The Wise Owl – Three Things I Learned from My Grandpa

In this second part of a two-part series, I share the life lessons my Grandpa taught me. In reflecting and writing about both my Mom and Grandpa, I am filled with sadness as I miss them each and every day. And I am filled with such deep gratitude for having known them and even more so for their wisdom and lessons.

In describing my Mom as a Mama Bear, I thought a lot about how to describe my Grandpa. Born in the late 1920’s, my Grandpa was a determined (some in my family would say stubborn), stoic, hard-working man. I’d even say a self-made man – he had a grade 9 education and still worked his way up into management roles with Parks Canada – something I’m not sure would be available to a high school drop-out nowadays.

Reflecting on my Grandpa, while some would likely use a bull or an ox to describe his hard-working, tenacious manner, I feel the owl best illustrates his impact on my own life. It’s been said that an owl symbolizes wisdom and even prophecy. The wisdom coming from life’s experiences, mis-steps and adventures. Again, like my Mom, the lessons weren’t through him telling me what to do or not to do, rather through his actions and how he showed up in this world.

Over the past few years, with the stark realization that time was running out, I was able to really stop and listen to my Grandpa – to hear his stories, his regrets, his achievements, his adventures. My husband and I would prop him up in our backyard, with a Bud Light, sitting in the shadow of our mountain range and listen. The stories he shared were like meandering walks on a deserted beach, slow strolls through a vast farm field or a rain forest boardwalk wander (fittingly of which he had a hand in building in Pacific Rim National Park). So here I am, today, sharing three things I learned from my Grandpa, a wise old owl.

Keep It Simple – I can see my Grandpa rubbing his head in frustration when drama ignited. He was not one for making a scene or for engaging in life’s dramas. It was like he knew the secret of a happy life was to “keep it simple”. Not like your head in the sand, rather a focus on what was important. He probably did not even do this consciously, but he would shut out the noise, the distractions and stay focused on the simple things. He and I would ride our bikes on the Galloping Goose trail and he’d often stop to look at a small flock of quail, newly born baby sheep, a viewpoint overlooking the ocean or on one special occasion, two beautiful owls watching us ride by. He cared about these seemingly little things. These simple pleasures of life. In his later years, a pint and bowl of clam chowder at his favorite pub made him happy. Sitting in our backyard, staring at the majestic mountains filled him up with joy. But it wasn’t just the simple things, it was his fundamental approach to life. Keeping life simple. When I’d ask for advice from him, his response was about not over-complicating things, sticking to the root of what I wanted, what was truly important (so aligned to the coaching work I do now). And Grandpa was never excessive – even with his bike of which he put thousands of kilometers on and rightfully deserved a shiny new part – he’d find a simple way to jerry-rig said part instead of buying new.

Grand Adventures – While my Grandpa did not travel all over the world, he loved adventures. He was adventurous, even a bit of a dumb-dumb daredevil. His one and only overseas adventure was a working sailing trip from Gibraltar to South America. The stories he told of swimming in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean were awe-inspiring, if not terrifying. In his 70’s he did numerous biking trips all over BC including a memorable 7-day jaunt we did together on the Kettle Valley Railway. When Grandpa was 88, my partner and I were married. Grandpa decided to make an adventure out of it and fly on a float plane to our wedding. He did this on two more occasions after the wedding – loving the experience of taking a float plane and traveling on his own. On his last trip to our home, he had bladder cancer, limited mobility and was thrilled when we took him to Joffre Lakes. Imagine this 90-year-old, with a walker, storming down an uneven, undulating trail to the first lake. He sat on the bench at the lake and was like “Wow”. It still brings me to tears thinking about this day, this moment – that we were able to take my Grandpa on a little adventure, despite all the obstacles. While I am quite a bit more cautious, I try hard to tap into my Grandpa’s sense of adventure and get out of my tight little comfort zone (some days easier said than done).

Give It Your All – I can use Grandpa’s work life to describe this as he was so deeply committed and such a hard worker, but quite frankly that is not what stood out to me in terms of his dedication and commitment. It was how he took care of my Grandma. When my Grandma was in her 60’s she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I cannot remember all the timelines, but my memory is that she moved into advanced stages quite quickly. My Grandpa took care of her until he physically could not – around 10+ years. But not only did he take care of her (already heroic in my eyes), he made it amazing for her. He’d modify her wheelchair so they would go off road, over bumpy terrain, on grand adventures. He set up the van to ensure he could get her to the local pub – and work with the pub staff to ensure he could get her wheelchair in without issue. He’d figure out how to get her into a canoe and yep, take her canoeing. He committed to making this difficult and often terrible time a more bearable and perhaps even a happy time. He was completely dedicated to her care. When Grandma finally went to 24-7 care, Grandpa would ride his bike 30km’s one way, to see her – pretty much almost every single day. His dedication and commitment to my Grandma’s care has stuck with me so profoundly. While there is no way I could live up this same standard, I aspire to live my life with dedication and commitment to the people around me, to what I believe in, to the work I do.

My Grandpa was a few months shy of 91 when he passed away. One of the most amazing gifts he gave me in the end was the peace of mind in knowing he was ready. He had lived life full, fully, to its fullest. He was bruised, battered, used up, happy, content and at peace with the life he had lived. Wow. He had quite a ride!

Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather a skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a ride!”  ~ Hunter S. Thompson

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