Yesterday I was driving home from work and I realized I had slipped into this zombie mode; meaning that I pretty much just zoned out the entire six minute trip from work to the house only semi-alert to my surroundings but overall just kind of operating on auto-pilot. And then I realized I’d pretty much been operating like that for the past three weeks or so.
My grandpa died around 3am on Monday, June 6 2011.
And I have been desperately trying to cope with this. I am still unsure of how to function in a world and a life without him because for 30 years of ups and downs and divorces with my parents and moving to various places around the country, Grandpa and Grandma were one of the only constants I had in my life. And now it’s just Grandma.
And my heart hurts because I miss him terribly. And my heart hurts for my Grandma because I cannot fathom how I could cope living without someone after living with them for fifty-two years.
I am better now than I was that morning. I am better now than I was this past weekend. But I will never be the same.
When I heard that he was sick on June 1st, something deep down inside me compelled me to visit that upcoming weekend. His prognosis was up and down but not much different than what we have been dealing with off and on for the past few years. He had kidney stones which led to a pretty bad infection that was making him sick and causing him to hallucinate. The infection led to pneumonia in the lungs which led to him needing to be intubated where he apparently struggled so much it took three people to tube him and inadvertently caused a small tear in his esophagus. This was all by that Thursday, the 2nd and while he was stable, they wanted to move him to UNC Chapel Hill to do some assessments on the tube because they didn’t want to remove it and exacerbate the problem with the tear thus causing him more damage and making him unstable. When we got up there on Saturday (we got into town Friday night but it was too late to go up and visit) he was still tubed but he was awake and alert and he knew who we were and where he was. He was cognizant and responding with small nods of the head and we could tell he was really happy to see us but ultimately uncomfortable, which is obvious since there was a tube down his throat.
But as of Saturday afternoon, they were taking the tube out. Steve and I went back in to see him and as we were standing out putting our gowns and gloves on (he was in the MICU with a containment order meaning everything in his room was considered “dirty” and they didn’t want you bringing the germs out to the “clean” part), I could see him through the door and he was grinning and smiling at me. And when I went in he was lively and upbeat and chatting with us – though his throat was a bit sore so he was having a hard time getting the words out normally. But he was FINE. And we went home that night thinking he was FINE.
We thought he was so FINE that Steve and I even considered not going back up there on Sunday because it was 45 minutes there, 45 minutes back and then four hours on the road back to South Carolina. In retrospect, I am so glad we did. Something or someone was just driving me to make the right decisions that weekend.
When we got back up there Sunday I noticed he was really lethargic and tired, like he was drugged up. So I took the nurse aside and asked her what they had given him and why there was such a marked change from the following day. She explained that he hadn’t been like that up until about an hour before and they were monitoring it more closely but they believed it was because he was having trouble breathing well off the ventilator and therefore, the CO2 was building up in his system which causes you to be sleepy and lethargic. And if he looked like he was really drugged up they would get a doctor in to the check on him.
And what followed would be one of the longest afternoons of my life where the doctors basically took us into a private room and told us our options: A) the ventilator gets put back in with the chance that he would never come off it or B) no ventilator with the chances of survival at days, weeks but certainly not months. The doctors were very kind and patient while we all dealt with this as a family and answered all of our questions with compassion but an honesty and matter-of-factness that I respected. They explained that while they obviously weren’t in the business of predicting time of death, they didn’t believe he had more than a few days and that if he remained off the tube they would continue caring for him and eventually move him to a pallaitive area of the hospital where it would be more about comfort care. And once it got to be difficult and painful for him to breath they would start a morphine drip to ease the pain and that would allow him to relax and let fate take his course.
All of us knew what he wanted as it had been expressed time and time again – no tube. And while we were all heartbroken it was kind of an easy decision to make because we knew it was what he wanted and no one wanted to take the chance of his being stuck on that tube for months longer than necessary.
We began to circle the wagons. All of us cuddled into this one private room, coping with our grief and supporting one another. My sister drove two hours to see him and my aunt brought my 10-year old cousin up to see him, my cousin who shared such a special bond with Grandpa that he repeatedly told everyone that he was the reason he was still hanging on.
Steve and I had to leave to come home that night so I said I would go back one last time because I couldn’t take the going back and coming out and going back again (the MICU limited us to 2-3 people in the room at one time). No one had really told Grandpa yet because they wanted to wait until my cousin had got up there to see him so Grandpa wouldn’t get upset and then upset Trever. I wasn’t sure if I could hold my composure because there was something deep down that KNEW this was the last time I would speak to him.
I mean, how do you do that? How do compress 30 years of love and life and laughter into a visit in an ICU room? How do you explain everything and nothing at all? How do you put into words how much this person has meant to you without upsetting them more by breaking down into a straight up hysterical ugly cry right there on the floor of the room?
Well, you hold their hand. You tell them you love them. You listen to them slowly tell you that they are going to keep fighting to get out of there. You listen to them tell you how much they love you and you cry enough for them to notice and then you laugh and make some excuse about how they’ve just scared you and how they need to get better so they can stop scaring you. And you listen to them say they will and that they are going to get better. And then you watch as they ask for your significant other to come over so they can say something to him and when you step away, you hear them tell him to take care of you and you watch as the man you love squeezes the hand of the man who loved you first and tells him he will and then steps away with tears in his eyes.
You step back over and you kiss him on the forehead and touch his hair and tell him that you love him and you’ll see him soon. And then you rip that gown off and wash your hands ferociously just so you can get out of there quick enough so he doesn’t see you losing your shit.
