Between Heaven and Earth - when my Grandpa was almost 100 years old.

January 6, 2024

Grandpa, loss of a grandparent, mountains, Alps
My grandpa on one of his trips to the Alps

"You klutz," is what my grandpa used to call me when I would leave some sawdust on the floor after a construction project. Or when I forgot the garden chair cushions outside and they got wet. Or even when I was just 15 minutes late for our coffee time in his living room.


This time I am not fifteen minutes late, but 26 hours late when my cell phone rings shortly before I leave the USA to fly to Germany. It is my dad. And it is seven in the morning. My dad never calls at seven in the morning for no reason.


My grandpa had been in and out of hospital for six weeks. During the last few days, things began to look worse and worse. As I hold the ringing cell phone in one hand and my suitcase in the other, I already know: my grandpa is gone.


Shortly thereafter, I am on the plane. My boyfriend and I are traveling to Germany for Christmas. I see the sun shining above us, watch the snowy mountains of Wyoming below us, and in the distance, I notice a low layer of clouds. Suddenly I realize I am between heaven and earth, right where my grandpa probably is. On his way to the other side. Very quietly, I hear him call out: "Sarah, you klutz!"

A whole, big life: 100 years minus 50 days

Grandparents, family album, family time, loss of a family member, memorial, grief for grandparents
Love is in the air: my grandparents when they were young

Whenever my grandpa wrote down his birth date, people thought he had made a mistake, or he was crazy.


Fifteen years before the start of the Second World War, 17 years before Bob Dylan was born, and 19 years before the invention of the ballpoint pen.


He fought at the Russian front when it was 40 degrees below zero. Where the troops had to bind their trousers against their legs at night so the trench rats wouldn't crawl up their legs. He watched the building of the Berlin Wall, and later how it fell. He saw the city of Dresden turned into a pile of rubble, the moon landing, 9/11, and the Corona Pandemic. He found true love, drove across the Alps in his car with a tent and his entire family, built his own house, worked his way up from nobody to plant manager in a foundry, and painted incredibly beautiful watercolors. He outlived my grandma by ten years, and one of his sons by four years. If someone complimented him, he would look away and quietly say "Oh well...."


Rarely have I met someone who has achieved so much and simply did it without talking about it. Who had survived so much and was still able to laugh. Who, at 99, was doing gymnastics on the ladder he kept in the garage as he swept leaves out of the gutter. Who had to trim up after the gardener with hedge trimmers. Who knew more than all the fucking encyclopedias in the world.

Of sunflowers and digital frames

Grandfather, grandpa, missing a grandparent, loss of a grandparent
Travel diaries, weather diaries, gas price lists - he wrote everything down

When you're in a long-distance relationship—like my boyfriend and me—you can't be both home and away at the same time. That's why I said a long goodbye to my grandpa every time before I flew to the USA. You never know. You should never just walk out the door. This time I said to him, "See you at Christmas, I'm looking forward to it! To the nutcrackers and wooden pyramids and doing raclette."

"I don't know, Sarah," he said. He looked tired and smiled.


Later I think: he knew.


We both knew that he wasn't in the mood for a huge party for his hundredth birthday in January. "All this fuss...", he would say as he put on his work coat and went into the garage to cut some wood. The sawdust would later be found neatly added to the compost heap.

Camping, hobby, grandparents, heaven and earth
My grandpa camping out with his trailer

The compost heap that is next to his two-meter-tall sunflowers that bloom every autumn.


While traveling, I often called my grandpa. My boyfriend gave him a digital photo frame that we used for many years to instantly send him photos of our trips via the internet while we were away. He liked that. I didn’t know how much until one day when I was walking in the forest near my home, a stranger approached me: "Excuse me, but aren't you Sarah, and weren't you in Ecuador recently?"


Does she know me from Instagram, from my book, or from my blog?

"I'm your grandfather's podiatrist," she told me cheerfully. "Whenever I'm at his house, he proudly shows me the photos you send to his frame."


Family album, family time, loss of a family member, loss of a grandparent
We loved to go through family albums and tell each otrther stories

When someone dies, you feel all sorts of things: sadness, shock, emptiness. Many people feel regret, despair, loneliness, or anger. As I paint my grandfather's urn with large yellow sunflowers during the week before Christmas, I feel one thing above all: gratitude. That we had said goodbye so beautifully before I left, so that the missing 26 hours didn't matter in the end. That he was in my life for so long. That he showed me so much in his quiet way. That he left me his photos and written stories in the family albums.


My boyfriend and I set out his treasured Christmas decorations that he got in Germany’s Ore Mountains. The ones he had put up every year. On Christmas Eve, his wooden pyramid spins from the heat of the candles on my living room table. I think that I will surely cry at Christmas.

And I do.


But not because I am sad, but because I feel that my grandpa and grandma are in this room with us. The feeling is not of an apparition, not of an angel, not of a ghost—but rather it is a feeling of an infinite peace, bliss, and knowledge that the traces of people and memories in my heart will never be erased.


Find more stories about my grandparents and positive thoughts about dying and death:

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