I never imagined how hard going to sleep last night would be, because in the back of (and the forefront of) my mind, I knew I'd be waking up to the one year anniversary of my grandfather's death. Humans are so strange, the way we mark time. I wonder if any other being clings to it quite like we do to make meaning of their lives. And yet, here I lie, remembering where I was a year ago...the years and moments leading up to it, and what seems to have been the blink of an eye since.
I find myself taken aback by the waves of emotion that have snuck up on me the last week or so. I loved my grandfather dearly, but we were both very private people, and while he loved to talk, his voice seemingly made for Hollywood, we both shared private souls. I never realized how much the loss would mean to me.
Last summer, in a writing workshop, I worked through some of my grief at the first major loss in my life. Below is one of the stories I wrote.
Through The Lens of Death: My Glasses Moment
Before closing the casket, the man looked at her and said, “Ma’am, do you want to keep his glasses?”
It’s crazy how moments in life fit themselves together, imposing some sort of coherency even at times when chaos seems to reign. Just days ago, I was driving along discussing movies with a friend. It was the typical getting to know you fare between two people looking to possibly be more than friends, as we drove along the coast enjoying a three-day weekend getaway. While the movies we watch don’t define us, per say, they sure do give an insight as to who we are, and my friend and I had moved beyond the “What’s your favorite color,” dialogue.
In talking, I mentioned a movie that always makes me cry, regardless of how many times I see it or what mood I’m in when I start. I don’t just know the movie that makes me cry...I know the precise moment in which those tears will fall. Any time I find my heart burdened but the well dry, I pull out my movie, and the cleansing begins.
I watch as Veda and Thomas Jay traipse through their small town, growing closer as the summer wanes on. I watch as, inevitably, Thomas Jay falls for the vivacious and spunky Veda. As she loses her mood ring, I already know what will happen. Still, the tears don’t fall. I watch as the fated boy returns to find the ring, and as the bees swarm around him, I watch. I watch as the adults try to make sense of what has happened, putting on a brave face for the world around them. But it is not until the moment where Veda enters the funeral chapel, my eyes start to moisten...as she runs to the casket of her dearest friend. I know the tears will come as soon as she utters the phrase, “Where are his glasses? He can’t see without his glasses?!” It never fails.
**How was I to know that just days later….**
Death- so fleeting. So final. And yet, it’s funny how it seems to linger. Perhaps it’s not Death that lingers, but everything it leaves in its wake. The memories of those who have moved on. The reminders of words left unsaid. The fear of facing it personally. Or the acceptance that it is inevitable. We all experience it eventually...it’s part of the cycle of life. There’s no avoiding it.
I suppose I’ve been lucky, never really having had to face Death too closely. Sure. I’ve been there to support friends who’ve lost someone dear to them...I’ve known people who have died. But those people, while very real to me, didn’t have the same connection as my grandfather did. If not for my grandfather, I wouldn’t exist. A piece of myself is no longer here on Earth.
It was during that same weekend where I was getting to know that boy when I received the call. Grandpa John had fallen and was in the hospital. Mom said not to worry. “Enjoy your trip,” she said. “I will keep you posted if things get worse.” I should’ve known. Perhaps it was the tone of her voice, or the way it shook...it was barely audible, but for one of the few times in my life, I heard uncertainty in my mom’s voice. Still, I stayed at the coast and tried to enjoy my trip, checking in with my mom every so often to see how things were going. I was sure she would let me know if I needed to alter my plans.
By Sunday night, things were looking up. He was definitely sore, and although pneumonia had developed, he was on antibiotics. He was able to talk, and actually requesting food. A sigh of relief seemed to permeate my mom’s update.
The improvements, unfortunately, were to be short lived. By the time I returned home on Monday evening, my grandfather’s condition was faltering. The antibiotics didn’t seem to be taking. His lungs had been frail for years, having already been through more than one collapse, and if the medication did not kick in soon, there would be nothing else they could do. Tuesday morning, I was back in my classroom, attempting to teach class, and by lunchtime on Tuesday, I had received the call. Time was no longer on our side.
