That Last and Precious Day

I’ve just been thinking. I write a lot about the past…because, for me, it is rich with lessons for the present and maybe future, too! Someday, I hope someone, somewhere, who knows me, will decide I’m worth writing about – although, some of us tend to be examples of what not, rather than what to do. Many times, unless we are a highly trained direct caregiver, we won’t have the ability to discern that crucial, blessed last day-

My heart feels like proverbial stone. I’ve gone from being depressed and anxious, which causes me to snack more than I should, to being enveloped in grief. To my physical constitution, grieving means wanting to eat those beloved chocolate snacks, but simply being unable. No matter how I try to induce myself. Such is this time.

He lies, virtually swallowed or swaddled (?), in the hospital bed. In my then 40 years, he has been a larger-than-life figure.  My grandfather has been all-too-short-tempered, blaming it on his Sicilian ethnicity; competitive in the sports of bowling and golf, or even table games (beating me about 1000 times at checkers, without worrying if all those losses would have any lasting effect on my childhood psyche) or crossword puzzles, where he is apt to create a word or two, shall we say?, wanting to be viewed as THE authority on important stuff, such as unions, religion, and politics.  Contrast the above description with his love of funny jokes or stories of his growing up in Saginaw’s Little Italy on Eddy Street, and patiently (really – I would not have believed it, either, had I not seen it) practicing walking with the latest grandchild or great-grandchild. Later on, he would find grandchildren overly useful when he hit the golf ball into the high weeds behind his home, or accidentally broke the neighbor’s window and thought they wouldn’t be as upset if they thought his grandson did it.  These various memories are running through my head – good and bad, funny and sad – as I study my sleeping Grandpa.

Here, in front of me, is the man whose formerly tough, no-nonsense, authoritative voice broke when he asked me if I had ever wished I had different grandparents. He had the power to touch my heart with his love, but also the power to break it with his walking out on Grandma. I suppose the question that day sprang from his pushed-back spiritual conscience, which he then faced as he stood in front of me, a couple short years before this last crisis. 

At the hospital over the previous several weeks, I had the privilege of serving him. Not in any beatific, glamorous way, by any means. I helped him to sit on the edge of the bed. To slowly, ever so slowly, shuffle to the bathroom and sit properly on the commode, without falling off. We discussed his hallucination of being handcuffed, with my explaining that very sick people sometimes needed the soft restraints so they wouldn’t try to crawl out of bed and fall and hurt themselves. One alarming day, I walked into his room just after they had served lunch. Grandpa was looking at his tray. For a long time. Saying not a word, but sighing. He looked at me and he had, for the first time that I ever saw, this look of helplessness on his face. My mind was racing as to figuring out the problem. He didn’t appear to be in any greater pain. He was able to slowly move his arms and hands. He wasn’t a picky eater. Saying one of those lightning-quick prayers for help, it dawned on me that he didn’t know what to do next. I asked, “Grandpa, do you want to eat your lunch?” He turned his eyes back to me and nodded his head. I picked up the fork and placed a small bite on the end of it and carefully, slowly put it to his lips. Thank goodness he ate, but I noted a tear in the corner of his eye. I tried to reassure him, “It’s okay, Grandpa. I don’t mind helping you at all. How many times did you have to help me to eat when I was so little, Grandpa? I’ll bet a lot more times than this, right?” He smiled.

As his leukemia and kidney failure progressed, I struggled to adjust him in his bed. He had the habit of slipping down to the end of the bed, as he was characteristically on the short side, being that Sicilian American. After asking the nurse if they had some type of sponge pillow or something to place between him and the footboard of the bed, and she replying they did not, I asked for a spare blanket. I folded it over a few times and – voila – a shortened length of bed. The head of the bed came next. When it was lower, such as after a linens change, his breathing gradually became gasping-like and quite labored sounding, and I would raise the head of the bed. Other times, he would be slumped to one side and I would gently hitch up one side of his body and frantically half-run to the other side to level things out, before the initial side could slope back downward. I never felt so awful at having bulging lumbar discs that prevented me from just reaching, grabbing him under both arms at once, and hauling him up a couple of feet. Was it shortsightedness, or plain stubbornness, that prevented me from calling the nurse? I just remember thinking that those poor nurses had enough to do – and he was my Grandpa, not theirs. Our hearts were connected because we were family.

After I felt he was situated as comfortably as possible, I would sit in the chair with silent tears pouring down my face; finding it so difficult to see this formerly never-sit-still-for-long, energetic Grandpa, who had become as a stranger to me, physically. 

More progression toward that last visit continued. I began holding the phone to his one good ear (which wasn’t terrific, with the years of working in an auto steering gear manufacturing shop, the diabetes, and his age of 85), while someone in the family spoke words of love and caring to him. One weekend, I was there bright and early, as the attending physician conducted rounds with the medical youngsters. I stepped out of the room, but I could hear their discussion of his symptoms, diagnoses, course of treatment, and quite poor prognosis. At this point, none of this was unexpected. Still, in my little-girl heart, something leapt up.

