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A Grandfather Glimpses Life—and Death—Through Young Eyes

Five-year-old Eleanor and I are on the upper deck of a small beach cottage on Hatteras Island, North Carolina, cradled in the hammock. We have just finished reading a book about a turtle, and are now quietly swaying in the warm breeze. From this perch I can spot the rest of our large and unwieldy family in miniature mime across the hurricane-flattened dunes. With seven kids and 16 grandchildren crowding into a life lived at the loud edge of chaos, these quietly intimate moments with any child are rare. After a while I wonder whether she’s fallen asleep, but I’m wrong. “Chiefie,” she says, using my nickname and sitting up. “How old are you?” “Sixty-six.” Her eyes widen. “That’s old!” “Yep,” I say, smiling, instantly feeling all of—and perhaps more than—66. Out of the mouths of babes and all that. Moments later I’m tempted to add something a little wistful about how in my heart I’m really 19, how I sometimes look into the mirror in the morning and wonder who that old man is staring back at me, but I press my lips together, lean down, and kiss the top of her beach-blond head. After 43 ye …

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