I spent the weekend saying farewell to extended family members—both my mother’s family and my father’s. Saturday evening, at Grandma’s place, she gave me unsolicited relationship advice…advice that I will follow.
March 19, 2004, my grandfather passed away. His name was Irving. I cannot believe that it has nearly been a year since I received the phone call that morning, since Miles and I made the impromptu drive northward. My cousin’s writings skimmed the subject of his death, and they were the first pinches that I felt through the shock.
I feel funny admitting that I was shocked, but in hindsight I can see that I was. His health had been deteriorating. He smoked for 50 years before his first big health scare in the summer of 1996 when he struggled for breath. He was taken to the emergency room and hospitalized for a week while they drained his lungs of fluid and cured his ailing body of infection. He quit smoking. I am so proud of him for quitting. He had a fifty-year crutch and he was brave enough to find the strength to walk unassisted.
They tested him again and again for Cancer. (I will always refer to this demon as a proper noun.) It looked like a duck and it quacked like a duck…but the tests would come back with nary a duck in sight. Grandpa had avoided doctors for years before that first incident in 1996 because he feared the duck. After, every test was an exercise in anxiety, every negative result was a sigh of relief. Still, Grandpa was getting weaker. The strong, handsome man that I knew was fading away.
He had a humor to him that I reveled in, and I loved to hear him talk to his high maintenance wife. They were so opposite! (Naturally, you know what they say about opposites.) She was the drama queen to his dry humor. One afternoon, after a widowed acquaintance of theirs remarried, my grandmother announced, “Irv, if you go first, I’ll never marry anybody else!” While we were all rolling our eyes at her maudlin delivery, he replied in a bored monotone, “Well who’d want ya?”
And then there were the times when he was talking about her, and he’d refer to her as “mummie” and the soft sweetness of the name, along with the revered way he spoke it…well it warmed you from within.
The doctor appointments became more regular as he dealt with this virus or that. Grandma and Grandpa moved off of their farm and into a condo. The farm had been in our family since 1892. I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that it’s no longer ours…that the glorious woods are now developed with xeroxed houses. Developers were hounding them to sell for so long…and Grandpa had 2 sisters who were due their share of inheritance from their parents. Maybe he knew he was slipping away…maybe he was trying to save his wife the headache of selling…he loved that farm. He was born and raised there, he built his family there, he met his grandchildren there, he retired there…and in 2003, it was no longer his.
In March of 2004, he was taken to the hospital by ambulance yet again. (This had become somewhat regular since settling in the condo…I think moving away from the farm wounded his spirit.) By this time, he was using oxygen tanks full-time to breathe. The doctors decided to go duck hunting again, as they had so many times already in just the short existence of 2004…but this time the results were very different than all of the other times.
I cannot piece together the memories clearly, as forgetting seems to be my coping mechanism—but it was either a Monday or a Tuesday when they found him to be a victim of Lung Cancer. He came home to Grandma feeling defeated that Wednesday. On Friday, he was gone.
I never fully processed his passing until the last 4 or so months. It’s difficult living far away from your loved ones as you can convince yourself of untruths as well as imagine the situation to be hearts and flowers while it’s grim and cold. Miles and I made the journey back to North Carolina after about a week in Wisconsin last March, and I think I was numb. The grief didn’t come. The well had broken during the funeral, but it had patched again by that evening and I was a zombie. Miles told me in awe, “I hope I can handle this situation even half as well as you are when it’s my turn.” I remember nodding mechanically and thinking, “What is he talking about?” I was that out-of-it.
I remember Dad calling me while Grandpa was still in the hospital that last time. I remember him crying about his father, even before they found the Cancer. I remember him relaying, his voice breaking, that the doctors were saying years but that he didn’t think Grandpa would be around for Easter. I remember comforting him and saying, “You’re scared right now, and that’s ok. If they say he has years, than I’m sure that he does.” Blind faith has always been one of my bigger downfalls. I trust too readily. And this time, I was painfully wrong. My dad saw it, and he saw it when his sisters and his mother didn’t, or just couldn’t…he knew. The bonds we form with our parents can be so tight that the echoes of logic ricochet off of our ears, never penetrating.
Grandma told me that one day, weeks before Grandpa died, he drove over to where the woods used to be. He and his sisters all had roads named after them, and that day, he took a drive on his road. Grandma said, “He thought that was pretty neat.”
She told me to go home hug my husband tightly, to cherish every moment with him. She wishes me to be unlike her. She wishes that I not wake up alone one morning and realize that I never said the words that I needed to say, even if the sentiments were known and felt…she says you need to say them…you need to show them.
And, I will.