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Learning to Trust Myself, With a Little Help From Grandpa

How my grandfather’s words stay with me

Terry Vine/Getty Images

Is trust handed down through generations?

I remet my fiancé, Joe, at our 10-year high school reunion. I knew he was special right away. And a few phone calls in, I knew we had something special, too. We understood each other, almost instinctively.

I remember feeling nervous to introduce him to my family and friends — not because I was concerned they wouldn't get along, but because I knew how much I liked him and wanted it to work out. The closer my relationship was with a relative or friend, the more anxious I was for the introduction to go well.

My grandfather, Pop Pop, fell into the closest category. So naturally, my stomach was in knots the day he met Joe.

Pop Pop was my sounding board, particularly in my 20s when I lived in New York. I was on my own for the first time, navigating new jobs, new responsibilities and new circles of friends.

Six hours away, in small-town Pennsylvania, Pop Pop was on his own, too. My grandmother had Alzheimer's disease.

For the first time in his life, Pop Pop had to learn how to cook, clean and keep track of everyone's birthday — all while watching the love of his life lose grasp of the memories they shared. Life wasn't easy, but he held on to humor. Sometimes he'd point to a pillow on his shelf embroidered with the words "Old age is not for sissies."

Separated by 70 years but united by our newfound independence, Pop Pop and I talked on the phone every day. I'd take the Amtrak to see him as often as I could, too. Sometimes I'd bring friends with me, but never boyfriends — until Joe.

It was February, and Joe and I had been dating for a few months. It would turn out to be the last year of Pop Pop's life. He was 96.

It had become hard to communicate with Pop Pop. He didn't feel well and hated the care facility where he lived. During the day, he was very agitated and consumed with going home. But at night, he was calm, and we could talk.

I pulled up a chair next to his twin bed. "What do you think of Joe?" I asked him.

"He's a nice young man," he said. I pressed a little more, but Pop Pop wouldn't say much. "What matters is what you think of Joe."

Pop Pop knew how much his opinion meant to me, and yet he wouldn't give it. He wouldn't approve or disapprove.

But ultimately, what he gave me that night was reassurance in my own choices and my own compass. When Pop Pop talked, I listened. I like to think this was his way of telling me to listen to myself and trust the person I'd become.

Pop Pop won't be sitting in the audience when I marry Joe in April, but he'll be there. And all that he taught me along the way? I'll be hearing it as I say "I do" during big moments (and small) for the rest of my life.

Laura Hahn is a gerontologist committed to intergenerational solidarity and age-friendly communities.

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