“A great man is always willing to be little.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
You move on, not because you want to, but because you must. Life’s locomotion chugs always forward, the Little Engine that Could Not Help Itself. You carry on the memory of those you passed along the way, those who got off the train at one stop or another.
Your ticket is one with no destination. You ride the rail, ignorant of its path, never knowing what mountain or plain that will next grace the view. From your window seat, you watch the storms, quivering with a child’s fear, then soak in the glory of the breaking sun, relieved to have survived.
In the confined quarters of the passenger car, you meet fellow travelers. Some ride for only short, barely noticed spurts. Others have ridden for as long as you remember, seeming to have as steady a presence as the train itself.
One of the greatest passengers I have known, my Grandpa Joe, is likely nearing the end of his travel. I fear his departure may leave me missing one of my great influences, one of the few people I’ve known who can transcend the scenery, never affected by snow or storm, he speaks with everyone, yelling affectionate greetings of “Hey little sister!” or “Hey little brother!” to all the children, promising to take them fishing, the way he did their mothers and fathers, the way he did me.
On his worst days, his mood has rarely been darkened. Sitting and chatting in his overalls, with a crucifix dangling lightly from the front pocket, he always has the appearance of comfort, despite all the pain his body has given him, especially of late.
He is a man who has read the bible cover to cover multiple times. His relationship with God is personal and strong, and his loyalty to his family as absolute and concrete as his faith.
People speak of self-actualization, those who obtained it, defining it by example. My example is him. His is the happiness I most admire, not fueled by possessions and titles, but by love.
The world has changed around him. The small-town gas station he owned, often leaving the pumps unattended, the door unlocked, trusting even strangers to leave money for the gas they took, is gone. Nothing of it remains. The home he owned, the one in which he raised his children and his raccoon hounds, is more in need of bulldozing than restoration. But his mark on the world, his little section of rural Iowa, is permanent and absolute.
If a man’s worth is gauged by love, then he is rich beyond any I have met. Where others aspire for the riches of Bill Gates, or the looks of Holly Berry, I aspire only for the happiness of Joe Brammer.
I know we are nearing his stop. As he lays in hospice, surrounded by his living legacy, God stands with him, smiling at the work he has done. The train is slowing, the brakes shrieking sparks, as we approach the depot. I am sad, not just for myself, but for all of us. My Grandpa Joe will soon be leaving the train. The ride will never be the same without him. I have no doubt that deep in your heart, whether you know him or not, you will miss him, as well.
The horizon darkens. The winter night will be bitter cold. But daybreak always comes again, smiling warmly like Grandpa Joe.