I’ve avoided talking about it up until now partially because we were unsure what was happening and partly because, frankly, it’s just too hard to talk about. But my grandfather is dying. He’s been sick for years, slowly getting worse then rapidly bouncing back. Last June, I drove out to New Jersey with my wedding dress in tow so that he could see it in case he didn’t make it to our September wedding. By September, he was home and in good spirits. We’ve received the call that he might not make it through the weekend so many times that even my younger cousins are now like, “Oh, it’s January and Poppop’s back in the hospital? Well, he was about due.” And the toll it is taking on my grandmother is getting more and more noticeable.
This time, however, is different. This time he is on hospice – done with the ICU altogether, in the comfort of his own home, sleeping on a hospital bed in the middle of his living room. This time we have family driving in from all over to say their goodbyes and tell him they love him. This time, no one expects him to bounce back.
We drove out this Sunday to see him, not knowing what to expect. Would he even make it until we got there? I wasn’t so sure. Every time my phone went off with a text notification or phone call, my heart sunk. Every time I wondered if this was THE phone call and we had just missed him. Every time I wondered what I would be subjecting my daughter to once we got there. Should she see him? Should she stay outside? Should I give her the option to decide for herself? How do you introduce death to someone so innocent? How do you tell her that this will probably be the last time she ever sees her great-grandfather? How do you put what is happening into words and still stay strong for her?
I got to thinking of my life with him and what he means to me. It’s something I’ve thought about often, but something I’ve always had the option of revisiting… when we made new memories. Now, I think all the memories are made, so I want to share a few. My parents were very young when they started their family, and so we lived with my grandparents until I was 10. I grew up sharing a room with my aunt like a sister would, fighting with my uncle over bathroom or phone time like a brother, and being scolded by my grandparents like a second set of parents. Our family dynamic was nontraditional to say the least, but it’s the reason we’re all so close today – even when we’re not all so close.
In an almost all Catholic house, we were raised Methodist because we actually enjoyed going to Poppop’s church and Sunday school. Poppop was a part of the choir, as were we, and his voice was so deep and so loud that you could hear it throughout the church without a microphone. When standing beside him in the pew it would startle us every time and make us kids chuckle at how loud he was. It’s sad to know I’ll never hear the loud boom of his singing voice echo through the church again. Sundays after church were family days where we would all have “supper” together. As we all grew up and became busy with our individual lives, it somehow became Wednesday night dinners. Even as an adult, I would drive up to their home to share Wednesday nights with them and catch them up on my week.
Each week on his bowling night, Poppop would alternate taking my sister, my brother, or me with him. He would give us money to play in the arcade while he bowled. It was our special one on one time with him. I remember not knowing the pinball machine had a start button on it, and thinking it kept eating my money. When I went to get Poppop to tell him about it, he walked me back, only to find a kid that had been watching and using my quarters for his own games each time I left. Poppop stood up for me and made that kid give me back my money.
We would spend summers in the backyard around Gram and Poppop’s in-ground pool. Gram wasn’t a swimmer. She’s actually terrified of the water. But Poppop would lay out there for hours with us, applying and reapplying baby oil to his skin (hey, it was the 80s). He would watch us swim, and help us move the blue Fischer Price elephant slide over to the edge so that we could slide into the deep end.
He was not a man without flaws. He battled an alcohol addiction for years, he could be quick-tempered and gruff at times, and he has taken my grandmother for granted more times than I can count. But he is a good man. He loves his family to no end. He’s quick to get off of the phone, but always leaves with an I love you. In our family, we all kiss and hug hello and goodbye and we always say I love you. We are always there for each other, because that was the kind of family he and my grandmother raised. We all know an unsettling number of corny jokes – jokes that we have all dubbed “Poppop jokes” – because that’s the kind of sense of humor he has. Some of his favorites include: “Are you alright? No, you’re not; you’re half left.” (when calling)”Did I get you up? Well, were you sitting down?” And, in June when my sisters and I took him outside at the rehabilitation facility he was staying at, we were trying to figure out if a bird in the parking lot had died or not, and Poppop, knowing it had been run over said, “Maybe it’s just tired.” Even though it’s usually one of those, “Wow, that joke was terrible” laughs, he has always found a way to make us laugh.
As I said before, last September, we held our wedding in New Jersey, in the town where my grandparents live to optimize the chances of them attending. Luckily, they were both able to attend, and my grandmother and daughter joined in on the father-daughter dance so that we had 4 generations dancing together. It was a beautiful day, made even more so by the fact that so many of the people who mean the world to me were able to share the day with us. My grandparents had to leave early, so there are not as many pictures of them as I had hoped to get. But the few I have I will cherish for the rest of my life.
All of these thoughts and more passed through my head as we made the 6 hour drive from our home to theirs. Over the past 6 1/2 years, one of the hardest parts of moving out to western PA has been being so far from them. I have known for a while that their time is limited and I have gone out of my way to make sure my peanut knows them and knows what they mean to me. Until I got a full time job a few years ago, I made the drive at least once every month. I have been there for graduations, for family parties, for their 50th anniversary party. I have eaten crow and asked my daughter’s father to take her to see them at home or in the hospital when I could not make the drive.
Taking her out there for what is probably the last time to see him (there will still be many more visits) was absolutely heartbreaking. I had to explain to her in terms she would understand what was happening. I had to put it in a way that she could relate to without completely scaring or scarring her. I did my best. When we arrived, my sister was waiting outside and asked me to step out of the car before my daughter or my husband. I was sure Poppop was gone. She filled me in on his situation and asked if I wanted to keep my daughter outside. As I’ve shown in previous posts, I don’t lie to her. I told her the situation and let her decide what she wanted to do. She wanted to go in.
We went inside, spent a few hours with him, and told him how much we love him. He mostly slept through the whole thing, but he woke up to answer us and to smile. When my aunt and uncle started playfully arguing over who his favorite was, he woke up shortly to answer that Mom was his favorite. It means the world to me that one of my final memories of him has him appreciating my grandmother for everything she has done and sacrificed for him. One of my final memories will be him smiling at my daughter and telling her he loves her. One of my final memories will be of my wonderful husband holding his hand, holding back his own tears, telling him that he loves him and thanking him for holding on long enough for us to get there. We left him late last night because there is nothing else that we can do before the end. I’m glad we got those final few moments with him, though.
So, to Poppop, thank you for everything you have done, everything you have made me, and everything you have shown our family about love and life. Thank you for a wonderful childhood, for sticking around long enough to know 2 of your 4 great-grandchildren, and for smiling up until the end. Thank you for showing me that there are marriages that can go through hell and back and still last over 50 years. T and I hope we are as in love as you and Gram are after 54 years together. Thank you for some of the worst jokes of my life. I will cherish them forever. I love you.