Friday, January 13, 2006

Perchance to Dream...

My grandfather died this day at 4:30 a.m. He was 93 years old. He wanted to die. In fact, he couldn't wait to get it over with.

I flew in to Colorado on Tuesday. My cousin picked me up and took me to the hospital. When I got to the room, one of my uncles was watching as the doctor told Grandpa that they could put a tube down his throat to keep him fed. Grandpa, mustering strength and defiantly stating as loudly as he could through the oxygen mask, "Absolutely not!"

Grandpa has spent every day since Dec. 9 on his back in that hospital. He spent a great deal of time in the hospital in November, then in a rehab facility to help heal his pneumonia-scarred lungs, home for a day or two, but then back to where his earthly existence would come to an end.

My uncle called me last Sunday to tell me that Grandpa was going. I spent the next few hours trying to find a way to get here. Glory finally found a flight that was affordable, but only if I went one way. So Tuesday morning I flew over here, hoping, praying, that I would get to talk with (not to) Grandpa one last time.

Resigned to the fact that his ancient patient was ready to go, the doctor nodded, patted Grandpa on the chest and left. I then went to Grandpa's side. He turned his eyes to mine and lifted his right hand to take mine. "How ya doin', Bill?" Grandpa asked me in a strained whisper through his mask, the "s-s-s-s-t" of the oxygen drowning out the clarity of his voice. I gave him a hug and told him I was glad to see him. We talked as long as he was able, him asking me how life was going my way. I told him Glory and the kids were doing well. I told him I loved him. He didn't say anything but looked at me. The night before I heard him say on the phone muffled through the mask, "I love you, too," so I didn't need to hear it again.

After a little pause, Grandpa turned to me, looked at me and asked, "How much you weigh now?"

"A lot less than the last time you saw me, Grandpa," I replied.

He chuckled and turned back to the TV that was on playing some mindless show that I know he could care less about.

We sat in silence for a while. Just being by his side was all I needed.

I am one of the younger grandkids, the 11th of 18. Then there are more great and great-great grandkids. But my grandparents have told me that I was like another one of their kids. There are a few of us grandkids that have a claim to that status. For me, in '94, after getting out of the Air Force, Grandma and Grandpa asked me to live with them as I went back to college on the GI Bill. For four years I stayed with them, mowing their lawn and doing other things, trying to earn my keep in exchange for free room and board. In my third year, I told them I would look for my own place. They would have none of that and asked I stay, even though I was hardly there, what with my job, working at the college newspaper, going to classes and getting involved in campus and church activities. But the fact that I was there anyway was enough for them.

They saw me graduate with honors, saw me leave to work at a paper 90 miles away, and saw me gain a little weight as I entered a sedentary lifestyle for a bit while writing. (Grandpa started then quizzing me about my weight when I would see him.) They saw me on New Year's morning 2001 at about 1 a.m., when, after having the traditional dinner of corned beef and cabbage, toasting in the new year with sparkling cider, I left them for what I thought then was the last time. I left three days later to work at a paper on the east coast. They couldn't be at Glory's and my wedding but they wanted to, Grandpa said to me the following year. He just couldn't travel that far anymore, Grandpa told me. He was carrying around an oxygen tank then. Although he quit smoking in 1980, and although he seared his lungs in a fire in the early '70s, the damage still remained in him. It was catching up with him, finally.

My family and I saw him last in on Thanksgiving 2003. He looked so old and frail then. We played Rook, the traditional family card game. We learned that year that for probably 20 years we have been playing the game wrong. I believe one of my uncles finally read the rules. Well, we weren't going to change. And we haven't. The other night in the hospital we were playing Rook the same way we've always played it.

Grandpa and I shared an interest in coins. We used to spend hours on his bed, inspecting his coins from around the South Pacific and even ration tokens from the '30s. On Tuesday I showed him a silver proof set I bought in '99 I brought with me in case I had to cash it in to finance my train trip back to Washington. He took the coin holder in his frail shaking hands and looked closely at the shiny state quarters now more than 10 times their value when I first bought them. "I have a bunch of quarters," Grandpa said raspily. He handed them back and we sat in silence for a little bit longer. Then he uttered his last verbal communication with me.

"How much did you say you weighed again?"

"2-1-5, Grandpa," I nearly yelled in his almost deaf ears.

"2 - 2, 215?"

"Yep," I replied. He chuckled again and fell silent, our time together over. Over the next couple of days I would watch him drift further and further into himself, but then brighten, if just briefly, when others, like my sister, a few cousins and others who had raced to his side to have their final conversation with him. In between times, he would raise his arm to glance at his gold Timex as if he were wondering when he was checking out. He would do that a few more times even with his eyes closed. Then he stopped moving altogether, his breathing becoming shallower and shallower. Then, he was gone.

I planned to take the family to Colorado this spring. We still might. Grandpa won't be there but Grandma remains, so the link to my elders still is taut. I'm selfish, but I want it to be that way for a while longer.



Jimmy said...

Bill & Glory, you have my prayers at this time of loss. As I read your emotionally stirring tribute to a very special man in your life, I could not help but think of my own family. I will be making sure our time together will be of quality. Again, I am sorry for your loss and your family has my prayers.

mcwiggins said...

Bill, we're so sorry about your grandpa. It was nice to see you even though it was for a very sad occasion.
We hope you've made it home safely and that the train ride went well. Our love to you and Glory and all the kids,
Mike and Erin

Gina Burgess said...

I truly and deeply understand.

Carol L said...

I'm pretty sure that kind of selfishness is allowed. With my mom nearing 80 I'm hearin' ya loud and clear.

We don't care how frail they are. Their existence is priceless. Just being able to be with them is priceless.

I pray right now that trip to Colorado will happen, and you'll get to be with your Grandma. In Jesus' name!

Love you guys,
Carol :)

Bill and Glory said...


Thanks for your prayers and kind words. I do hope that your time with family is indeed quality, as you say.

Mike and Erin,

Thanks for letting me stay at your lovely home. Tell the dog it's OK.
Postcard is on the way.

Gina and Carol,

Thanks. Just pray that the tax return is big enough to take us to Canada AND Colorado. Would be nice.


Through His Eyes said...

Beautiful tribute..God Bless, Donna