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Remembering My Grandfather Three Years Later

T. S. Eliot wrote in his poem The Waste Land that “April is the cruelest month.”  As the son of an English teacher, I’d heard this line recited many times.  I never thought anything of it because, for me, it was a lie.  After all, April brought warmer weather, Daylight Saving Time, and my birthday.  Three years ago today, something happened that changed my perception of April–something that has made every April a cruel and difficult month.

My grandfather, Darrel Sonnier (1941-2010)

April 20, 2010.  At the time I was a college senior at Princeton.  Only a week prior, I had turned in my thesis and was preparing for graduation.  The day was unlike any other, following the routine of going to class, going to work, and going to the gym.  Just before going to the gym, I called my grandparents in Lafayette.  After talking to my grandmother, I asked for my grandfather, Darrel (he taught all his grandchildren to call him by his first name).  She told me he had just walked out the door to go play basketball and to call back later that night.

I thought nothing of it.  After all, we’d had the same conversation many times before.  For nearly 30 years (maybe longer), Darrel played basketball with another group of men his age religiously three times a week.  He picked up the game when he was younger after a knee injury ended his baseball days.  He loved the sport because it connected him with his youth.

A few hours later while tied up at a function, my cell phone rang.  And rang.  And rang.  My parents were trying to reach me.  When I finally called to see what was wrong, my dad told me to call back when I had returned to my dorm.  Once I finally got home later that night, I called my dad back to find out what the big deal was.  That’s when he told me the words that still ring in my head every year on this day:

“Darrel died tonight.  He had a heart attack on the court.”

For the next week, I was inconsolable.  All I could do was ask, “Why?  How could Mr. Invincible die doing what he loved?”

At some point during a 15-hour layover in Atlanta-Hartsfield Airport, something inside finally clicked.  I realized that Hollywood could not have scripted his life better.  He left this mortal coil doing what he loved.  He died enjoying life.  He checked out while visiting the place that gave him so much life and energy.  A few days later at the funeral, I saw how much he meant to his community.  The church was packed with people from all walks of life, all of whom knew Darrel by name and knew the family by name (even if we didn’t know who they were).

That’s when it dawned on me that in death, Darrel is still continuing to teach the lessons he presented while alive.  Although he isn’t here to verbalize them, he is still a shining example of how life should be lived and how people should be treated.  After all, life would be a little bit easier if we didn’t sweat the small stuff, treated others with kindness and respect, danced as if no one was looking, and took some time to enjoy the splendors of life.

April 20 is still a difficult day as the memories of 2010 always come back.  The intervening time has helped to ease the pain.  The knowledge that Darrel is still with me in the lessons

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