once in a short span of time,” Grandad says, “I start to take notice. If I hear it a third time, I know that song is trying to teach me something.”

Years ago when my grandmother died, Grandad fell into a short depression. It was the hymn “It Is Well with My Soul” that pulled him up. Grandad says for weeks and months he heard that melody with its hopeful words everywhere. And hope became true again to his own soul—a hope that opened him to living again, to loving again, and eventually, to marrying again.

“Music is like water,” Grandad tells me. “It soothes you and revitalizes you—if you are willing to let it. And that’s the thing, Sara. We have to choose—we have to be willing—to be soothed and revitalized. We have to choose to avoid stress and negative thinking. This also has kept me feeling healthy and alive all these years.”

In his apartment, Grandad leans way back into his easy chair, as if to illustrate stress-less living. He breathes easy, and his face is quiet—serene. I sit on the couch next to his chair, close by, taking short, urgent breaths between the long, deep gulps of drinking him in—because I know that this precious moment is one of those that is also a “this too shall pass.”

Grandad’s eyes are closed, but it seems he can see inside my mind. “Do those kinds of thoughts add stress to your life?” he asks.

“Of course they do,” I say. “How old were you when you learned to avoid stress?” 

“Oh,” he says with a laugh, “I think I was about 100.”

And that laugh turns me from my negative thinking of the future and once again toward Grandad and this moment I have with him—right here, right now. 

But sometimes, when I’m alone, the right heres and right nows are hard. So I ask one more time: “Grandad? How do you do it—this keeping on—when you’re lonely? You’ve outlived so many people; you’ve outlived two wives… How do you do it, even when you’re happy, but sometimes still missing those you love?”

Although he only has peripheral vision, Grandad looks me straight in the eyes. “It’s about what’s on the inside,” he says. “For most of my life, I was worried about what other people thought of me—the extrinsic. I cared about making, and keeping, a good impression. Almost everything I did was a performance; it was all external instead of being internal.”

“But remember, Sara,” Grandad continues, “it’s the intrinsic that matters. Listen to what that calm, clear voice inside is telling you. Keep on growing and becoming a better person because it’s what you want to do, not because of what someone else is telling you to do. How do I do it—this keeping on? I stay true to myself, by being who I am—who God made me to be.”

I only have three days with Grandad. Three days. But time, I tell myself, is not measured in days or in weeks. Time is measured in quality. 

Still, as I stand at my car, I loathe the leaving. Grandad takes me by the shoulders and kisses me. “Have a wonderful life,” he says. And, one last time, I drink him in. The look of him, the feel of him. The love in him. 

As I drive away from the assisted living home, in my rearview mirror, I see Grandad sway slightly. But his hands rest casually in his pockets. He doesn’t need them, or even his walker, for balance. It is this visual memory of my grandfather that will help me in keeping my own balance.

And yet, I am still looking for something more—something solid to lean on, to balance against. Before my flight home, I drive to the Space Needle, take the elevator to the top, and gaze out over Seattle. I want to gain more perspective, I tell myself.

Once again, it’s unusually clear, and Mount Rainier is out. Isn’t that the view I was looking for? But for some reason, I’m not drawn to the mountain. Instead, I focus on Puget Sound, which surrounds the city. And I remember Grandad teaching me to skip rocks in that same body of water, reminding me to take joy in play rather than feeling sorry for myself. As I look at the water, with its flexible currents that push against the shore and then pull out to sea, I think about Grandad’s long life and how he has listened to, and learned from, the melody of those changing tides. “This too shall pass,” they sing, and in this, “it is well.” 

I had thought, all these years, Grandad is a mountain. But now I understand, in his ability to move and change and grow—in his desire to refresh and renew—Grandad is like water. He is a man who, with the fluidity of a century, has pushed toward love, pulled away from negativity, and passed on—to so many—his deep learning of life.

And if I quiet my mind, I can hear Grandad’s voice as a ripple on the shore, light and clear. “It is well with my soul,” he sings.

“Let your soul be well also.”