Elegy for Carl

You know this scene from Up. Unless you were living under a rock back in 2009, you found yourself blindsided when you settled into the movie theater expecting some animated shenanigans, only to have your heart ripped, still beating, from your ribcage, stomped on, wrung out, and rubbed in wasabi for good measure before being unceremoniously deposited in your lap to absorb all your tears. All in the first five minutes.

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I’m sure there were one or two people out there who didn’t sob like a wee babe, and to you, I say- are you made of stone? How is this possible? Well, no matter. I think those of us who were reduced to sniveling messes were because, in some way or another, we all have known a Carl in our lives. A crusty old man who, underneath that slightly misanthropic salty exterior, houses a heart that beat ceaselessly for his Ellie. Together, yin and yang, they faced the world and all its thrills and disappointments as a team, sharing joys as well as sorrows, him drawing strength from her unwavering love and support.

And what is one without the other? What’s left when the person on whom you have depended over an entire lifetime of triumphs and defeats is no longer there in the morning when you open your eyes and look over for the face that has greeted you for decades, only to find air and emptiness?

It is, I imagine, awful. And then you become the Carl we meet in Up, a veneer of anger over a core of sadness. And because Up was a Pixar movie, he finds redemption in a Boy Scout, a Golden Retriever, and a promise made good to have an adventure. But real life isn’t always so neat, is it. 

I knew a Carl as well. His name was John, at least, that is what it became when he arrived on Ellis Island with his wife and two young children, fleeing the decimation of Eastern Europe after World War II. They had only a few possessions, though the intangible baggage was enough to fill a ship’s cargo hold.

He was never able to entirely shed this baggage, which settled on him like a cement hat. Its only physical manifestation was the stoop in his shoulders, and the small numerical tattoo on his wrist that marked his time in a concentration camp. Before that, he was an engineer, highly educated, trilingual. It was his ability to translate, in fact, that made him a useful prisoner and saved his life. What he had to say, who he had to talk to and what he saw during those years, I never learned. All I know is that this was the type of hell that chews your soul up and spits you out on the other side a profoundly changed being.

When he emerged, broken and scarred, he found that despite all he had lost, his wife, his Ellie, was still alive. Mary had survived bone wearying work in a labor camp, and now she had to convince her husband that life was still beautiful and worth living for. This was not an easy task. Their lives were scorched earth; in order to start anew they had to cross an ocean and leave all they had, and all they knew, behind.

Mary led by example, starting by carefully decorating the tenement in a Boston suburb where they both worked in a textile mill while learning a new language. Over time they left the factory, taking on better jobs as their skills and English improved. With no family members in the States, they focused on their new friends, their children, and each other. She tended her gardens, raised the children, sewed all her own clothes, kept house, and kept John afloat with her gentle insistence that despite their experiences, people had good hearts.

I’m not sure he was ever entirely convinced of this, but she was persuasive and kind, and while she was there it was easy enough to believe her. He read voraciously, devouring history, tales of the Old West, and Hemingway’s big game stories from Africa. When I was old enough to read, we would sit side by side in the foyer, him with a Michener and me with a Seuss. Mary would press drinks into our hands, approvingly telling me that I would make her proud by getting an education and being strong enough to make my own way in the world.

In Up, Carl realized belatedly that he had one dream never fulfilled: he never made it to Paradise Falls, and intends to remedy this after Ellie’s passing. John had but one goal in life- to give his children and his children’s children opportunity to live and succeed in a safe world. He did that, something for which I will always be grateful. So when Mary died a year ago, he found himself tetherless, facing life without the anchor who had kept him grounded and solid. And he was devastated.

I wish I could say a little scout and a dog bounded in and gave him purpose after his wife’s death, but in truth he never truly recovered from it. When she died, a big part of him did as well, and comfortable in the knowledge that he accomplished what he had wanted out of life, he settled in to wait for his own journey, up and out of the confines of the mortal coil.

Last night, shortly after learning of my grandfather’s death, my restless sleep was punctuated by a strange dream. I was sitting in a darkened train station with one other person, an elderly man. The train pulled up, and he rose slowly and with some effort to walk to the door. From the interior of the rail car, a woman reached out her hand, and helped him carefully inside. The door slid shut behind him, and I walked over to the entryway to watch the train glide soundlessly away as I held my hand up to shield my eyes from the sun. I woke up suffused with that melancholic sadness that punctuates the finale of an epic novel: yes, all great journeys must end, but you’re grateful for the honor of bearing witness to the journey.

I know no other way to honor John than to acknowledge all he went through so that I could be where I am today. If ambition is heritable, it’s him I have to thank. If the desire to stand on the African continent and stare in awe at a lion is genetic, well, I got that from him too, though I didn’t know it until I made the trip and found out Africa was a place to which he, too, had always been drawn.

We were cleaning out our house this week in preparation for putting it on the market, and I found a little Carl figurine I wound up with when I bought the Up set to get a little Dug. It’s odd that I happened upon it today of all days, so I tucked it away to take with me to Africa in June. I think he would appreciate that.


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  • Deborah Mendez

    What a loving tribute. I am sorry for your loss and appreciate you sharing his story with all of us.

  • Jessica Roberts

    I am so sorry for your loss. It’s so hard to lose those we love.

  • tabitha

    im sorry to hear of the passing of your grandfather. Its always so hard when we lose a love one. He was so lucky to have you as a granddaughter.

  • Michelle

    I’m sorry for the loss of your grandfather. You have written a beautiful tribute to him that he would be proud of.

