Love is one of those things that is tough to quantify, or even explain. It doesn’t always make sense and it isn’t always good for us, but there are times when a love exists that is so powerful that it can change the course of your life. I was lucky enough to experience this not just once in my life, but twice. This article isn’t just my attempt at understanding that love and explain it, but rather, my attempt to show the power of such a force, and how life altering it can be.
My childhood and teenage years weren’t the most pleasant of times. My Mom and Dad divorced when I was five or six. And while I wasn’t the easiest kid to love, my new step-dad was neglectful at best, and downright abusive at worst, so, as the cycle goes: throughout middle and high school I didn’t develop very meaningful relationships. I did not know how to properly treat another human being, and more terrifyingly, I certainly didn’t know how to properly love. I bounced around from girlfriend to girlfriend acting selfishly and often I didn’t take the other person’s feelings into account when making a decision that would affect both of us. I partied way too much. I drank way too much, and eventually this caught up with me. My mother and step-father had had enough. They kicked me out of the house when I was 16. This escalated the spiraling-out-of-control that had already been going on. My grades suffered, I was moving from one friend’s couch to another, and eventually even ended up living in another city and enrolling myself there for part of my junior year of high school. None of it worked. I dropped out. This exacerbated an already dangerous situation.
At age eighteen I was homeless, living in my car, and not in school. Sometimes I would crawl in through my best friend Kate’s bedroom window late at night and get a good night’s sleep. Her mother would do my laundry and feed me, and without the kindness from the two of them, I am not sure I would have made it through this stage of my life.
And then along came my grandparents, Nana and Papa. After one particularly brutal night of partying (which ended with me sprinting away from the cops through a field before running headfirst into a barbed wire fence) I showed up at my grandparent’s house. I could always count on a hot shower and a home-cooked meal from them, and in return I would help them with odd jobs such as grocery shopping, pouring concrete for their new patio, painting their fence, and the like. These visits would often include long, intense games of Rummy 500 and it was over one such game that my Nana placed her cards (facedown) on the table in front of her, looked me square in the eye, and said “Dustin, enough is enough. I won’t have you living like this anymore, so you’ll be moving into my upstairs and together, we will get your head out of your ass.” Then she picked up her hand and resumed crushing me at cards. Who was I to argue?
What she didn’t know at the time, and I never got to tell her, was that in that moment it was all I could do to not burst into tears. I had been struggling in life and when she spoke those words to me it felt like the weight of the world had been lifted from my shoulders.
I called Kate and let her know the news. Kate and her mother brought over my clothes, some chocolate milk, and their best wishes. They told me they believed in me, and they knew I could get it together and make something of myself. Those words, too, have always stuck with me. I can’t have enough gratitude for those them.
Later that evening, my Nana made the call to my Mother, her daughter, to inform her of the decision she made, and, much like I expected, the call didn’t go smoothly. I remember sitting there, cringing, as my mother screamed on the other end of the phone. She wasn’t very supportive of this move, and, in hindsight, I feel maybe she was justified in thinking such, although at the time I couldn’t reconcile that in my mind. I am sure she was worried I was going to take advantage of the situation. Regardless, my Nana stood fast to her convictions. She stood up for me and said that my mother didn’t have a voice in this and her decision was final. When she hung up, my heart grew more than the Grinch’s that day.
Time passed. Things went smoothly. My grandparents had gotten me a better job doing construction with a close family friend. Every morning before going to work I would come downstairs at 6am and we would sit, drink coffee, eat donuts, and chat. We fell into our own little routine. Then one morning Papa asked what my plan was. To be frank, at that point in my life, I had no idea. I was living day to day. We discussed my options and we all agreed that the first step was getting my GED.
Test day came, and Papa drove me. It was an 8-hour ordeal split into two portions: 8a.m. to Noon and 1p.m. until 5p.m., with an hour break splitting it up. Once the morning session ended, I called my Papa from a payphone close by.
He asked “Hey, bud, want me to pick you up to get some lunch?”
I hesitated, “Actually, Papa, I’m finished.”
There was silence from the other end of the phone, followed by the disconnect tone. He had hung up on me. I waited outside and to this day I don’t think I have ever been as scared as I was standing in that parking lot waiting for ‘Jumpin Jimmy’ to come pick me up.
