On losing a great grandfather.

I never knew any of my great grandfathers.

Most of us probably never got the chance. Nature doesn’t make it easy, and despite advances in technology and medicine, it’s still difficult to make it to 80 years old, a time when you’re most likely to have great grandchildren. For men, it’s even harder.

I never knew any of my great grandfathers, but Sierra’s known two: Great Grandpa Joe and Great Grandpa Burt, both on Kerrie’s side.

Yesterday, Great Grandpa Burt passed away. Suddenly, without warning, in his sleep. Peacefully and with dignity.

I’ll admit, I’m without easy words. Though I’ve gone through this before with my own grandfather, it seems so foreign – to see a man who has been so large a part of so many lives just leave the world without warning, leaving his wife of 63 years – Kerrie’s grandma Mardell – and the rest of us behind, lamenting, celebrating and remembering.

A World War II veteran. A wildly successful businessman. One of the kindest people I’ve ever had the privilege to know – a man who instilled caring and pride and common sense into every member of his family, from his children to his grandchildren.

His range of influence reaches farther than anyone I’ve known. Every name leads to another, each handshake holding the memory of a thousand more. Burt saw things I’ll never see, lived lives I’ll never imagine. Took everything as it came, with knife between teeth, crawling through life when needed and relaxing when the time was right. He fought wars I’ll never fight, flew next to French authors and catered ice cream to South Dakota’s future leaders.

He held every memory close, held each smile as if it would escape him. Manifesting in more of a frown, struggling to stay hidden despite the grasping urge to be set free, each smile came wryly, as if a present wrapped tightly. And once it broke through, it was absolutely beaming, each tooth seeming to smile itself, both eyes blinding in their joy.

Smiles that most often came from the screech of a little girl or boy. One of his great grandchildren – kids that naturally gravitated toward him despite their shyness, despite their need to stay latched to mommy.

That’s what always amazed me. Sierra was a different child around Burt. During her most shy days, she would gather up the courage to muster toward Burt, melting immediately into his arms, grasping as his glasses and gazing into those smiling eyes. The bond was evident. Though both probably never thought about, they were part of something special. Something legendary; a relationship spanning four generations.

I can’t attest to much more than what I know – that Burt was a brilliant, soft hearted man who had lived a long and illustrious life. Sprightly. Animated. Filled with vigor even as the years caught up with him. Always ready with a sly smile, always ready with a grandfatherly concern.

But I can attest to something special I witnessed in the past year and a half: a relationship so unique and rare that most don’t get to experience it. The relationship between a great grandfather and great granddaughter.

Sierra and Great Grandpa Burt

Every person hopes to live long enough to see just one of his or her great grandchildren. Burt was lucky enough to have six.

And Sierra was lucky enough to be one of them.

“When you look up at the sky at night, since I’ll be living on one of them, since I’ll be laughing on one of them, for you, it’ll be as if all the stars are laughing. You’ll have stars that can laugh!”

And he laughed again.

“And when you’re consoled (everyone is eventually consoled), you’ll be glad you’ve known me. You’ll always be my friend. You’ll feel like laughing with me. And you’ll open your windows sometimes just for the fun of it… And your friends will be amazed to see you laughing while you’re looking up at the sky. Then you’ll tell them, ‘Yes, it’s the stars. They always make me laugh!”

– The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery

This was lovingly handwritten on May 1st, 2009