  • Vonny

    My condolences, Dr. V, to you and your family.

    Internet hug for you too. I know you don’t want a hug from a stranger, but it is an Internet one, so I will leave it.

  • Georgia Jewel.

    I’m so very sorry for your loss. Your tribute to your grandfather was beautiful.

  • Anonymous

    I have no doubt that your grandparents are on another journey together. Beautiful tribute my friend.

  • Anonymous

    I was living under a rock in 2009, but I don’t need to be familiar with the reference in order to appreciate your story. Thank you for sharing.

  • VickiB

    ok, I snuck a look at Facebook here at work. Now I have to explain why my eyes are red and swollen, and my mascara is smeared. I love the way you write. I’m sorry for your loss – but oh my goodness, what an immense blessing to have had your grandparents in your life.

  • Sue W.

    That was the most amazing eulogy I think I have ever read. You did him a masterful honor and tribute. Condolences on your loss.

  • Lisa W

    Wow, I’m glad I’m working from home today, as I now have tears streaming down my face. That was a truly beautiful tribute to a wonderful set of grandparents. I am so sorry for your loss and so happy for you that you had such a wonderful grandfather. How great is it that you found the Carl figurine and can take your grandfather to Africa with you in that way! Big hugs to you and your family.

    • Lisa W

      Also, interesting that you found out late that he was interested in Africa. I have always had a “thing” for elephants, and somehow had no idea until after my paternal grandmother passed away that she had a collection of elephant figurines, which the family allowed me to have.

  • Leslie Hetherington

    What a beautiful tribute to someone who truly had a phenomenal impact during his time on earth. Sorry for your loss.

  • Kim Goedeker

    Wow, thanks for writing this. We lost my grandmother in December, and my grandfather, like yours, has become a bit of a “Carl.” What a great tribute to your grandfather – I’m they would have both appreciated it.

  • Nurse_Shell

    *Sniffle* I have a “Carl” in my life – but in this case it’s not the loss of his “Ellie”…it’s the loss of his memory. So hard to watch. Hard to reconcile the man I see now with the man I knew, admired (feared?) as a child…who taught me vast amounts of things that only a grandpa can teach a grandchild. (((Hugs)))to you and your family, I’m sorry for your loss – may your happy memories keep him with you always.

    • Sue W.

      I’ve heard this more than once – and the loss that keeps going on might be the hardest of all. Hugs for you, Nurse_Shell.

  • K9diabetes

    That was lovely…. so sorry for your loss.

  • Carol K. Leiren

    So very sorry for your loss. May his memory continue to be a blessing.

  • LB

    So sorry for your loss, but his memory will live on with everything you do.

  • Julie H.

    What a timely post for me. I lost my father early yesterday morning. He lost his Ellie two years ago and wanted to die ever since. My dad had COPD and his health was declining. He ended up in the hospital a week ago and we all came face to face with his more sudden declining health. Wednesday I told him I was okay with him passing on; I would be okay because my brother would look out for me (I’m the youngest of three and the only one not married) and I knew my dad wanted to go. Later my sister told him the same thing. Both times he said thank you. We took him home (under 24-hr hospice care). Once home he perked up, talked the most he had in a week, and was even laughing and joking. I kissed him goodbye and told him I loved him. My sister left a few minutes later. Neither of us thought we were saying goodbye for the last time. I got a called from my sister at 3am yesterday morning that he had died in his sleep. This was sad yes, but such a blessing because he was so scared he would die by suffocation and under great duress. His wish and prayer was that he woudl die in his sleep and he got it. I miss my dad terribly, but it was the best possible way for him to pass on. I’m sorry for your loss and I really appreciate your story. Thanks for letting me share mine.

    • Oh Julie, I am so very sorry for your loss. My deepest condolences to you and your family.

    • Sue W.

      Wow, Julie. My condolences. You obviously have great peace about it and I’m glad he got his final wish.

  • Ivy

    beautiful. simply beautiful.

  • JaneK

    you seem to be such a determined, strong, and ambitious (in a good way) person and now I know why…… what a legacy your grandfather left in you…. glad you are taking “Carl” to Tanzania with you

  • Karen B.

    Oh, Dr. V., so very sorry you lost your grandfather, but what a lovely tribute to him. I am sitting here teary eyed. Thank you for sharing your Carl.

  • Susi

    An exceedingly personal post, Jessica, dripping with love. One of your finest. I am sad for you, of course, but for all of us because we are losing the “Carls’ of the world who lived to tell how bad it could be, but overcame the horror to live lives, however scarred and painful, that showed us how much better we could be. It falls to you to tell his story over and over again. Nicely done.

  • Tamara

    This a beautiful elegy to a man who was clearly very special to you. I am so sorry for your loss.

  • What a moving, beautiful tribute.

  • Jeanne

    thanks for making us cry all over again…!

  • Cathey

    Oh, Dr. V – I don’t have the words to thank you for sharing this with us. I can see from the posts below that there are others who needed this even more than I. For all of you, I will say prayers tonight, both for your loved ones, and for you. And just say that there are people in our lives that so bless us, that there simply are no words, just Thank You, I Love You, and Amen.

  • I’m sorry for the loss of your grandfather. Thanks for sharing his story with us.

  • Kelly

    I am so sorry for your loss. My grandfather, whose name was actually Carl, and who looked and sounded and acted just like the Carl in Up passed away just before the movie was released. I can’t watch it without become a blithering mess.