Tobias Buckell’s post about his grandfather’s recent death reminded me of my own experience. I’m thankful that I don’t have the same conflicted memories.
My grandpa died a few years ago on a warm June day. I’m sorry, but I can’t recall the exact date anymore. I do remember that it was a beautiful day. Grass and leaves were every shade of green and flowers were in full bloom already.
He had been in and out of the hospital in Cincinnati (in the ‘city,’ as he and the rest of the family out there in Indiana called it) for several years with emphysema and other problems. It was Thursday the night we went to see him at the hospital.
My mother (his oldest daughter) had called me and said that it didn’t look good and that we should go and see him as soon as possible. I hated getting these calls. We, my sisters and brother and I, had gotten them with a sort of regularity over the last decade and things generally were never as bad as they sounded.
I went to the hospital that Thursday evening, taking along my wife of two years and my oldest son who had been born on Leap Day that year. I didn’t know what to expect. When you get a call like that, you don’t know. It could be very bad, or reassuringly normal in most ways.
This time was oddly normal. Grandpa seemed tired, pale, but he was himself. He had spent his whole life working hard, never complaining about the hand he’d been dealt in life. He was happy. He had built all that he had with his own hands.
He greeted us by name and was excited to see the son of his oldest grandson. I have a picture of him sitting there in a wheelchair, his hair white and his body thin and frail, holding my son who looked huge in his lap (he was huge). On Grandpa’s face is a look of pure joy. It’s that look that I remember.
A week later, I got another call from my mother. It was Thursday morning and I was at work. She told me that I should come out to Grandma and Grandpa’s house right away. I stopped home to pick up my family and we went out there as quickly as we could.
When we got there, most of my mother’s family was there. They talked nervously and tried to smile and laugh in that sad way that conveys clearly that they don’t feel like smiling or laughing. There was a nun there who would lead them in a prayer every once in a while, a quick Our Father or Hail Mary that left me feeling rather empty.
They explained to me that Grandpa had been released from the hospital the night before and they’d brought him home. They’d had a late supper and he had sat at his table and eaten with Grandma and my aunt and uncle, but had been so tired he could barely finish and had to be helped to bed. He never woke up.
I remember sitting alone with Grandpa, watching him breathing so hard, every bit of air that he took in cost him the effort of his whole body. His eyes were closed. I sat there and didn’t know what to say. I stroked his arm and held his hand and thought about our conversation in the hospital one week before.
He’d told me that the doctors said there was more that could be done, but that the decision had to be his. At his age there was only so much time left.
“What do you think, Ray?” He asked me. I remember telling him that it was about the quality of his life and he nodded. He knew the answer. He told me that his mother had lived to 88 and his father to 86. He was 87.
“That’s a good age,” he’d said. I nodded.
Before we left, I hugged him and he put his arm around me and kissed me on the cheek, scraping my cheek with his rough whiskers that I remembered so well from my earliest childhood.
“I love you, Grandpa,” I said.
“I love you, too, Ray.”
That next Thursday, he died while I sat beside his bed. My uncle had come in and my aunts, too, and we sat or stood around the bed as Grandpa stopped breathing. He died in his own bed in the house that he and his brothers had built with their own hands.
I walked outside a little later as we waited for the men from the funeral home to come pick Grandpa up. I sat outside with my uncle, my godfather, who had been up all night at his father’s bedside. We said a few words about the weather and he closed his eyes and leaned his head back.
I stood on the front porch and looked at the farm around me, at the step right there where I’d sat so many times with Grandpa as he smoked his pipe and taught me things about life. I’d followed him around as a child and helped with anything I could and Grandpa always waited patiently for me and explained every little thing in his quiet voice.
What I remember the most from that day is how all the colors of the world seemed less bright, like they’d faded after too many washings. Inside, I felt emptied of something. I was sad, but I couldn’t help but be proud of my Grandpa. He’d lived his life the way he wanted to. He’d raised his family the way he wanted to and worked hard to provide for them. In the sadness there was a sense of things being right.
I knew that in the end he’d died the way he wanted to. He had made up his mind, maybe that night a week before when we’d spoken at the hospital, alone after everyone else had left the room. In that quiet moment, I knew him better than ever before and finally knew him as a man. And that’s how I’ll remember him, as a man who worked hard and honestly, the way he saw fit, and died the same way.