Three years

21Nov12

I still remember the first time I realized my grandfather was going to die.

He had been in the hospital for a couple of weeks at that point. This time, I was supposed to be watching him. I had stopped by after classes, and my mother had gone home after spending the entire day in the hospital.

He needed to go to the bathroom. He was long past the stage where he could go by himself — my father was usually there. But I was alone, so I walked him the 5 feet to the bathroom. I braced myself to go in with him, but my grandfather—still proud, still traditional, still modest and still himself—refused to let me help him.

I stood outside for what felt like an eternity, wringing my hands, pacing back and forth and listening. When I heard nothing, I opened the door. The image of my grandfather standing in a pool of his own urine still haunts me to this day. I caught his eye. He looked defeated. He was so tired.

I remember asking for a nurse, who came in and helped clean up. I remember helping him back into bed.

He said his feet were cold.

I remember looking for socks and I remember how it hit me. My fiercely independent grandfather who used to take me fishing, who taught me how to drive, who taped Tom and Jerry cartoons for me in the morning — this man was going to die. And the worn-out hospital socks that I was desperately putting on his cold feet were not going to stop it.

I remember the 40-minute drive back home to College Park. I remember crying hysterically in the car, barreling 75 miles-per-hour down a stretch of dark highway, not knowing if I would ever get there.

It was only a couple of weeks after that night that we made the decision to move him to a hospice. The pain had gotten severe and his body was failing him. It was close to Thanksgiving Day, a favorite holiday that I shared with him. It was a day that I usually cooked an elaborate meal with my cousins and fed our entire extended family.

But doctors be damned, I was going to make him his favorite roast, and we were going to feed him rare slices of it and he was going to enjoy every last bite.

Instead, he took a turn for the worst the Wednesday before Thanksgiving Day. We spent the holiday gathered in silence outside of his room, taking turns to see him and trying with our every last bit of will not to cry in front of him.

He passed away that night. It was the first Thanksgiving holiday in close to eight years that I didn’t make dinner. We cried in front of him.

Even with his last breath, he was still fighting. He never wanted to go down that way. He had plans to travel, to see places, to do all the things that an old man with a youthful spirit wanted to do.

There is something that snaps in you when someone you love so deeply dies. It’s a sense of helplessness combined with a sense of loss so inexplicably painful that it reverberates in your bones. It haunts your dreams, it haunts your every waking thought, and it hurts.

I always joke that, luckily, Thanksgiving Day changes dates so it’s not always going to be the same day. But we all know that’s a lie.

The past two years of the anniversary of his death have not fallen on the holiday, and we continued to keep the tradition of our family dinners. The day of his death passes uneventfully, but I think that we all remember deep down.

And I think, at least for me, every Wednesday before the holiday, I will always think of him, and I will always miss him. I will always play the same songs I listened to when I was grieving, and I’ll always remember him.

I wish I could think of some poetic, beautiful way to express how deeply I miss the sound of his voice and of his laughter. I wish I could think of some way to describe the way his eyes twinkled and his face scrunched up when something amused him. Or his contagious love of life, his admirable patience, his infinite wisdom.

None of that will bring him back, and none of that will fix the pain he went through before he died. None of that will fix the aftermath of his death: the petty fighting and the broken family ties. The mistrust and grudges that now swim through our family’s blood would have broken his heart.

The last time I remember my grandfather being truly coherent was a Sunday afternoon, right before he went into the hospital. I was leaving for College Park and he was asleep. I didn’t want to wake him up, so I left without giving him a hug and saying goodbye. I left without telling him I loved him. I still regret it.

Here is what I try to do now that he’s passed away: I try to never go to bed angry at someone. I try never to end a conversation in a fight. I try never to keep grudges. I try to be as kind as I can be. I try to be thankful for my friendships and my family ties. And I try to believe in the goodness of everyone.

The Wall Street Journal published an excerpt from a recent book by Augusten Burroughs. It’s profoundly appropriate for melancholy mood swings and for when you lose someone you love. It’s comforting but not overly optimistic, like your favorite itchy wool sweater.

“This is among the oldest, deepest, most primal truths: The facts of life may be, at times, unbearably painful. But the core, the bones of life are generous beyond all reason or belief. Those things which ought to kill us do not. This should be taken as encouragement to continue.

“The truth about healing is that you don’t need to heal to be whole. And by whole, I mean damaged, missing pieces of who you were, your heart—missing what feels like some of your most important parts. And yet, not missing any part of you at all. Being, in truth, larger than you were before.

“Human experience weighs more than human tissue.”

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