A memorial video created by Zack Benz in memory of his grandmother, Grace

Saving Grace

I miss my grandma. I miss her laugh, her light, her all out blatant honesty when I’ve made a mistake. She was my favorite person and she deserved better.

I miss my mother. She had such a glow about her. She cared about everyone utilizing her compassionate heart as a guide through life. A major flaw we both have in common.

I miss my grandfather. He was genuinely kind, loving, hilarious and extremely wise. His laugh always made your day.

Death can be an abhorrent concept to grasp. It’s traumatic, spiritual for some and all out heartbreaking to witness.

I miss the times shared with my loved ones. Losing my grandmother this past June has caused me to reflect on those I lost before her. I often say that my grandma was my favorite person, and she was, but my mother and grandfather held equal ranking when they were alive as well. 

When I was only five months old, my mother gave full custody of my two sisters and I to my grandparents. This wasn’t easy for her, but she admitted that it was the right thing to do in order to keep us together as a family. 

My grandfather, Gerald “Jerry” Walter Benz, died June 30, 2016, after a long fight with Cholangiocarcinoma, also known as bile duct cancer. His battle with this rare form of cancer was long and turbulent but he fought with monumental courage. A true testament to the long life he led. He was 79 when he died.  

Gerald Benz. Photo courtesy Zack Benz

Stories that truly attested to my grandfather’s greatness and perseverance were ones that told of his ability to overcome traumatic experiences. Something many struggle with on a daily basis. Especially me. He lost his mother at an early age, had to take on the mantle of father figure for his younger siblings, suffered a near crippling injury at a Minnesota mine and so much more.

In spite of all the tragedies and hardships my grandfather faced, he learned to overcome it. He was stern but caring. He strived to make the lives of his descendants better.

Before heading off to school every day my grandfather would always remind me to “study hard.” He’d compel my sisters, cousins and I to better ourselves in an effort to build us up to be the monuments he and my grandma were. He’d also urge me to remember where I came from with one of his legendary quotes.

“Don’t forget who you are”

So simple, yet unattainably strong. Even if you had strayed, my grandpa would always welcome you back with open arms. He was an extremely forgiving man. I’m proud to aspire to his greatness. He was an amazing grandfather, an excellent dad and a steady support system for many. 

My mother, Audrey Ann Benz, died unexpectedly a little over 10 months after my grandfather on May 11, 2017 — the day before my Associate of Arts’ graduation and weeks before my sister’s wedding. After battling with addiction all her life, God (and my grandfather) saw it fit to call her home to safety. 

Audrey Benz. Photo courtesy Zack Benz

My mom meant the world to me. Even though our relationship was sometimes strained, she knew how I felt and I knew I could always confide in her. Weeks before her death I was contemplating over so much. I was thinking about coming out and she somehow knew, but I never did until after her death. In the midst of me telling her how my preparations for finals were going, she told me something that I will forever treasure.

“I love you no matter what. You’ll always matter to someone.”

I cried in my car after our call ended.

I have so many fond memories with my mother. From overnight binge watching sheshions of Scooby-Doo cartoons to family nights centered around “Smallville,” my mother always understood me.

When I was ridiculed for constructing a miniature Metropolis, my mother stood up for me. When I felt less than adequate, she helped raise my spirits. 

My mom was caring, nurturing, creative, empathetic, and I really could go on for ages. She possessed so many attributes affirmed from my grandparents. She deserved a better life.

My grandmother, Grace Amelia Benz, died June 21, 2020, almost exactly four years after her husband. She took her last breath as I embraced her. My cousin was holding her hand. She was 78. She was artistic, nurturing, sympathetic and all out loving.

Grace Benz. Photo by Zack Benz

One of my favorite stories about my grandmother told of how, on the night she was born in 1942, there was a terrible Minnesota blizzard and she had to be delivered at home. In an effort to keep this small infant Grace warm throughout the storm, her parents Marvin and Helen placed her in a bread pan and sat her beside their humble homestead’s wood burning stove.

The reason I love that story is because it honestly depicts my grandmother’s tenacity. A trait she held onto until the very end. I admired her so much. Because of this admiration, when I was finally ready to accept myself as gay, my grandmother was one of the first I had to tell. 

I did just that at Thanksgiving in 2018. Home from school for the holiday, I felt there wasn’t any better time to tell my grandma about this weight I’ve been carrying.

Watching one of her court show marathons with her one night, I muted the TV. She turned to me with her typical “what the hell” stare and my stomach churned. It churned because this woman I had admired and respected since birth was about to know me completely and honestly. Little did I realize that she already did.  

I mustered up the courage to tell her, and I came out. I was sweating and I couldn’t look her in the eyes. She looked at me, then the remote in my hands, then back at me and said, “That’s it? I already knew that.”

She wasn’t sarcastic, cruel or demining with her response. She was calm and collected. She loved me. I began to tear up and we sat side by side watching TV as she held my hand.

A little over a year from then, when I decided to come out publicly via a Daily Planet article, I was hesitant. I called my grandma seeking some of her wisdom on what I should do.

“We have to do what’s best for us,” my grandma told me. “You have to do what’s best for you just as I have to do what’s best for me. If they don’t understand that, then they are not good for you.”

These three individuals were my family’s guardian angels long before they passed. I treasure my time with them and pray we see eachother once again. 

Gerald, Grace and Audrey Benz. Photo by Zack Benz

Zack Benz

Zack Benz has been a fan of the Daily Planet since he was eight years old. The Daily Planet has always been a beacon of hope for him and it’s his life’s mission to make it shine in a similar light to so many around the world. Zack graduated with a degree in journalism and art from the University of Minnesota Duluth in 2019.

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