It’s still a blur…going to the office and telling them I needed to go, racing home to find clothes and something to eat…time…all those times I thought- “I’m so tired. I’ll make the drive next vacation.” How presumptuous of me to think my grandfather would be here forever or that I would live indefinitely to capture those moments I was always putting off until next time… and still, in that moment where I was gathering a shirt and my toothbrush and underwear and socks, I still didn’t pack anything for a funeral, because, of course, everything would get better, right?
After meeting my sister in Austin, we continued the 5½ hour trek to the hospital. We had plenty of time to talk and catch up and worry… worry about Grandpa John…worry about his wife, Nelda…worry about my other grandparents, each riddled with their own ailments…worry about my mom.
The trip seemed longer than usual, and as we met my mom at the hospital, I was filled with relief and dread. Of course, she was her same cheerful self, putting on the brave face I was so accustomed to. Perhaps I had only imagined things when we were talking on the phone. A trip to the SICU confirmed my initial thoughts were correct, though. In fact, my sister and I were the only ones who hadn’t said goodbye, and once we finished, the machines would be turned off so that Grandpa John would no longer have to suffer. Whether or not he even knew we were there, I’ll never know.
Nelda was so strong during this time. She and my Grandpa John had been married most of my life, but I always looked at her as more of an aunt than a grandmother. For one, her daughter is only a year older than I am, and growing up, we played like cousins. Perhaps another reason is that she never seemed old enough to be a grandmother, carting us around from one place to the next, helping us bake cookies, taking us to church socials.
I don’t know why I always called her by her first name, but in that hospital room, I saw a side of her I had never seen before. She moved from person to person, comforting children and stepchildren and grandchildren, treating them all with the same love and affection. And when it came time to take Grandpa John off the machines, Nelda refused to sit in a chair. “I already have a seat right here,” she proclaimed, patting the bed next to my grandfather, and holding his hand the whole time.
The passing was peaceful, and for the first time in years, my grandfather wasn’t gasping for breath. As we picked up his room and prepared for the people at the funeral parlor, Nelda remained stoic, picking up this item and that item, consulting each of us- “Do we need to keep the back brace?” “No, it’s too small for any of us. See if we can donate it to the hospital.” “Make sure not to forget his dentures.” “We’ll put them right here.” “Oh yes, and where are his glasses? We can’t forget his glasses.”
The next few days were a drunken blur. I was aware of what was going on, but I felt like I was in a constant haze, walking through the motions, but never quite alert. And I knew I wasn’t quite alert; we all did. We were caught in some strange time warp, but everyone was willing to excuse it because of the circumstances. What caught me as particularly strange was the fact that while we were all stumbling through that drunken haze together, none of us thought to worry about ourselves. Our energies were consumed making sure everyone else was okay….it’s funny…
The afternoon the funeral took place, we all met at the little church on the hill for lunch first. Lunch for the family is customary at small town churches. After lunch, we moved from the reception hall into the sanctuary. The casket was open, but as the service began, the lid was closed. How thankful I was for that…especially as I seemed to be centered right in front. As the click echoed through the small, silent church, I thought I might be able to make it through without too many tears.
The service was led by two pastors, one who had led the church my grandfather went to as a child, and one who led the church he attended as an adult. They went on and on about my grandfather, telling stories about him I’d never heard. Unlike so many city funerals where the person leading doesn’t really know the deceased, these men were close friends of my grandfather, and knew his innermost secrets.
As the service came to an end, two men came to the front. They removed the flowers on the casket, and to my surprise, they opened it once again. I was awash with motions I could not control as each row behind us was asked to rise and come forward to pay their final respects. I’d never been on this side of the family row before, and the feeling was foreign to me. So many people coming to give their condolences. So many people I’d never even seen before.
Finally, it was our turn, and though there were only a few steps between us and the front of the church, they were some of the hardest I’ve ever had to take. We paused, and for a brief moment, we all dropped our front. We cried together…not huge, mournful sobs, but still, tears we’d held off for days. Then, together, we were ushered back to the front row as the rest of the congregation was ushered outside.
“Take all the time you need, and when you’re ready, we can go,” said one of the men at the casket. Nelda looked at each of us, and then nodded it was time.
Before closing the casket, the man looked at her and said, “Nelda, do you want to keep his glasses?”