As they trooped out of the room, I didn’t impress even one of them but simply said, “That’s my Grandpa, in there.” One of the ladies asked, “Oh, you’re his granddaughter?” I smiled at her, “For all 40 years of my life.” I believe this was a statement of desperation that is understood by each and every person who stands between the well-meaning caregivers and the terminal patient. What we mean to say, but are too emotionally exhausted to utter, is, “That is NOT just a sad, hopeless case in there. To me, he is more than a set of symptoms for you to objectively try to control so you can prove to your superiors that you have been paying attention; more than someone who is delaying your answering that page or going home to well-deserved sleep after being up all night; more than a puzzle for you to figure out, or someone who is taking up your valuable time when you are absolutely certain that nothing more is going to help him. You see, dear doctors, that sickly, weak, and yes, dying, old man, is so much more to this person who is standing here in front of you, today. And to many others who would love to be here but can’t be.” I still wonder if they realized at that moment in time that, someday, that old person will be them, be me, be us. Will someone love us enough to visit us when we no longer are able to walk, talk, care for ourselves in any minutely helpful way? Will their love be able to forgive the many hurts we’ve caused? Will they remember that we hate to be helpless to this degree? That to us, it is mortifying to be so useless?  That, in our wildest imaginings, we never planned our lives to end like this? As in the movies, who doesn’t romanticize about a death that happens in our sleep, or with a peaceful, slow closing of the eyes with a heavenly smile on our enraptured faces?  

I was going home more and more emotionally drained and intellectually numb. God must have commissioned a few extra angels to watch over me while I drove the 110 miles home after each visit. My eldest aunt would keep watch all week long. On Friday evenings, I would drive to the hospital and visit for a couple of hours, relieving my aunt, and then stay with another aunt and Grandma on Friday and Saturday nights. After visiting on Sunday mornings and afternoons, I would leave for home and the work week ahead.

So, on that last day with my grandfather? It was a Sunday. Grandpa could no longer speak for a few weeks. He would not, or could not, open his eyes. He was receiving comfort measures, only, and he had signed a do-not-resuscitate order a few years earlier. I still talked to him – loudly, but I continued, having been advised that the sense of hearing is the last to shut down. I listened to his breathing, which was noisier. I saw him twisting his legs and sometimes moaning softly. I would talk about the kids, work, the weather, the coming trick-or-treaters, good memories of Christmas, whatever was happening in the televised golf program…He would turn his head toward my voice, that being the only communication still open to him. I delayed going home. What if he slipped down too far after the linens change and they didn’t notice? What if he uncovered himself with his occasional thrashings and he felt cold? What if he would miraculously have another good day left? 

Driving toward home, I noticed how sunny it was with blue sky.  The remaining fall leaves on the trees seemed to have enhanced color. It struck me as odd. Amidst all this coming death, at the hospital and in nature’s season, I saw the colors with more appreciation than when there still were thousands of colorful leaves holding onto the branches. The younger Grandpa in my memory was so different than the then present- day Grandpa. Of course, I always thought of him as an ‘old person’ but the stark contrast in my grandfather’s “Grandpa” lifetime was significant. The beautiful leaves had mostly fallen off, but the stragglers inspired so much more appreciation for the beauty that was left in them.  

I worked Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. I promised my aunt I would return on Thursday night, rather than Friday, just so she could pack to go to her cabin for a nice, long weekend. That Wednesday, I was thinking about having to pack my things right away after work. I was weary. The assistant manager came to my desk and told me I had a phone call and that it was my aunt. She said I could take the call in the conference room, which was empty at that time.  It was the call that I knew was a definite possibility but was hoping not to receive, as I would be there – with him – when he left this Earth:  “Rob, it’s Aunt Geri. I’m calling to tell you that you don’t have to come up tomorrow night.” There was  a part of my mind that knew…just knew, logically. Then, there was the part that wanted to believe differently that had no part in logic, it was just pure emotion. “Why not? Did he take a turn for the worse and you’re not going up north now?”  There was the sound of a sigh, and then a strained, warbled voice said, “No, Rob. He’s gone. Grandpa died a few minutes ago…”  I cried tears of a few different types: sadness, loss, and even relief in his end of suffering. I asked myself why I hadn’t just stayed with him until the end; why I hadn’t figured out that his gesturing with his hand to his forehead meant that he had a horrible headache, which I was clueless about while I was there; why I had failed to be with him on his very last day? I said as much to my aunt. Through her own grief and tears, she answered, “Grandpa knew how many times you were here. He knew how much he meant to you and how much you meant to him. Maybe he didn’t want you to see him in these last few hours. Maybe he didn’t want you to have that burden. Maybe it was his gift to you.” 

Perhaps she was right. Those last moments definitely were not romantic. Being there would have made absolutely no difference in terms of his length of life. It would not have made the sweet, fun times any better; the heartbreakingly difficult times any easier. Maybe his life, his love, all the good and even the horrible, was HIS (God’s) gift to me. To prove that there, sometimes, is hope for broken hearts, or strained relationships to move forward. It doesn’t have to be too late…until beyond that last day.  And that the most peaceful, beautiful, and meaningful words in any language are along the lines of, “I forgive you because my heart is compelled to love you, still.”  And always. Until I see you again, Grandpa.


~ by saginawrobin on April 29, 2014.

2 Responses to “That Last and Precious Day”

  1. Oh, Robin. My heart goes out to you. I’m sorry you weren’t there when he passed, but, like you said, God may have had a purpose for that. You put your feelings so well about how a loved one feels while overhearing people discussing symptoms. They have they’re job to do, but it’s hard to listen to when you see the person, not the medical issues. Did he really let neighbors think it was a grandchild who hit the ball and damaged something? That is hilarious. I hope you don’t mind that I laughed when I read that part. It sounds to me like, yes, your grandpa ~was~ larger than life.

  2. Thank you, Rilla. Indeed, these are 100% true stories! My cousin remembers it, clearly. He was a character, through and through.

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