My grandfather died in May 2019. I typically write an essay after each major loss as part of my mourning. But I was not able to keep this practice when he died. Not until now. Writing has been difficult the past few years for so many reasons but in this case, I think I needed to let the loss breathe a bit before I could bring it to the page. I hope he'd be honored by the result.
I must have been preparing myself for months, throughout the updates on doctor appointments and hospitalizations. When I received word that Grandpa had been diagnosed with cancer, I thought, "of course.”
And maybe that knowing was something deeper or because so often that's how things end up in my family. Or because Grandma had been gone 12 years at that point and Grandpa kept saying things like, "this might be my last Family Reunion" and "this is probably my last Christmas." When I found out he'd opted for hospice, I wasn't surprised. He was 91. His other health problems meant he was unlikely to survive the aggressive chemo. He was ready to go.
This wasn't the first major loss I experienced while living out of state but it was the first time a loved one entered hospice and I wasn't there to help. Not since I worked for the same hospice that cared for my great-aunt and Grandma all those years earlier. Hundreds of things have changed in my life and in our family since then and yet I kept puzzling over how to be a good granddaughter from afar even though I knew there was nothing I could do. The roadmap changed and I did my best to adapt.
It all felt surreal, as if it was happening to someone else.
Grandpa started hospice shortly before my trip to San Francisco that spring and I received word of a shorter than expected prognosis. A prognosis is still only an educated guess; things could change quickly or stay their course. I’d seen both happen countless times throughout my former career. In any case, I couldn't reschedule my trip, not without throwing things off for other people, and so I decided to proceed as planned, knowing I might reroute directly to Chicagoland upon my return.
Grandpa held steady and I still wasn't sure what to do. Did I try to see him one last time? I called my cousin Adam to puzzle it out and then dealt with logistics.
I'm self-employed and throughout that spring and summer, it was near impossible to take any time off because of how busy work was. I may have traveled to San Francisco but I worked the whole time I was there—the beauty of working remotely. I flew back to Nashville, then drove to Louisville as planned for in-person work with a client, then jetted up to the Chicago suburbs that Saturday.
I didn't know what to expect. The last time I'd set foot in his nursing home, I'd been visiting one of my hospice patients. I knew this place and yet now I experienced it in a new way. When I found his room, I wasn't sure who would be there or if he'd wake at all for however long I stayed. My hands shook from nerves. The unknown has always held more sway over me than I'd like.
My aunt sat on a bed next to a reclined chair holding Grandpa, stretched out, asleep. Half his size. My aunt and I hugged and she gave me a quick update, then told me to wake Grandpa up. She warned me he probably wouldn't stay awake long.
Just from looking at him in the chair, I knew this was true.
But still. I put my hand on top of one of his and gently squeezed. His eyes popped right open and the moment his eyes alit on mine, a smile broke across his face. "Leigh!" He boomed, just like usual. Not quite as loud, perhaps, but with the same enthusiasm he'd been greeting me with for the past 39 years.
His hearing aids weren’t really working so I raised my voice to fill him in on life. He was tired and his eyes kept fluttering shut. He was frustrated by his inability to really visit but also resigned. He didn’t say it in so many words but he was ready to go.
My aunt and I talked quietly while Grandpa slept. He’d rouse himself every so often and ask for a sip of water or change the position of the chair.
He woke back up when it was time for me to leave. He clasped my hands, his skin papery but warm. “I couldn’t have asked for a better granddaughter,” he declared, his eyes intent on mine. I nodded, a lump in my throat, because this was it. I knew Grandpa loved me but he was not prone to such statements. This was what he wanted to leave me with and I clutched it close to my heart, grateful I’d decided to come.
A week later, he died.
There are so many stories I could tell you about Grandpa. How he piled all the grandkids into the bed of his pickup and drove us down the country roads. The popcorn he made every Friday night was always perfectly seasoned. The time he let me drive a tractor when I was 10 or 11—I steered, he manned the pedals. The way he boomed my name with a big smile on his face every time he saw me. Grandpa couldn’t really understand my life as a single woman—his sisters had been nuns and I definitely am not—but I never doubted he loved me.
After the funeral, after the cemetery, and well after the luncheon, most of the family headed over to the farm. Grandpa turned it over to my uncle when I was around 5 years old and my grandparents built a small house next door. Visiting the farm or my grandparents was synonymous and rarely did a visit go by spring through fall without walking over to find kittens in the barn or skip rocks at the creek (pronounced “crick.”)
After trading stories and remembrances, the grandkids (and a couple great-grandkids) walked down to that same creek. Grandpa was there in the land he tilled for so many years. He was there in our faces.
We are not the same without him but these things remain: the farm, the creek, our love.
Our last picture together, July 2018