Fathom Mag

Unearthing Grandpa

My grandpa wasn’t standing across the family chasm; he had fallen in it.

Published on:
June 20, 2024
Read time:
5 min.
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In 2020, I unearthed Grandpa. 

He lived in a retirement home, and without warning, he interrupted a decade of silence with texts advertising discounted Nokia earphones from a third-party site and lamenting the Zambian pandemic response. And he wanted me to call. 

All my life, Grandpa stood on the far side of a great chasm. Unresolved hurt between my mom and grandma had split our families. The rift widened as sporadic holiday visits eventually disappeared from our calendar. Only the occasional birthday cards traversed the schism—I recognized my grandparents only by their signatures on Hallmark cards. Over the years I would gaze over my shoulder and wonder how the chasm grew so wide. 

Grandma had died a few years prior, and no one seemed to notice that loneliness buried him in isolation.

Considering our history, a call seemed like a lot. I decided to wade into safer waters and began occasionally forwarding chain emails back to him. But one Sunday, my conscience got the better of me. Maybe chain emails weren’t cutting it. I relented to his request for a call. As I dialed, I invoked every name for Jesus I could think of in hopes that my call might go to voicemail. 

It didn’t.

My heart sank. 

When Grandpa answered the phone, I hurried through our conversation, eager to check off that box of familial responsibility and get on with my life. After thirty minutes of mostly shouting “How was your Sunday?” into the phone, he began his goodbyes. 



“Can . . . can we talk again next week?”

He spluttered. I did the same. What possessed me to give up my time and voice to repeat this exercise? 

The next Sunday, I eyed my phone. When Grandpa called, I ran through my options: throw my phone out the window, pretend I had died, or pick up the call. I couldn’t afford to fix a shattered window, so I answered. Our call sounded like a recording of the week prior. Again, I shouted across the chasm and listened as he discussed bedpans and the other gruesome details of life in an assisted living community. 

Despite my genuine disinterest in the chamber pots of the old folks’ home, I called the next week. And the next. As our conversation moved beyond bedpans, I realized my grandpa wasn’t standing across the family chasm; he had fallen in it. Grandma had died a few years prior, and no one seemed to notice that loneliness buried him in isolation.  

Every Sunday, I scaled down the walls of the chasm and exhumed my grandpa while daytime television provided the soundtrack. Our conversations moved from Sunday night cake to Sunday morning service, and I realized that while I cloistered temporarily during the pandemic, my grandfather faced chronic isolation. Even church, typically a social haven, offered little assistance. Before lockdown, Grandpa struggled to attend church; fellow worshippers knew him only as a “like” on Facebook Live. And he wasn’t the only one confined to a notification.

The social isolation of Covid-19 uncovered another epidemic: the chronic disregard for the elderly and housebound.

In a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, a third of adults over forty-five reported that they felt lonely, and researchers considered a quarter of adults over sixty-five “socially isolated.” Covid-19 lockdowns drew attention to the mental health crises caused by isolation—depression, anxiety, and panic syndrome—among the general population. While isolation heightens psychological problems, it also increases the risk of physical problems: obesity, hypertension, diabetes, stress, insomnia, and cardiovascular diseases. For many older adults, however, pandemic lockdowns simply mirror their normative experiences—nothing really changes.

As the weeks went by, I learned about his companions Greenlee and Brendan. I also realized I had made a friend of my own.

Several factors contribute to the growing isolation of older adults, making it difficult to define and harder to remedy in public policy. The death of a spouse, hospitalization, mental illness, loss of hope, geographical location, poor transportation opportunities, and other factors all contribute to isolation. For my grandpa, the death of his wife, unchecked diabetes, and limited mobility landed him in an assisted living facility. And while I played the entirety of The Office to stay sane during lockdown, my grandfather’s television never stopped; the antagonist-turned-heroine Greenlee Smythe and meteorologist Brendan Johnson kept him company. 

As the weeks went by, I learned about his companions Greenlee and Brendan. I also realized I had made a friend of my own. After church, I sat outside, twirling blades of grass through my fingers and cradling my phone between my shoulder and cheek. As the scent of smoke from a nearby grill swirled past me, I asked my grandpa, “How do you toast your marshmallow?”


I raised my voice. “For s’mores. How do you toast your marshmallow?”

He paused for a few seconds. Finally—in a fit of passion—he declared, “Light it on fire! If you don’t light your marshmallow on fire, you might as well eat it straight from the bag!”

I collapsed in laughter. We disagreed on most things: public policy, the best pizza topping, the efficacy of chain email to impact the will of God. Yet, on how to toast a marshmallow, we agreed with equal enthusiasm. That day, Grandpa ended the call with “I love you.” 

For the first time, I said it back. 

My grandfather experienced social isolation for years. Intervention programs such as telephone counseling, support groups, and community events didn’t help. In fact, researchers find little evidence that these interventions reverse social isolation among older adults. Where interventions fail, family interactions often succeed. 

On September 15, I eyed my phone and twirled my Sunday dress through my fingers. My knee bounced as fast as my heart, and I ran through my options: call Grandpa for the seventh time, contact the retirement home, or hop on a plane and fly to Kenosha, Wisconsin. One of the nurses at Grandpa’s retirement home—the Lord bless Phyllis—found me online and told me he had gone to the hospital just as he had a few weeks prior. 

But this time, he missed our Sunday chat.

I called his phone again, invoking every name for Jesus that my call might not go to voicemail.

It did. 

Three days later, my phone did ring. Instead of Grandpa’s raspy voice, my aunt filtered through the speaker. She invited me to his funeral.

But once he was gone, I realized that while I was unearthing Grandpa, maybe I needed some unearthing too.

In 2020, I unearthed one of my dearest, goofiest, and most politically opinionated friends. And six months later, we buried him.  

Why did I climb down that chasm week after week, muddy myself, learn about bedpans, and lose my voice shouting? Before he passed, I don’t think I could tell you. My best guess would have been a mixture of familial obligation and chance. But once he was gone, I realized that while I was unearthing Grandpa, maybe I needed some unearthing too. 

In the moments of confusion and grief, I remember that when I see Grandpa again, he won’t need to talk about bedpans. And if the new earth has marshmallows, you can bet that we’ll light them on fire. 

Autumn Bogner
Autumn Bogner is a writer, teacher, and media specialist. She serves as an instructor with the Opened Bible Academy and missionary with Ethnos360. Any given moment, you can find her concocting an escape room, completing obscure online certifications, or stirring general chaos with her husband, Mark.

Cover image credit: Unsplash + Getty Images

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