I’ve been very lucky to avoid dealing with death for most of my life thus far.  I had a run-in when I was 11 that I discussed in a previous blog post, and then managed to not lose any family or friends since.  I attended the funeral of a friend’s grandmother, a woman who had been nothing but sweet and wonderful to me every time I saw her, but still death hadn’t quite been real to me.  I was sad, but felt distanced from it all.  Then two weeks ago I got a call that my paternal grandfather was dying, and that I needed to get there quick if I wanted to be able to say goodbye.  That was when it became real.

A couple of years ago I got a similar call and since I was unemployed at the time I dropped everything and packed a bag to go to Arizona and stay with my grandmother for a week.  My grandfather was in the hospital and not doing well, and the doctors didn’t know if they’d be able to fix whatever was causing his health problems (which ultimately was a large number of blood clots).  I spent days in the hospital with him, and nights at home with grandma, trying my best to take care of the two of them in the only way I knew how – being there.  He was conscious but weak, and she was putting on a brave face and trying to stay strong.  One night while sitting at home on the couch talking with her about that day’s visit with his doctors she broke down and cried, not knowing what she was going to do or what would happen to him.  That was the first time I’d ever seen her cry.

Grandpa was stubborn though, and he pulled through and had moved from the hospital into the recovery facility to get back on his feet before I even left to go back home.  He’d soon be up and around, insisting on being capable of doing anything he needed done.  That was the man I’d grown up knowing, resilient and gruff, but strong-willed and unable to accept defeat.  He wanted to get better and go back to playing poker with his friends before the sun had cast first light, and that’s exactly what he did.  And more than anything, I know he wanted to be home with Grandma.  I was in the hospital room with him almost every day as friends and church members came by to wish him well, but never did he smile or perk up as much as when she came to visit.  I don’t think anything kept him alive more than the will to stay with her for a few more years.

When I was much younger I spent a lot of time at their house.  I played board games with Grandma and pretty much just avoided Grandpa as much as I could.  He was never mean to me, but let’s face it – grandmas are the fun ones.  He intimidated me before I even knew what that meant, but I still loved him unconditionally.  He taught me the value of the American flag, and the respect it deserves.  A military man and patriot to his core, he made sure to impress that upon me even at a young age.  I had a small flag on a stick, and he taught me how to stand it up, and never let it touch the ground.  The flag was always to be respected, something I’ve never been more aware of then at that young age getting a lesson from Grandpa.

Grandpa had a chair in the living room that was his chair and only his.  Nobody was allowed to lean on it, look at it, or breathe in its general vicinity.  You didn’t roughhouse near the chair, and most of importantly – you were never to sit in it.  So naturally, the grandkids sat in it all the time.  It became a game of who could sit in the chair the longest without getting caught, bonus points if you heard him approaching and held your ground.  Get caught and everyone else denied all knowledge of you being there.  Grandma used to sit in his chair when he wasn’t home (she must’ve had some kind of immunity to his Chair Rules) and often she’d pull me up in her lap and we’d play card games together, usually hand solitaire.  Even under my grandmother’s protection, when I heard the garage door open and close as he walked in, I bolted.  Every time.  I used to think I was so slick, pulling one over on Grandpa, sitting in his chair and getting away with it.  What fun was he anyways, denying us something so silly as a chair?  Now I know.  I know that he knew all along what we did when he wasn’t in the room.  He let us think he was mean and grumpy, because maybe he thought that’s what a grandpa should be most of the time.  But in his own way, he let us play our games and he let us feel powerful.  We were scolded when we broke the rules, but the Chair Rules seemed flimsy at best, only being enforced when we were too slow to get away before he made it in the room.  I wish I had thanked him for all the fun he let us have.  That he let me have.

I hopped on a plane with my dad just 14 hours after getting the phone call about my grandfather’s declining health.  It still didn’t seem fast enough.  I was convinced we were going to miss him somehow, that he wouldn’t be there to say goodbye to.  We actually ended up making with time to spare, and spent the next two days in his hospice room listening to him breathe and waiting for him to let go.  It still feels like such a horrible and heartless thing to say, to admit that in a way we were all just in the room waiting for him to pass away, but it’s true and it was something that we all knew was going to happen soon.  He was in pain, and we all wanted him to be at peace, and it’s really hard to look at someone you love so much and know that the only way they’ll ever get better is to not be alive anymore.  I sat in that room and I just stared at him.  Stared and hoped that something would happen and he’d be all better.  By the time we’d arrived on Saturday he was so far gone that he couldn’t see or speak, he mostly just slept or lay there breathing.  I watched and listened as my grandmother told him over and over that she’d be okay and that he could let go.  And it killed me inside each time I heard it.  Before that weekend, I had seen her cry once.  Now I was seeing it every other hour or so when his breath would catch, or he’d wince in pain if the nurses adjusted his bed sheets.  A man I’d grown up viewing as strong and ironclad, a bastion of strength, was lying in bed holding onto his life and I didn’t know why.  We all thought it was time.  We wanted it to be, as awful as that sounds.  Seeing him in that bed day in and day out was gut wrenching.  It was hard to merge the image I’d had of him all my life with this new image I was seeing in that bed.

The family all gathered in the room, coming in from all over the country that weekend, and stories were shared at his bedside.  There was laughter and tears, but it all felt really good.  One thing that I’ll always remember is how my dad described his relationship with Grandpa.  He said that as tough and strict as Grandpa had been while he was growing up, he’d never feared him.  Never been afraid of physical harm.  What scared him most was disappointing Grandpa.  My dad pulled some crazy stunts as a kid, most of which my rebellious youth couldn’t hold a candle to, but he always said the thing he hated most was seeing Grandpa look at him with disappointment.  Just hours before Grandpa died I held my dad close and let him cry.  Another example of tears not often seen, my dad had held back so much for so long, and he couldn’t any longer.  He wanted so bad to fix everything and make it all better, but he couldn’t and it hurt him immensely to have to admit it.  He wanted to fix it, but he knew deep down that it wasn’t a situation that could be fixed.  It had to play out, to the bitter end we all knew was coming, but nobody wanted to arrive.

I woke up the next morning to a phone call that he’d passed away overnight.  I was both sad and relieved.  It was over.  No more pain, no more sickness, no more struggling.  He was done with all that and resting at last.  The service was scheduled for a few days later, and even more family started arriving to comfort Grandma and to comfort each other.  I saw cousins and extended relatives that I hadn’t seen in years.  It was a somber occasion that brought us all together, but we used that occasion to make something positive and spent our time together catching up and sharing our own stories.  The service had a military aspect to it that would’ve made my grandfather very proud.  My cousin attended in his active duty army uniform and I know that Grandpa was/is so proud of him for his service.  The Navy had been a large part of his life, but any military service at all was looked at as very significant in his eyes, something I hope my cousin knows and cherishes.  Grandma was presented with a United States flag, and I sat in the church row behind her crying.  The service was short, with a reception for fellowship to follow.  A slideshow video was shown that had been put together for his 80th birthday, and again I couldn’t hold back.  It all still seemed so surreal.  My grandparents had just been to visit in December and he’d seemed fine.  Now he’s gone and all I can think is that at least I got to see him and spend time with him so recently.  That I couldn’t say it had been too long since I’d seen him.  Luckily it hadn’t been.

Death is hard to deal with.  Everyone handles it differently, no matter who it is we’ve lost.  We all handle it in our own way, but I just hope that it’s not something I have to handle again, on any level, for quite some time.

Goodbye Grandpa.  Thank you for all that you did for our family, and all that made you the man you were, a man I will always remember and admire.  I love you.