This is gonna be another heavy blog post. Warning: it’s about death.
My life last week was put on hold because I lost my grandfather, Carl, on Sunday. We were very close– I’m close to all of my family– and it hit me hard. We had our differences, but he was a wonderful and well-loved man. I miss him like hell.
Writing about this sort of thing is intensely therapeutic for me. If you’re the kind of person who feels awkward when reading personal accounts, turn away now: but remember that I’m freely putting this on the Internet for a reason. Losing someone is an alienating experience, for one thing, and if I can help anyone feel a little less alone I’ll have done what I wanted to do. Mostly, though, I’m aware that this is a subject people tend to avoid.
And we should talk about it more. It’s human. Unifying.
So here’s me talking about it.
On Thursday, October 22, I got the message that my grandfather was in the hospital. He’s been in and out of the hospital for over a decade, but each and every time it’s jarred me. Carl survived a lot: strokes, heart attacks, a whole medley of cancers. My family jokes– still, even after all this– that he had nine lives. As my aunt said, there’s a couple cats up in heaven wondering why they went early.
Anyway, something felt different about this particular hospitalization. My dad dropped everything to go see him, which he never does– and he texted me immediately. That entire side of the family converged on the hospital. I was kept informed through texts and phone calls. He had a history. I wasn’t sure if I needed a phone call just yet.
I live 1,200 miles away from my family. The techno-magic of the Information Age usually makes that distance seem negligible: the one-hour time difference is a little odd, but that’s it. On Thursday and Friday, I felt that distance. I finished up work on Thursday with a heavy, distant heart: on Friday, due to a bit of fortunate human error, I had a day off. My grandfather seemed to be doing a little better. He was stable, at least.
On Saturday, in the early afternoon, I got a phone call from my father. In an incredibly short preamble, he told me that they were giving my grandfather something to sleep– so he was going to hold up the phone so I could tell him I loved him.
I wish I’d had time to think up something beautiful.
I wish I’d had time to think up something comforting.
Instead, I suddenly realized I had nothing to say to my grandfather on his deathbed. Should I say he’d been a wonderful grandfather, an inspiring figure in my life? I’d told him every time I saw him in person for the past five years– at least twice a year, sometimes more. That I loved him? He knew, it’s the last thing I said every time I called the man. And usually the first. Side effect of anxiety: I’ve never been sparing with expressions of affection.
And what would that do? He was terrified of death, who isn’t? If these were his last waking moments I didn’t want him to be afraid. So I tried to talk about the future. “Tried” being the operative word: I babbled. I told my grandfather that I loved him and I knew he’d get better. I told him I couldn’t wait to see him again, and that I’d see him soon. I told him to get some rest.
And then, in an instant, my dad had the phone again. “I need to be out there,” I told him.
I travelled 1200 miles in 12 hours. It was the fastest I could manage it. My trip alternated between adrenaline-fueled anxious terror and wet, tearful breakdowns: I had a delay in O’Hare that involved me sobbing quietly and uncontrollably in a corner by my gate. I was sure I wouldn’t make it. My mother picked me up at Reagan National Airport in DC, and we drove the three hours straight to the hospital.
It took forever. I was fully expecting a phone call along the way: “He’s gone. It’s okay. Take your time.” But we did make it. Dad met us in the hospital parking garage. He walked us up to the room.
I thought I’d be alarmed when I saw him in the hospital. I already knew they were “making him comfortable”. I knew he was on his deathbed. He’d been in chemotherapy. He’d lost a lot of hair. He’d lost a lot of weight. But honestly, I was just incredibly happy to see him. He was breathing hard, he was asleep, but he was there. His hand was limp, but it was his.
I was alarmed by his breathing, I admit. It sounded like he’d go any minute– the Alex of Saturday evening was a lot younger than the Alex of Sunday morning, and I still thought it’d be quick. I clung to his hand like a raft in a storm. They told me to talk to him, but again I had nothing I needed to say. I told him, well, didn’t I say I’d see him soon? And I cried a little.
Mom and I reminisced.
Making a school project on Shackleton: the whole family recorded a script that went along with a “miniature wax museum” I’d built in a box meant for wine bottles. Carl was Shackleton, with his deep, booming voice. His singing: old sailor songs, booming Bible verses. How much I’d loved him as a brand-new little person: all our recent memories. Thanksgivings. Christmasses.
There’s a lot they don’t tell you about dying in a hospital. Or at least, there’s a lot I didn’t know.
Like, I didn’t know how long it would take. My grandmother chose to take him off of oxygen around 4 AM– he didn’t pass on until 5:45. And after a certain point, they turn off the display with all the vital signs. It’s important for the family to focus on being with their loved one, not obsessing over what the heartbeat monitor says. And death doesn’t always mean the cessation of a heartbeat: my grandfather’s pacemaker kept it going long after his blood pressure dropped to zero. They had to get an extra-strong magnet and deactivate it. Classic Carl.
What surprised me most, though, was… Well, there’s no easy way to say it. There was a lot about dying that I put down to superstition and ascribing meaning to coincidence. I always assumed all the deathbed-side stories said more about the living than the dead. Except…
Fifteen minutes after we showed up, the nurse pulled my father and aunt aside to tell them he was fading fast, and to get the rest of the family there. I’d heard about that. I assumed that when people said a loved one “waited for them”, they were talking about a lucky coincidence. Hitting that fifteen-minute window after a 12-hour journey is exceptional circumstance, though, and I had a medically-literate uncle checking his vital signs constantly to confirm what the nurses were telling us. I can’t explain that one away, not rationally. He waited. Not as a conscious decision, but he waited.
After we took him off the oxygen, his already-erratic breathing slowed. He wasn’t gasping for air, but his breaths were shallow and they weren’t doing much. Finally my grandmother told him it was all right, he could go, and he stopped. Just like that. Immediately.
Well, almost. My uncle commented that my grandmother was the only one Carl ever listened to, and he immediately took one last breath, just to get in the last word. This is, for anyone who knew him, also classic Carl. I’d been telling people all week that he’d out-talk the Grim Reaper just getting in the last word. I didn’t expect that to be quite so literal.
I don’t know.
Part of me is disconcerted: it feels like I’ve come face-to-face with proof of something I always considered supernatural. Part of me is comforted: I also always believed that everyone dies alone, and I’ve been conclusively disproven. He did not die alone. He went out in a room full of laughter and love and tears. He even got in that one last word.
There’s a lot I didn’t know about death, despite always considering the concept an old friend. This was not my first time losing someone close to me: it was my first time seeing someone draw their last breath. I’m shaken. I took a few low-key, fun jobs at work. I’ve been doing the usual pre-NaNo social stuff, although I’ve had to skip out of a few events early. Social stuff is hard right now. And I haven’t been sleeping well, but I think that’s to be expected.
We got him a gorgeous little box by a lake. He was cremated, so it’s not like he’s gonna be underground in the water table, and it looked like home for my grandmother. The first time I saw her smile after he passed was when she chose the spot. I’ve never seen a lovelier grave site.
I sort of feel like a robot, writing this. I know it’s disjointed.
Anyway. That’s why I took a week off from the blog. I’m slowly getting back to the real world. The blog will return to a semi-normal schedule next week, although I’ll have an announcement on Thursday about what I’ll be doing over the month of November.
So before I end the post… Take a moment to let the people close to you know you love them. Call your parents. Call your grandparents. Give someone a hug. Seriously. I knew I’d be grateful later, when I made time to visit my grandparents. I love them immensely. But I don’t think I could have ever guessed exactly how grateful.
Appreciate what makes you lucky.