For as long as I can remember, my grandfather has been a whistler. Usually he’s whistling an old church hymn or, occasionally, a country tune that was around long before I was a blip on the family radar, back when country music was worth listening to, he’d probably tell you. Most often, he whistles as he walks, like a bell to let you know he’s coming down the hall. His whistle is equal parts nostalgia and joy and humor and gentleness. And I love it. It’s unquestionably one of my favorite sounds on earth. Although I have only a handful of vivid childhood memories, some of the best ones include times with my grandfather, whistling or otherwise. It was my grandfather who taught us all to fish, whether we particularly wanted to learn or not, on our many summertime trips to Lake Erie. I know now that it was never really about the actual fish, or even the fishing. For him, I think it was about the time on the water and the peace that, somehow, could only be found there. “Quiet or you’ll scare the fish away,” he’d insist. And then he’d whistle because, as he explained, he was calling the fish to us. Perch respond to such beckoning, apparently. Naturally, we believed him. The truth is, I never did like fishing all that much, but there was something about those days — maybe it was the lake’s stillness that I learned to appreciate or maybe it was just the fact that I knew it made my grandfather happy — that remains imprinted on my heart. It was my grandfather who gave a fourteen year-old me the keys to the old blue Oldsmobile — a sad looking thing with a matching blue velour interior — and turned me loose in the field behind the house, much to my grandmother’s dismay and long before I should have been allowed behind the wheel. I still remember the way that car smelled, a mixture of my grandmother’s perfume and my grandfather’s pipe. As an adult, I’ve driven BMWs on closed racetracks and piloted convertibles on the Autobahn, but I don’t think I’ve ever been able to replicate the feeling of euphoria that I felt behind the wheel of that Oldsmobile. It was my grandfather who first taught us about the importance of hard work, a lesson not taught by verbal instruction, but by years of example. By the time I was around, Grandpa had already started his own business (it’s strange to think that he was around the age that I am now when the business first opened its doors), a place where he spent most of his waking hours when I was young. The lesson was that in order to succeed, one had to work hard without griping, take pride in what you did, and be fair to people along the way. A simple business model, indeed, but one that proved successful.
As important as the business was to my grandfather, he taught me an even greater lesson by walking away from it when my grandmother became ill. With my grandmother’s physical health in decline and the effects of Alzheimer’s becoming readily apparent, my grandfather took on his most challenging job yet. He would become my grandmother’s primary caregiver. The man we used to tease years earlier because he didn’t know how to set an alarm or make a pot of coffee or do his own laundry (after all, my grandmother always took care of such things and would have it no other way) now made lunch and baked cookies, not to mention all of the unmentionable tasks that are required when your loved one is suddenly unable to care for herself in even the most basic of ways. Those last years of my grandmother’s illness took a toll on my grandfather, as they do for anyone who assumes a similar caregiving role. His whistle all but evaporated during that time. Perhaps it was simply a product of fatigue and worry, or perhaps such a manifestation of joy just seemed inappropriate to him, given the circumstances. Whatever the reason, I noticed — and felt — its increasing absence and all that I assumed it meant. But then, a few months after my grandmother passed, my grandfather walked by my office one day and I heard the sound of him whistling, “How Great Thou Art.” Another lesson. My grandfather whistles a lot these days, which I credit almost entirely to his ability to keep his heart open to the possibilities of life — and love — even after losing his partner of a half dozen decades. For me, as someone who tends to build emotional walls at even the slightest whisper of potential hurt, this has been one of his greatest lessons yet. At eighty-eight years young, my grandfather is happy, in love with a wonderful lady, and full of the same graciousness that has marked every chapter of his life. I have no doubt that there are a few lessons yet to be taught. I just hope there will be the whistle of an old gospel hymn to accompany them.