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To Die Is Bad, But Not To Live Is Even Worse

  • 9 min read

TRAVEL. LIFE LESSONS

Right before my beloved grandpa died, he gave me $2,000 cash. Here’s what I did with it.

One sunny day in fall 2018, my grandfather suddenly stopped during our walk.

With shaky hands, he pulled an envelope out of his pocket. ‘Inside is $2,000 for you,’ he said with the sly smile I loved so much about him. ‘You want to give me $2,000? Why?’ I asked in surprise.

That’s when my 95-year old grandfather told me that he had kept those dollars for almost two decades.

He bought them for me shortly after the turn of the millennium. At that time, it was my greatest dream to cross the ocean and travel from Germany to America.


When I was 14 years old I had a dream

Suddenly I remembered:

I was 14 years old. In the middle of puberty. I loved reading the English version of Cosmopolitan, watching Dawson’s Creek and Clueless.

I loved the English language and I dreamed of spending a semester abroad — but, unfortunately, that didn’t happen.

My parents were recently divorced. There wasn’t enough money. It didn’t seem the right time to live my dreams.

My grandfather snapped me out of my childhood reminiscence by adding quietly: ‘I always thought we would travel to America together one day. See the Statue of Liberty, walk across the Brooklyn Bridge.’ ‘Really?’ I asked sadly. ‘Why didn’t you tell me about this before?’

Because by then it was too late.

My grandfather had terminal lung cancer and could breathe only with difficulty. His soul was still wide awake, but it was trapped in a kind of husk.

Me and my beloved grandfather on a warm summer day in Germany before he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer; credit: Kristina God

Finally, my granddad crossed the bridge

A few weeks later, it wasn’t the Brooklyn Bridge he crossed, but the final one between life and death, just after midnight in a hospital bed.

As I held his warm hand one last time, I promised him that I would use his dollars for the purpose they had originally been bought.

At first, he didn't seem to believe me. He knew me too well. I had just changed jobs. I was a manager on the international stage and spent most of my time at work. Hunting for my next raise or promotion.

I told him about my plans to travel to America as a late honeymoon.

‘I will accompany you as a satellite on your way,’ he said with a twinkle.


Six months later, I made my dream come true

I found myself on a jumbo jet. In my backpack, the envelope with the $2,000 from my grandpa. My husband squeezed my hand tightly as we took off towards New York City.

The vibrant city with its yellow cabs and interminable police sirens, unique people, colorful shop windows, and skyscrapers welcomed us as if we were on a movie set — and we had the starring role.

The vibrant city with its yellow cabs welcomed my husband and me for our special honeymoon; credit: Kristina God

When we headed for a popular steak restaurant on the first evening, jetlagged at what was around 4 a.m. German time, we dutifully took the first dollars from the envelope.

My grandfather would surely have appreciated the good steak and fries. ‘Only the price would not have pleased him’, my husband noted.


Memories at Hudson River

The next day, we picked up a delicious smoothie and sandwiches, and sat by the Hudson River, watching fit New Yorkers jogging, and gazing out over the shimmering water.

My grandfather had worked in a shipyard during World War II, making submarine parts. He even sometimes had to go on submarine training runs.

Surely this place would have reminded him of that time.

We sat by the Hudson River and ate our delicious smoothie and sandwiches; credit: Kristina God

Movement and stillness in Central Park

On the third day, we ambled around Central Park. We fed squirrels, watched lovers paddle, and listened to a busking guitarist while spotting turtles in the water. We relaxed.

My grandfather always said that movement includes stillness. These are the most important elements in life, he said.

I’m sure he would have been happy to see us like this.

We fed squirrels, watched lovers paddle, and listened to a busking guitarist while spotting turtles in the water; credit: Kristina God

Happy at the Statue of Liberty

On the fourth day, we took the ferry to the imposing Statue of Liberty.

America’s most recognizable landmark was the place my grandfather would have been most interested in seeing — though he’d only known about it from the media and thick coffee table books.

I looked up at the sky, thinking that he was now looking happily down on us from his satellite. Maybe from up there, he could even see the whales that sometimes swam here.


Rain follows the sun at the Brooklyn Bridge

On our fifth day, we finally visited the Brooklyn Bridge for a few minutes before it started raining. We ran through the rain, searching for shelter.

Rain follows the sun at the Brooklyn Bridge; credit: Kristina God

In Chinatown, we found a filthy alleyway. We waited there for the storm to pass for what seemed like hours. Finally, we decided to simply walk back through the rain.

As the sun finally came out, a rainbow had been cast in the sky as if my grandfather were smiling down from heaven.

Apparently, he liked our adventurous city trip, I thought.


Seafood and music on Long Island

When we went to Long Island on the last day, we visited the famous Lobster Roll restaurant on our way to Montauk.

My grandpa loved fish and seafood. As I munched on the succulent, little red chunks, I wondered if he’d ever eaten lobster.

We visited the famous Lobster Roll restaurant on our way to Montauk; credit: Kristina God

At the famous Montauk lighthouse at the East End of Long Island in New York state, we sat on the swings at the beach. We enjoyed the ocean breeze and the white sand under our feet.

My grandfather regularly visited the island of Sylt, also called ‘The German Hamptons’. He would have loved to see the original Hamptons, around 2,500 miles away from Germany.

Enjoying the ocean breeze. Incredible sea view from our hotel room in Montauk; credit: Kristina God

In the evening we stopped at a small pub on the harbor. Jazz music was playing — the music my grandfather had loved the most.

It was during Doris Day’s ‘Sentimental Journey’ that he had asked my grandma to dance — the moment that changed his life and began the journey that would lead to mine.

At that moment, I could see him floating down the hallway laughing with joy.


Even when we are alive we can already be ‘in between’ life and death

Sand under our feet at the beautiful white beach of Montauk on Long Island; credit: Kristina God

They say that, at the end of your life, you only ever regret the things you didn’t do.

My grandfather lived a rich life but did regret not going to America.

By the time he understood this, it was too late. He no longer had the freedom to get up, go out and see something of the world.

‘Live your life with courage, humor and serenity. You can still play all the roles of life. You can experience all the deep feelings and discover all the places for which I am now too old,’ my grandpa said to me on his deathbed, his eyes burning.

Even when we are alive we can already be ‘in between’ life and death.

Because when we ignore our calling, don’t pursue our dreams, don’t express our desires, and instead run after the wrong things, we waste life’s most wonderful opportunities.

I still can hear my granddad say: ‘To die is bad, but not to live is even worse’.

This story is for my grandfather Helmut. I love you.



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