“This is my worst nightmare” I say, barely breathing the words out.
I examine the folds of skin on my now deceased great grandfather while holding his cold, limp hand. I wonder what it looked like when he was younger and smoother. I picture him as a boy around ten playing baseball, and his mother afterwards wiping the dirt from his rosy cheeks. How easy it would be to pull out a handkerchief and wipe the dirt in one stroke and send him to bed where he’d sleep deeply. Do wrinkles make it more difficult to clean? Do they get in the way? I never asked myself these questions until now.
His hand was a lot heavier than I remember, but now I wasn’t really holding it, I was carrying it. I don’t want to forget the way it feels in mine; I absorb it all; the calluses, the size and his strength. Don’t forget I tell myself but the coldness is distracting. I’ll just pretend its cold outside and we’re taking a walk together while holding hands. I close my eyes and imagine its Christmastime and we’re going to pick out a tree for the house. It’s so crowded and he takes my hand to lead me through the tangled mess of people and I feel safe. Yes, this will do, I think as I grip his hand tighter. I don’t want to let go.
I hold the fantasy for just a second longer until I feel two limbs dressed in pink cotton gripping me like a claw from behind. A despondent voice tells me “I know you loved him so much honey…but now he’s at peace”. Why does everyone always say that? Without taking my eyes off my great grandpa I respond as politely as I can, “Yeah… thank you”. There was nothing else to say. He’s gone and there’s nothing we can do about it. I wish people would just say what they’re actually thinking and not just say it because they think that’s what they’re supposed to say. I hope she’s not trying to get me leave his side; I need more time.
I look around the room to observe everyone. I’m curious about their reaction. Is anyone like me? I now notice that some have left the room and only a few remain. Are they afraid of his dead body? My little sister is in the corner curled up like she’s in a tornado drill crying while my mom pets her blonde hair, while also crying. My grandma sits at the foot of the bed where she remained from rubbing his feet earlier; she looks down crying silently to herself and brushes the curls that have stuck to her face, cemented by her tears.
My great grandmother, the only one not crying, looks as though she is in a trance. She is on other side of him, motionless and is also holding his hand. I study her; her petite frame of only 4’-9” and red faded hair that is now mostly white. She never dyed it or wore much makeup. My grandpa said he preferred her “natural” look. I smile thinking of their love. She doesn’t notice or acknowledge anyone around her. I realized I was witnessing something very intimate and pay closer attention. I hear her say “See you soon” like he’s only gone to go fishing. She releases his hand and gives it a pat. He was her reason for living and like a robot that is shutting down, she lowers her head and stares at the floor.
Most of his family came here to say goodbye. My cousin Andy flew from Florida and just made it before he died. All of his children, grandchildren and some great grandchildren are all here. What man can say he had so much love in his life? We all depend on him so much, what will happen to us all? The nightmare is starting to feel more real with each minute of his passing. I hold this moment of all of us together with him one last time vowing to never forget this moment knowing that it will soon be gone forever.
Hard heavy footsteps accompanied by soft gentle ones capture my attention enough to make me turn my head away from my great grandpa to the door. My uncle Mike is standing next to a middle aged lady with brown hair that I have never seen before. She’s not wearing scrubs like the other nurses but she is dressed in a way that tells me she isn’t just a visitor.
“The pastor is here” My uncle announces loudly like a teacher’s pet. It’s like him to want to take control of a situation and inform everyone of everything. Everyone looks to the uninvited but appreciated guest and says nothing. A few try to force a smile to be polite but their puffy sullen eyes and quivering lips still read sadness.
“Hello, I’m Lisa and I want to start by saying how sorry I am for your loss.”
My great aunt, the baby and the most vocal and lurid of the deposits my great grandfather left behind, expresses an appreciative “thank you” while my great uncle and grandma nod in agreement.
“I’m one of the pastors here at the hospital and I’m here if you’d like to pray together” Her voice is sympathetic and kind but with a shimmer of confidence.
My grandma, the caretaker of the family is the one to respond now “Yes, thank you, that would be nice” She accepts the kind gesture. She is one of the nicest people I have ever met and would simply agree whether she wanted a pastor or not just because she wouldn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Actually, I’m pretty sure that’s what she did just now. Even though she grew up religious, in her adult life she has never been to church nor have I heard her speak of God. Maybe she was thinking of the other family members, like her brother and his family, who are more religious than her and would like a pastor to pray with. Or maybe…it just came down to what her father would have wanted. He was such a religious man; He spent so much time in the church organizing activities and volunteering with whatever they needed. When he wasn’t at church he was living his life to the best of his ability, integrating the Ten Commandments into his daily life. Thinking back, I don’t ever remember a time that we didn’t pray before a meal. Whether my grandma believed it or not, this was part of what made her father and this was about him.
When I grieve, there are times I need to be alone. So without saying anything, I decide to leave the room and give the siblings some time to say goodbye to their father with a prayer. I leave the clumps of family that are gathered together like the last of cereal bits in a bowl of milk, and head towards the kitchen area down the hall. I look around in the cabinet and find bagels, muffins and granola bars; I search further and find popsicles, juice and Jell-O. Anything too sweet feels too celebratory and now that I think about it, I feel nauseous anyway. I just want something to make me feel again and hot coffee feels like it would do the trick. Coffee is acceptable for any occasion and not just for the morning: after dinner with dessert, late night drinking, meetings at work and it doesn’t matter whether you’re sad or happy, coffee is always there.
