Grief, as I have recently experienced, is like a cloud that rolls (unexpectedly) into your life, darkening your days with its dreary canopy. Grief, I am accepting, is like an unwelcomed house-guest that shows up unannounced at your doorstep, bags in tow, boldly taking up residence–plopping its dirty feet on the coffee table–for an undetermined period of time.
This has been my life for the past 15 weeks. Thankfully, the fog is lifting.
On Thanksgiving Day, 2010, my grandpa went into the hospital. Ten days later he was gone. There was no warning. No long, drawn out sickness. No gradual easement into finality. The shock of my Papa’s sudden death stung the family. Ten days. Ten days that felt like eternity yet seemed to pass all too quickly.
I was in Buffalo when I received the message: Papa’s in the hospital—not doing too well. Less than two hours later, en route to my parents’ house … a 9-hour drive separating me from my grandfather. The moment I rounded the corner and caught a glimpse of my Papa, I knew: this man will not leave the hospital alive, will not set foot back in his home. Be strong.
My heart sank to my feet. I blinked back a well of tears. All I could think to say as I glanced over the skeleton of a man that resembled nothing of my Papa was the greeting I had given the last time he was in the hospital many years ago, “Ya’ know Pop, if you wanted me to come home to visit all you had to do was call.” Out of respect for the privacy of my family I will spare the details of my grandpa’s final days other than to say they were unbearably hard, felt like hell, and yet sprinkled with some of the most tender and beautiful moments imaginable.
Spending every waking moment possible with my Papa, I became a fixture in his hospital room. What I observed is that hospital life has a rhythm all its own: the steady stream of nurses performing routine checks; various doctors popping in and out to “assess any changes” and discuss “his situation;” dietitians assisting with meals; and of course, visitors. It is in-between all of the commotion and routine that you learn to steal private moments. It was during these moments that I would talk with my Papa–conveying all the things I wished I had a lifetime to say, yet recognizing that every moment mattered. I stroked his arm while he slept … he slept so much. I studied his face and hands and the gentle, labored, rise and fall of his breath beneath the all-too-thin blanket. In those moments I willed myself to concentrate: remember every detail. Commit him to memory.
It was during such quiet moments that, like a pressure cooker releasing steam, so too was my body releasing the tension, grief and stress. Tears streamed down my face as I watched my beloved grandpa sleep: his final slumber is coming soon. Too soon!! With time slipping away, every fiber of my being wanted to wake him—to spend as much time with him in a conscious state as possible. Instead, I held his hand and prayed fervently for him and my family as we were walking through one of the hardest challenges of our lives: how do you let go of someone you love so dearly?
Memories flashed before me: the cuddles, the hugs, the long drives around town, lessons taught, laughs shared … enough memories to fill a lifetime. Conversations long past stream through consciousness as if they just occurred a few hours ago. At the same time the mind seems to disassociate from the experience. Adrenaline kicks in and numbs the pain and disbelief. For the most part, I remember feeling cognizant that my grandpa was dying. The weight of this fact hovered over every interaction and conversation. At times the weight so intense I could barely breathe. My response was “simple”: to cherish every moment remaining with my grandpa.
The process of letting go, if done well, can be a very beautiful and intimate experience. At the end of my grandpa’s life he was surrounded by all that mattered most to him: family. We held him, kissed him, loved him, and gave him permission to go.
And now … life goes on … one day at a time.