When I was seventeen, I attended a family dinner with my immediate family, uncles, aunts, cousins and grandparents. After dinner, we were saying our goodbyes in the parking lot of the restaurant, and my grandfather came over to my brother, one of my cousins and me. He shook my brother’s hand and said a few words. He did the same with my cousin. When he got to me, he shook my hand and looked at me, intently with his ice-blue eyes. He stared at me with a concentration, sincerity and attention I had never seen before: never on anyone. As he shook my hand, he said, â€œYou be good now. Take care of yourself, boy.â€? He looked at all three of us and said, â€œYou boys take care of yourselves.â€? The words themselves were not significant and could have been a pat farewell under other circumstances, from some other man. But the attention with which he said them, and that he said them at all, told a different story. My grandfather was not comfortable with children, and I was not at all sure he liked me. Before that day, I could not remember my grandfather ever shaking my hand. In fact, I could not remember him ever before talking to me directly. But on that day, for that single, brief moment, he had given me all of his attention.
That was the last time I saw or spoke to my grandfather. He died of lung cancer not too long thereafter. I do not know if he planned for that to be the last time he saw us, or if it just happened that way.
I look back on that day now and remark at how much that brief handshake and those few words mean to me. I marvel at how precious those few, fleeting seconds of pure attention are in my memory.
Those few, powerful moments transformed my relationship with my grandfather and altered my sense of how to care for those I love. We have no greater gift than our attention. Money comes and goes, and, hopefully, comes again. Material goods lose their novelty over time. But a gift of attention is something precious and irretrievable. To give another person a moment of my life, to give up a piece of myself to let them know they matter to me may be the only real thing of value I have to give. I think my grandfather may have known that night in the parking lot was likely his last chance to give us a gift. He gave us that moment of his life, one of the priceless few he had left, to tell us each, in his own way, he had been paying attention all along.