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Grandpi's death shows there is nothing to fear

I just didn't know we were that close. Perhaps the arrival of Hospice should have been enough, the wake-up call I needed. Instead, I let myself think that the agency's work had expanded, that somehow it now reached out to those who need extra home care. Maybe it was selfish or some form of denial, but I only wanted a little more time. I kept saying: a few more months. I wasn't ready for change.

But my grandfather must have known. And, deep down, so did I.

I knew things weren't good when he refused his morning bagel; when he started sleeping through Wheel of Fortune; when pouring his own cup of coffee became a major accomplishment.

I knew things had started to slide when it wasn't his singing that shook the home we shared; it was his breathing. I knew when he forgot to take his pills.

I knew the day I came home and found him lying on his living room floor. Ashamed at his so-called "clumsiness," he told me repeatedly, "I'll never do that again." He laughed, but I'm pretty sure he knew then, too.

He must have known when he started talking about "retiring." Despite the macular degeneration that left my 89-year-old grandfather legally blind, he took great pride in his last bit of work: "counting the money" each week at a local parish. When his oxygen tank stopped him at the door, he knew. The end was near.

"I don't know why God is keeping me here," he'd admit. No bitterness, really, just confusion. His pain in the end -- his independence lost -- did not make any sense to him. A deacon who once ministered to the sick, it seemed a strange twist of fate to be on the receiving end of pastoral care. He was a practical man, and this final chapter seemed drawn out, dramatic.

So he fought back. He took more pills. Iron this time. I checked his weight and pulled up his support stockings. I even learned how to administer shots. All of it a bargaining effort, as if by this regimen we might appeal the heavens for one more day.

What is it about endings we resist so much? We can't help but sense the emptiness as these days grow dark and cold, as our broken trees tumble limb by limb. Something within us cries out: Is this all there is?

Then, one day, with barely any warning, the vigil began. The family arrived, cousins from across the country, friends from long ago. The bed was moved to the living room, and we toasted Grandpi's life. We looked at old photographs, and we looked at each other. We paced the floors. We sang songs, and we prayed. We held each other close. We waited, mostly.

And, in it -- in the whole dying process -- we came to see that there really was nothing to fear. Amid all of this hiding from it; all of this wishing it away; we nearly missed the point of why we're here after all. It's sad, only because no one wants to say good-bye -- because we don't know for certain what's on the other side.

But in his last breaths, poor old Deacon Joe remained a man of faith and courage. He raised his hand to bless us on that last day. He seemed to smile, even as he journeyed away.

See, he did know. But for him, it wasn't the end that was near. He knew that, too. I'm quite sure. And in that moment, so did we.

Mary Jo Gill, of Snyder, believes her beloved grandfather is now in a better place.

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