For those of you who don’t know me, I am Getatchew’s grandson, Mateos. When I began to prepare for this speech, I was actually at my grandparents’ home in New York City. I was in the bedroom, seated in a chair beside the bed, and a soccer game was on the TV. If I focused on the game, and on nothing else, it was almost like many times before, when I had watched matches with my grandfather, seated in that same chair. But when I turned to look to the side, the bed was empty. I was alone. I couldn’t chat with my grandfather, couldn’t ask him for advice, couldn’t share a reaction to the match with him, I couldn’t reach out to hold his hand. I had learned of his death several days earlier, but I think it was at that moment that I truly internalized that he was gone.
And so, here we all are. We’ve lost a dear friend, a scholar, a leader, a thinker, a family member, a father, a grandfather. I wish I could sugar coat it but I can’t. It’s sad, to say the very least. This loss is not one that can be compensated, or one that we can just forget about through positive thinking. I know that I am young, and I am sure that there are a lot of things that I do not truly understand. But I don’t feel as though we ever can, or, frankly, should, “get over” this loss, so to speak. We may adjust, and we will go on without him, but we’ve lost someone who is irreplaceable. We’re here to mourn, and we won’t gain anything by pretending that everything is somehow alright, because it’s not. You’re sad, so be sad. Take your time. Cry as much as you need to. Cry for yourselves, because you’ve lost someone dear to you.
However, there is one more thing I would ask you all to do. Try to smile a little bit too. Don’t rejoice, don’t celebrate. Just for a moment, perhaps not right now, perhaps not tomorrow or the day after, but at some point, look back on what Getatchew Haile did, and who he was, and smile. I ask you to do this not for yourselves, but for him.
Getatchew could have died 45 years ago, when Derg soldiers came to his home in Addis Ababa and shot him several times. They attacked him because he spoke openly and honestly about their regime. Although he knew the risk of his words, he didn’t back down from what he stood for. And he didn’t die, either. When he came to America later that year, paralyzed and in a wheelchair, he knew his long term health would be difficult to maintain. He prayed that he would live long enough to see his daughter, Sossina, return from a semester at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and tell him about it. And in fact, he nearly lived long enough to hear his grandson Berhanu tell him about his experience at the same school. I like to think that each individual’s life is a story, and sadly no story is complete without an ending. All I can do right now is assure you that while not every story, even at the end, feels complete, Getatchew Haile’s story was.
Unfortunately I have no way to prove that claim. And for that I sincerely apologize. All I can do now is promise that my words are not empty. I truly believe them to be true.
Very recently, I had the opportunity to visit my grandfather in the hospital. It was just days before he passed away, and the last time I would ever see him. I must admit that it was difficult to see him the way I saw him that day. He was weak, and it was hard for him to talk to me. But he looked at me, and he smiled. It wasn’t forced, or fake, he really, genuinely, smiled. In spite of everything, he found the strength to smile. I ask you to believe me when I say that I looked into his eyes, and I could see that he was ready. After everything he’d accomplished, and everything he’d been through, he wasn’t there for himself anymore. In that particular moment, he was there for me. That’s just who he was. No matter the circumstances, he always found a way to be strong for the people he loved.
I could start listing my grandfather’s various accomplishments if I wanted to convince you that he lived a successful and fulfilling life. But as I’m sure most of you know, that would take a long time, and I’m not sure it’s necessary. Getatchew Haile’s story was the story of a man who never gave up on what and who he believed in. I ask you now, in 90 years on this earth, what more could he have been than that? I don’t expect that my words will magically make everything alright. But I do think that the best answer to that question is to smile. Thank you.