I add a couple creams and one sugar and take my first sip. It’s not good, but I keep drinking it anyway, appreciating the warmth and sweetness it brings. Looking at the goosebumps on my arms, I now realize how cold it is in here and take the coffee and hold it close to my chest brushing my long blonde hair to the side so it wouldn’t dip into the coffee but wondering why I even care.
The little pleasure it brings me makes me sad, reminding me of the happiness we’d all share at meal times. Just the day before with all his family surrounding him, my great grandpa woke up after being asleep for a day and said “I’m hungry! I need some breakfast!” So my mom and I went to Denny’s and got him a large special of pancakes, sausage, bacon, eggs and toast with jam. We sat by his side while he told us what bites he wanted. He couldn’t eat much and told us to “eat some too”. We sat there feeding him, ourselves and any family member that wanted a breakfast bite. Laughter, smiling, eating, conversing, togetherness; the mood was joyful.
That evening great grandpa even felt well enough to bellow out a song.
“I’ll see you in the Morning, bright dew on the grass, I can’t go any further” he pauses trying to think of the words while everyone listens, watching him in silence, “because I can’t think very fast” the last lyric was like a que for everyone to start laughing. Here is a man that was dying and he still had a way to make everyone laugh. My guess is that it is an old hymn of some sort; luckily I was able to record it on my phone. He was always breaking out in song of hymns, folk, country and occasionally Bing Crosby. I mean, he used to break out in song. I have to get used to referring to him in the past tense I remind myself.
We were told he was going home soon. We were told we’d have more time. Sure, hospice would be sent with him but we were still thankful to get him back home where he was comfortable. But… he went to bed that night and never woke up in the morning. He was still alive though, just sleeping is what everyone kept saying. Then morning turned into afternoon and time kept passing and he was still just sleeping but now we were saying it with hesitance. I guess he was singing about a different kind of morning.
I arrived at the hospital around 3 PM. The once happy mood of great grandpa getting to go home turned into a somber one of the truth. The time had come and we sat, waiting. A nurse came in to check his vitals and gave us a pitiful smile. My grandma, being a nurse herself interpreted his numbers and confirmed “It won’t be long now”.
Thinking back on these memories sends another shot of pain. I’m not there for my family I panic, I’m missing what’s going on, and maybe they need help with something. I run back to the room, setting the rest of my coffee on a cart just outside. It hasn’t been long since his passing, but others are already starting to leave. This is the last time I’ll see Grandpa it hits me. I ignore the looks and the questions of “where were you?” and go to his side and take his hand once more to say my last words to him. I don’t want to cry now; I want my speech clear and confident. I look at his face as if he were still alive.
“Goodbye Grandpa…I love you” I say like I have said a hundred times except I know this is the last time I’ll be saying it. I hope that he can hear me in some form.
Now it’s time to go. I can’t go on lingering and seeing his body any further knowing he can’t answer back or feel my hand. I have to get out, now.
“I’m leaving” I announce to the whole room and start to walk out. I might look like and sound like a psychopath but I don’t care at the moment. I want to say goodbye but I can’t do it that room. An assembly line of hugs and kisses are given until we all decide it’s enough and we walk out together. While walking, my mom tells me I should spend the night with great grandma so “she’s not alone”. I agree but I’m worried that I won’t be able to comfort her, I can barely comfort myself and I don’t understand what she is going through.
I drove separately to the hospital and I’m thankful because now I can really let loose on my own. Before I start the car, I play the recording from him singing yesterday and I break out in tears that just don’t stop. My hands wipe my tears like windshield wipers during a heavy rainfall and I start my car and leave. I notice the exit sign “Wixom” and I realize I’m almost at great grandma’s house and I don’t even remember most of the commute. I look at the tissues that are bundled in the passenger seat. I wonder how much water I’ve lost from crying; I wish I had something to drink.
Right off the exit, I spot a McDonalds. I decide it’s better to stop here for something to drink than to bother grandma. While waiting in line I see an ad for a large fry and my appetite returns. My body must be craving salt from all the crying I’ve done. I order a large fry and an unsweetened iced tea, eating it in the five minute duration to my great grandma’s house. I pull up to her house and notice her light in the living room is still on. I’m glad she’s not in bed yet.
Not knowing what to say to her, I greet her as usual. She’s already in her nightgown and ready for sleep. But she seems so out of sorts right now. When I talk to her she looks to the side without acknowledgment. I’m pretty sure she can’t comprehend what I am saying so I don’t say anything more. Part of her soul must have left with Grandpa.
I decide the best thing to do is to get ready for bed. Being 18 and pretty much using my car as suitcase, I already have pajama pants, a t-shirt and a toothbrush in tow. My mom also suggested sleeping in the same bed, on my great grandfather’s side, and although I feel uncomfortable being in his spot, I do as she suggests hoping it helps in some way.
I’ve never slept in the same bed as her and I feel so out of place. What if she reaches for grandpa in the middle of the night and finds me? How do I comfort her? I hope just being here is enough. I stay awake for a couple more hours thinking about our plans for tomorrow, how much I will miss him, how our family will change as a whole and how I will never look at McDonald’s french fries without thinking about this night.