My grandfather passed away March 11. It wasn’t unexpected, as he had been battling a stomach/bile duct cancer for almost two years, but it was still painful to have that realization wash over me. I always wondered how I would find out – would my grandmother call? My dad? My mom? But in this instance, I knew almost immediately. My aunts, my parents, and I were on a group text for weeks talking about his condition and the almost daily progress/decline. On March 10th he was moved into hospice and we were told to expect one to two weeks given his condition. The next day it was one to two days. And within one to two hours, he was gone.
Death is a funny thing. We know it’s coming for all of us, yet it’s still such a painful, unexpected event. Even in the case of my almost-90 year old grandfather. I know some people are taken from our lives “too soon,” (and I only put that in quotes because is there really enough time with anyone that we love?) and because of that I understand how wonderful it was for me to have my grandfather until I was 34, and I was able to know what an incredible life he lived firsthand.
The son of a coal miner. An accomplished architect, carpenter, and artist. Husband for almost 67 years. Father to six. Grandfather to three, and great-grandfather to my daughter. I look at the details of his life – his interests, friends, talents – and see a great human being that I am proud to have descended from.
A few weeks ago, since we knew his death was near, my husband and I planned to drive back to Chicago once we learned of the news. With one to two days “remaining,” I worked, lightly cleaned up, etc. But that afternoon as I heard he “was in heaven now,” I struggled to get everything taken care of before we left the next morning. We left on a Saturday even though the wake and funeral were not planned until the next Friday and Saturday. I wanted to have some time to be back at home with my family before everything took place.
Because the wake and funeral were quite a few days after we arrived at my parent’s home, most of our visit seemed like a normal vacation. Once we made it to the wake and funeral, however, my emotions showed up once again and I had a rough few days. I was able to do a reading at the funeral and give a speech at the luncheon – something I promised myself many years ago to always do if it was appropriate and I was able.
When I was in junior high, a friend’s mother passed away from ovarian cancer. She was only in her 40s, I believe, and everyone was understandably devastated. At her services, no one got up to speak about this woman they all loved. I was only 12 or 13 at the time, but I found this strange and very sad. Because of this, I vowed to myself to always speak at a funeral. I thought I owed it to the deceased and the family. Since then, I’ve lived up to my promise, but I’ve also added a few caveats. First, “If it is appropriate.” Not every funeral needs another speaker, especially if I am not that close to the departed. And second, “If I am able.” Clearly, if I’m not present I can’t speak. But I also gave myself that out because I can’t imagine being able to speak for either of my parents, or husband, or anyone else tremendously close to me.
Since I made that vow, I have spoken at 5 funerals I have attended – my great-aunt in 2008, my grandfather in 2009, my oldest friend’s father in 2009, my grandmother in 2011, and my grandfather in 2016. (The ones I did not speak at were ones it was not appropriate as I was not very close to the deceased.) It was most difficult this last time, perhaps because I’m now a mother and my imagination runs even more wild at the concept of being a parent and losing a parent.
Something else I have done since before my great-aunt passed away in 2008 is to write a letter to the dying and share with them happy memories and thoughts I have of them and us together. I do this partly because when I am very sad I find it difficult to speak my feelings without bawling constantly, and also because usually I am not physically near by. I also do it because I want these people to know how much they’ve meant to me in my life, and to hopefully give them a smile as they are in their last days. I wrote a letter to my great-aunt because she was dying of stage 4 lung cancer, so I knew she was going to pass away soon and I wanted to tell her how much I appreciated her. Same with my friend’s father. I didn’t write letters to my grandfather or grandmother because I was with my grandfather almost constantly, and both he and my grandmother died from complications of alzheimer’s and dementia. I probably made an assumption they knew from my actions how much I loved them rather than having to comprehend a letter.
I also wrote a letter to my grandfather. In late January, we found out his condition was worsening. Originally I had planned to go to Chicago for Easter to both visit him, and celebrate the holiday and my birthday, but I had a feeling I should go sooner. Coupled with my grandmother’s comment of “I hope he’s still around for Easter,” I knew I should change my plans. My daughter and I went out just a week or two later and spent a few days with him. It was difficult for me to see him that way and to do much of anything without a tear in my eye, but I knew it was important to spend time with him. One day we sat together on the sofa and I recorded some videos of him telling me stories. Most of the time, I sat there thinking about all of the things I wanted to be sure I told him before it was too late. And, since I have seemingly overactive tear ducts, I couldn’t possibly get anything out without making him uncomfortable and me a sopping mess. Hence the need for a letter. My grandmother let me know “I read it to him and his eyes beamed and he had a huge smile while I was reading your words.”
After my grandfather’s funeral, we spent one more day in Chicago before heading back home. My grandfather was a saver, and there are many things the family needs to go through in order for my grandmother to even think about downsizing. Because I am an organizer at heart, I spent our last day in town at my grandmother’s home going through the papers on his desk. It gave me a chance to help my grandmother, but also a way to help me get another glimpse into this man I knew and loved. A few of my aunts took extended vacations to be with their mom, and they’re continuing the cleaning up process.
My grandfather was an architect and carpenter and he loved to make gifts for his family and friends. Because of this, I have pieces of my grandfather’s talent all over my home that I interact with daily. My grandmother asked if there was anything I wanted to take of his, and I couldn’t think of anything. Then I realized that was because he would be with me every day through the gifts he’d already given me. I have items in almost every room of our home from him, and I use these items with care and appreciation, just as he put such care into them as he made them. What wonderful memories I hold.