Six months ago today, my 86-year-old grandpa died at home on a beautiful early-Spring afternoon. None of his six kids was in the house at the time. The hospital bed loaned to our family by the local hospice center was positioned in the sunny dining room of the house where my grandparents had lived together for nearly 50 of their 63½ years of marriage. In Grandpa's last moments, Carol, my grandparents' caretaker, was changing the music CD and I was talking with my grandma about the music that was about to begin, reminding her that before her stroke she had bought the artist's sheet music and had been learning to play it on piano. That is when Grandpa took his last breath.
During Grandpa's last ten days, I came to understand that death, just like life, is a miracle. How wondrous that a human can be present, breathing laboriously, unable to swallow or open his eyes or lift his head or limbs … and in a moment, the labor of life, the hard work of dying is another task complete, an accomplishment, an almost immediate transition from "is" to "was," a reflection on a life well-lived.
On one of Grandpa's last weekends, the house bustled with relatives and friends who had come to reminisce and say goodbye. With all the activity, I had to be watchful in order to snatch a moment alone with Gramps. Each time I did, all I could think to say was, "I love you." Even when he was no longer able to return my love verbally, I felt his love communicated through his eyes. What more is there?, I wondered. In the end, I decided, it's all about relationships.
Hundreds of people attended Grandpa's Friday morning funeral in my small hometown. Afterwards, my extended family spent the weekend together at the house, almost like a holiday. Most of us went back to our homes at the end of the weekend. I tried to focus on my own daughters, and I tried to get back to my regular routines.
But I thought constantly of my grandpa. Over and over, I replayed the simple, now-sacred moments I had spent with Gramps during those last ten days. You see, a friend had loaned our family a copy of Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying by hospice workers Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley. I read Final Gifts swiftly, wanting to finish it before Grandpa died so I wouldn't miss any messages or opportunities. Repeatedly, the authors described dying people who wanted to know what would happen physiologically as they died. I believed that Grandpa wanted to know this but was unable to ask. I believed he was afraid but would never have admitted it.
And so I took it upon myself to try to put Grandpa at ease. Quietly, calmly, lovingly, I whispered to him that his body was worn out, his heart and lungs were tired; I promised Gramps that we would care for Grandma. I whispered that when he was ready, his heart would stop beating and his lungs would stop working and (consistent with his personal beliefs) that he would go to heaven to get ready for Grandma’s arrival. I told Grandpa that we would try to keep him from hurting. And with each short conversation, I said with deep honesty and emotion, "I love you. I love you so much."
Maybe these secret conversations explain why grief weighed so heavily on me for weeks after Grandpa's death. Probably my grief was "normal." I grieved losing the Grandpa who called me Peach when I was little, who always gave me a hug and a smooch, who was always glad to see me and always concerned about me (and my family … and the reliability of my car). I grieved the memories of Grandpa driving my sister and me the few blocks to school when our parents were on vacation and we stayed at Grandma and Grandpa's. I grieved over the times Grandpa took me fishing and camping and even to Colorado to go downhill skiing with Grandma and him. I grieved over every ten-dollar bill Gramps slipped to me during college as he walked me to my car, saying "Don’t tell Grandma" with a wink. I grieved at the memory of seeing him out of bed for the last time, eating a mint chocolate chip ice cream cone.
Since Grandpa died I have survived the seasons changing from spring to summer and summer to fall. Earlier this month I mourned what would have been Grandpa’s 87th birthday. Thanksgiving and Christmas will come. Fall will turn into winter and winter again to spring, bringing the first anniversary of Grandpa’s death. Though my grief has lightened, I don’t know that it will ever go away. I love my Grandpa. I love him so much.
Gramps & me, September 2010. Photo (c) Jennifer Tchida