*Trigger warning: This story discusses death and dying.
You knew his picture was going to be in the church, but right in front of you, you didn’t expect. In a frame by the altar, his smile said it all; a proud father, grandfather, and future great-grandfather clad in his beloved plaid, flannel shirt and posing in front of the corn stalks that he planted for his family to enjoy. Pumpkins from his garden rested at his feet, and you remember family picture day as if it were yesterday. You remember the laughter, the silliness, and the joy. You’re excited to read at your brother’s wedding, honored even, that you were asked. With your hair in an up-do and donned in your mint green dress and sparkly shoes, you’re confident when you walk to the podium as you’ve read many times before. You’ve practiced the reading too, but that was before. Now, you’re unprepared. Sure, you have a solid start. You’re reading effortlessly until you see the word.
The little black letter soldiers were standing at attention; your attention. Their salute was in stark contrast to the bright white page on which they were printed. Put them in a different formation, and you wouldn’t have batted an eye.
The word was buried in a sea of other words. If you hadn’t been in charge of reading them, your eyes could have glazed over. Of course, the reading was about marriage, but all your focus has now become death. The marriage vows hadn’t been said yet, no till death do us part, but the waterworks wait for no one.
You and your family had made a pact. You had to compartmentalize your grief. The funeral was pushed to the next week. The wedding was going to be happy. That’s the way he would have wanted it. Only happy tears were expected. You’d set your grief aside and jumped into wedding mode; now, however, you were crumbling. Your sister had read first and had nailed her reading. No tears there. You thought you’d be okay, but all the emotions strike you at once. You remember the picture, and you can’t speak. You glance at the other bridesmaids, and your sister is in tears too. You barely pull yourself together, and you squeak out the rest of the reading. You felt guilty being sad at your brother’s wedding and were worried you had put a damper on it. You learned that many people cried with you. They supported you and weren’t judging you after all. It was a sad moment, but it didn’t ruin the wedding. The wedding was happy.
After surviving for fourteen months post diagnosis, you started believing that your grandfather was invincible. That maybe somehow a mistake had been made. He didn’t really have cancer; he would pull through. You thought surely he’d live to see the wedding day, and then his birthday in September. Your mother had bought him dress clothes for the day, clothes that became his burial clothes, and he had even talked about being a part of the celebration. Your brother and your sister-in-law had a wedding registry. Even though he was ill, your grandfather had excitedly looked through it for the perfect gift for his grandson and new granddaughter. He hadn’t known your sister-in-law long, but you knew he approved. You knew he loved her too. Your heart broke when a day after the wedding, the gift was opened because it wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair that your grandfather didn’t get to share in the day or see his gift opened. It wasn’t fair that the newlyweds were in mourning. You had to remind yourself not to be angry, especially not to be angry at God. God had other plans. Your grandfather had other plans. Death only reveals itself to those whose spirit is already emerging from their bodies. In fact, you’re pretty certain your grandfather was halfway to heaven even before he took his last breath.
The weekend before the wedding, you and your brother went to the family reunion in Pennsylvania. It was your grandfather’s family. It would have been easy not to go because the rest of your family couldn’t, your grandfather included. Someone had to stay with Pop, but your brother was determined, and for that you’ll be forever grateful. You only saw the Pennsylvania relatives once a year. You thought it would be awkward with just you and your brother. Instead, you felt more connected and stronger bonds were formed. You were sure to send pictures to your grandfather. You also had passed the video chat around, so he could say hi to everyone. Little did you know, it was also goodbye. The Sunday night you returned home, your grandfather took a turn for the worse. By Tuesday morning, he was gone. His family was important to him and so were the family reunions. Knowing that he got to see them all happy and well and the timing of his death makes you believe that you brought him closure. You take comfort in that because closure is what he would have wanted.
You take comfort in knowing he’s not suffering, that’s he’s finally at peace. You were blessed with the gift of time. You had fourteen months of dinners, visits, and card playing. You even did family bingo with your extended family over Zoom meetings because your grandfather loved to play, but you selfishly want more. You want your grandfather at your eventual wedding, and you want him to hug your future children as he's hugged your cousins' children. Now, he’ll have a different seat, an even better view. He’ll give your children a hug and a kiss before you meet them, before they’re sent to you. Every time you left his house he would tell you to turn on the outside light and watch your step. When the day came and you knew he had hours and not days, he couldn’t speak so you said it for him. The light is on and I’ll watch my step. You knew it was quite possibly the last thing you would ever say to him. What do you say? Instead of sobbing about how much you loved him- the love was there, everyone could feel it- you opted to show him that you would be okay without him. You didn’t know if it was the right thing to do, but you know it’s what he would have wanted.