He wasn’t the type of man to be quiet when he was unhappy. The entire twenty minutes back home he kept saying. things like: “We took a chance on you just for you to blow it off.”, “We spent all that money to get you into this test.”, and “What the hell are you going to do with your life now?” He was angry because he thought I had rushed through it, but I tried to explain to him that I had done my best.
For the next three weeks, day in and day out, I was forced to face inevitable disappointment from a man I desperately did not want to disappoint. I knew I wasn’t going to end up homeless again, because they had made it clear this was home, which was comforting, but still, I felt, beating me to death was certainly in the realm of possibility.
One rainy morning, work was canceled so I got to sleep in, but to my surprise when I came downstairs I was greeted with only silence. Papa had a letter sitting in front of him and both of my grandparents looked solemn. So many thoughts ran through my head: I thought about running away, I thought about throwing myself at their feet and groveling, and I thought about pretending to not notice anything was amiss, sit down, and act like I never even took the damn test… but, ultimately, I decided to face my fate and I went and sat down.
Finally, after what seemed like eons of silence, my Papa reached out his hand. In it was the letter that I knew condemned me for all eternity. I read it once. Twice. Three times. I couldn’t comprehend it. I scored in the 90th percentile of the state of Illinois. I looked up at Nana, and man, was she was smiling. I looked over at Papa, and he had tears in his eyes. It was the first time I have ever seen this man cry. He was reaching out his hand, again; this time, though, he was looking for a handshake. I shook his hand and beamed with pride. I didn’t let him down after all. And now I, too, had tears in my eyes.
That was years ago. Since then my grandparents have passed on. First, my Nana in 2006, and then my Papa more recently in 2014.
The first phone call I received was when I was still in the Army. I received emergency Red-Cross leave to go home for her funeral. During the sixteen-hour drive from North Carolina I couldn’t help but remember our times together. While there are many stories that stand out, there is one that I always tell when “true love” comes up during conversation, and it all starts with a simple trip to the grocery store.
One Saturday afternoon my grandparents and I went to the grocery store. It always worked the same way- My Papa would drive to one store, get out, and then I would hop in the driver’s seat and drive my Nana to the second store. We would shop simultaneously, then meet back in the parking lot of the first store to save time. On this afternoon my Nana and I finished shopping well before my Papa, so we were sitting outside in the truck talking and laughing when all of a sudden my Nana says “You know what? If he’s reading my mind right now he will come out with a giant watermelon.” There was no watermelon on the shopping list—I had written the list this morning while my Nana dictated to me what to put on it.
Nevertheless, when Papa exited the store, clearly visible inside his cart, was the largest watermelon I had ever seen. I was flabbergasted. Nana just started laughing, in the same contagious way she always did.
Later, at home, while unloading the truck, I asked Papa why he bought a watermelon. “It wasn’t on the list.” I said, as if trying to hammer home my point.
His response was simple “I thought my wife might like one, and I like my wife.”
When I received the second phone call, I was no longer in the Army, but, rather, law school. The drive wasn’t sixteen hours this time, but seven. The difference was that I was racing against the clock. My Papa was still alive, but wouldn’t remain so for very long, and so, I drove through the night. I had missed my opportunity to say goodbye to my Nana, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to say goodbye to him.
When I arrived, my Uncle was there already. He wanted to, just like me, say goodbye to a man who had impacted his life so greatly. We sat, we talked, we remembered, and when it came time for me to say goodbye, I didn’t have the words, so instead, I simply told my Papa the story of a powerful watermelon, and how it had taught me to love. I told him how well my fiancé and I were doing and how sorry we were that he wouldn’t be able to be there when we got married, because, after all, it was his love for my Nana that gave me the courage to open up to her in the first place. I told him thank you, but most of all, I promised him that I’d never forget watching him walk out of that grocery store with the biggest watermelon I had ever seen.
In recent years, when I think back to my Nana and Papa, I think about everything they have given me, I think about the love they had that could empower even the most cold-hearted; I think about the opportunity; but most importantly, I think about the legacy of giving back which they instilled in me. Love is taking a chance. Love is owning up to your actions. Love is admitting when you are wrong. Love is saying you’re sorry. And most importantly, love is never giving up.
So, even now, sometimes, when I am eating a piece of watermelon, I just look at my wife and smile. She thinks I am weird, and she may be right, but I will always know that it all started with one simple trip to the grocery store, followed by a legacy of love.