It’s been just over six months since I lost my grandfather. Before Grandpa Jaro’s passing I had never had to go through losing a loved one and I had no idea just how hard that would be.
My grandfather was from the Czech Republic. When my father was fifteen years old, he left the Czech Republic with his parents, Alena and Jaroslav, and came to the United States; where they settled in Illinois. After almost 20 years together, my grandparents separated in what happened to be particularly nasty and painful divorce. My grandmother died unexpectedly a few years before I was born in 1994. When I came into the world in September of 1996, My father named me Alena (Ah-len-ah) in her memory.
Legacy and family are deeply valued in the Czech Republic, so my grandfather was more than thrilled to have my sister Natalie and I. In turn, we were blessed to have 19 incredible years with him. As I was growing up, I became very aware of much people struggled to say my name correctly. Americans have a lot of trouble wrapping their tongues around the pronunciation. While I did develop a lot of patience, I also began to feel very isolated. Even at the age of six, I knew that my name was very uncommon. I never saw it in the souvenir shops, no license plates or key chains. I began to dread introducing myself, seeing the look of confusion, sometimes amusement on their faces when I said it. I felt very alone, like I didn't quite fit in. While I had plenty of friends growing up, I could never quite shake the feeling of loneliness that came with the name I was given.
Eventually, My grandfather grew to understand why Dad had chosen that name, and came to love it. It was a name that had once caused him so much pain and anger. A name he’d probably even cursed once or twice. A part of me has always thought that Grandpa Jaro was able to find peace with Alena because of the name I was given. Saying it caused him joy once again and he was able to put the past in the past.
Grandpa Jaro nicknamed me “Alenka” - Czech for “Little Alena.” He was so proud and happy to have grandchildren, but I don't think he ever knew how special he made me feel.
Grandpa Jaro, with his strong eastern euro accent, made my name sound so beautiful and unique that I was able to grow to love and embrace it. We really don't have a lot of family members left on my father's side so I always treasured the visits and moments I had with my Grandfather. So when we lost him it was like losing a huge part of my heritage, almost everything I knew about being Czech came from Grandpa Jaro. Even now, there’s a lot I don’t know about that side of our family, and probably never will.
When he passed away unexpectedly this past April, I was in pain, so much more pain than I ever anticipated. He was one of the people I’d cherished most in my life and he’d just slipped away. There would be no more visits, no more letters or stories. Only memories.
This summer, I had a lot of time to think. I thought about the moments I had with him, and the ones he'd never see. After months of grief and anger I was finally able find some solace. Now, i'm focusing on how I going to make him proud every day, push harder, be more mindful, and honor his memory by striving to be the woman he knew I could become.
I would like to take a moment to stress something to my generation and those after us. Sit down with your elders, take the time to bond with them. Listen to them, take an interest in their experiences and their stories. If I had known just how little time I had left with my grandfather I would have done things differently. And I’d give anything to have that time and those moments back.