And you walk out of the room and cast one last look over your shoulder to see him watching you go with a smile on his face. And you realized you’ve missed him from the moment you’ve walked out of the room.
Then you go and get in the car for a four hour trip home where you’re not really sure if he’ll make it through the night or over the next few days but know one thing’s for sure: if he makes it through this, you’re going to be really really pissed and you’ll make sure to stomp right up there and give him an earful about right before you hug him and tell him you love him.
But obviously, that’s not what happened. At 11pm, while we were still on the road, my Aunt called to tell me they had started the morphine drip. At 7:30am the next morning, she called to let me know he had passed early in the morning with my Grandmother at his side.
I did what any person would do – held my shit together until I got off the phone then completely lost it into ugly cry, gasping for air kind of territory. I texted my boss and told him what happened, that I would be late (I don’t have ANY PTO so missing work was not an option). I got it out, took care of the dogs (more on that to come) which helped me compose myself then I headed into work.
I didn’t even make it to my desk before I broke down again – when someone stopped me in the hall to give their condolences, I lost it. But I had to be strong so I cried a bit then sucked it up and went to work.
And I think that’s how I spent my entire week – sucking it up, being strong. Until about Wednesday or Thursday when I just absolutely LOST IT and cried mercilessly for an hour with Steve in bed comforting me.
I needed that. I needed to do it privately so that when we went to the funeral I could stay strong because I needed to be strong for my family.
We went back up on Friday night and got to town just in time to change and head to the viewing. I was fine, FINE ABSOLUTELY FINE THANK YOU! until we walked into the funeral home and to the door of the room where I had to take a moment because my hands were shaking so bad and I just wasn’t ready.
But you know what? I really was fine. I was sad. Really sad. I cried at the slideshow they had made of him with Grandma and my dad and my uncle and all of us grandkids. I cried when I went up to the coffin. But I was OK. So many people came to greet us and pay their respects and it just reinforced something I already knew – that he was a well-loved and well-respected man. And the next day at the funeral, I was still really really sad. Even more than the night before. But I was getting through it. Steve was there with me every step of the way. My sisters and brothers were there. My dad and my uncle. My Grandma. I see the value in funerals more now than I ever did. It’s about grieving together and supporting one another and in all honesty, the family reunion aspect is really the thing that helps the most because you are getting a chance to see and socialize with people you probably haven’t seen in years and you are all there for one reason, to celebrate the life of someone you loved dearly and somehow that makes getting through it a bit easier.
My Grandpa was born in 1938 in North Carolina. He lived in the same town his whole life and married my grandmother in 1959. They built a house in that same town and that is the house they have lived in all of my life. Grandpa worked as in a textile factory making patterns, first by hand then on the computer. He retired long before Grandma did because he struggled with health issues earlier. For as long as I knew him, he had those sideburns you see in the picture above (that baby is me!). They were to cover up a scar on his cheek from when he got bit by a pony at three years old. Grandpa loved to travel to visit us and he did up until the end when it wasn’t comfortable for him to travel anymore. He called me Shug and Sugarfoot. He taught me to shoot a gun and drive the lawnmower and a four wheeler. Every time I would call him, he would ask how I was and when I would answer “I’m good!” he would respond, “Well, you’re looking good!”. He loved going to the races and watching them on TV. He loved dogs, especially his dog Diamond, who went everywhere with him, even to McDonald’s on Sunday mornings where Grandpa would buy them each sausage biscuits. He loved McDonalds sweet tea, loved it so much that last time he was in the hospital we snuck some to him. He was enamoured with Sammy and always asserted to us that Sammy never bit HIM, even though Sammy bites everybody (and he was right, Sammy never did). He always accepted Steve and told me how much he admired him and liked him and how he considered him family. After my Grandmother (his mother) passed, Grandpa would go check on my Granddaddy (his dad) every weekend and mow his lawn and just come to sit with him and keep him company. He was an honest hard-working down to earth man who taught us all about love, loyalty and strength. Even up until the end, he said he was going to fight and if there’s anything I have taken away from him, it’s to never give up. Because I truly believe that if he could have walked out of that room that day he would’ve and there’s a good chance his mind was telling him to do so but his body just didn’t have anything left in it.
He was my Grandpa. And my world will never be the same without him.
I find it difficult to summarize everything I want to say. I thought I could put some short and eloquent paragraph but that didn’t seem quite enough. I wanted to express how sad I am, how I think a part of me is going to be sad forever but I am OK because that’s what’s supposed to happen in life – you stay sad but time heals and just keep livin’ (Steve and I kept repeating that over and over – thanks Matthew McConaughey). I wanted to tell you a bit about Grandpa because I felt some words need to be written about just how good of a man he was. I wanted to talk about saying goodbye to someone, to put that down in permanence so that as time passes those memories don’t fade. I wanted to talk about the power of funerals and how they can bring family together just as quickly as death can tear people apart. I wanted to tell you how I feel so much love for my Grandma right now because I can’t imagine being in her shoes and because she has been phenomenally strong through this. So much so that I cried when we were leaving her on Sunday night and she cried too but told ME that I bring so much joy and light into her life to which I turned around and told her she is the one who brings joy to my life and always has.
And I want to talk about how absolutely amazing Steve has been through all of this. I cannot even begin to put into words what he has done to support me these past few weeks. I know he is supposed to do this and you expect them to but there’s something about being right there in the thick of the situation and having someone to lean on and having someone right there when you need them that makes your heart swell and you fall in love with them all over again. I seriously don’t think I could’ve made it through this without him.
Babe, you are my hero. Love you to infinity and beyond.
Grandpa, you are in my heart and soul forever and always in my thoughts and prayers.
Thank you for reading.