December 13, 2006

Seventy-nine Christmases

When I saw my grandfather over Thanksgiving weekend, I did not know it would be the last time. There probably would not be too many more visits, I knew, given how his health had declined so drastically from when I saw him last. But I would be home in less than a month and would see him again this Christmas. I got the news Sunday that grandpa passed away. My Christmas plans would now never come to fruition.

The day after Thanksgiving, my mom and I drove to the nursing home where he was staying temporarily, recovering from a fall a few weeks ago. I questioned my mom on the drive as to what to expect when I saw my grandpa. The last time I had seen him was last Christmas. His health was not great, but he was alert, walking around, his usual, ornery self - but that was grandpa. Jump forward a year’s time, and there was a marked difference.

We found him resting in his bed just before meal time. My mom left his room to find a nurse and see if we should wake him to eat. I stayed in his room, sort of hovering over his bed. Looking down, I could not help noticing he had diminished in stature. How his frame had shrunk from the grandpa I remember from my childhood - the man who used to pick my cousins and I up, tossing us from his dock into the lake. I had not expected to be greeted by that grandpa, but he had lost weight over the past year and his hair was thinner, whiter than I remembered too.

My grandpa began to stir, and I noticed his eyes flutter open. Smiling, I looked down at him, moved toward his bed and quietly said, “Hi grandpa. I hope I didn’t wake you.” Smiling back, he looked at me and shook his head no. The fall my grandpa had taken left him unable to speak. The most he could get out at any one point was a word, so I didn’t expect much conversation in return. I sat on the edge of his bed and held his hand, saying how good it was to see him and that it had been too long. Still looking up and smiling as I spoke, he blew me a kiss - the best way he could communicate his feelings at that point.

My mom walked in with the nurse and shortly thereafter, my grandpa, mother and I made our way down to eat. I helped my grandpa get situated in the dining room while my mom brought my grandma. My grandma was in the same nursing home, but for very different reasons. While my grandpa was dealing with his physical health deteriorating, my grandma’s mental health has succumbed to Alzheimer’s. My mom and I did our best to keep conversation going as they ate lunch, while I did my best to choke down the huge lump building in my throat.

As I sat there, I could not help but notice the cruel irony of my grandparents’ situation. My grandma has the physical ability to speak, but her mental state is such that she does not. My grandpa had the mental ability to understand his surroundings and conversation, but physically, he no longer could communicate. It is a situation people are not explicitly presented when they enter into holy matrimony. No man and wife expressly thinks they will make it though decades of marriage only to find him or herself one day sitting across from their spouse, unable to communicate in any real way.

Throughout the meal, my grandpa kept glancing in my grandma’s direction, and after looking at her for a moment, would give her a wink or blow her a kiss. It touched me more than words can express. To me that simple gesture - one which my grandma could not understand - was my grandpa telling his wife thank you for our four beautiful daughters. Thank you for our five grandchildren and their children. Thank you for a lifetime of memories. And thank you for loving me more than other person has. And while I know you cannot understand all this the way that I wish you could, I cannot help but express it the only way I can.

And that was when I learned one of the final lessons I will probably learn from my grandpa. Say the things you want to say and should say and can say to those you love. Say them often. Say them out loud. Scream them if you must because there may come a day when you won’t have the ability, and a wink will have to say everything.

When we left my grandpa, he was lying in bed, much the same way we found him. My mom said bye and mentioned how she would be back in a few days. Then I leaned down, gave my grandpa a kiss, squeezed his hand and told him how great it was to see him. Walking out, I said to take care and that I’ would see him again soon. I followed my mom out of his room and did not even make it through the doorway before tears spilled from my eyes. They were the same tears I cried when I found out he died a little over a week later.

No one in my family can truly say they were shocked by my grandpa’s passing. With each day it became more apparent that he was ready to go. My mom had told my sister a few days before his passing that she should try to see grandpa soon. My mom had doubts he would make it to Christmas. My nephew happened to overhear this last bit of information and asked who wasn’t going to make it to Christmas. My mom, the grandparent in this situation, explained that her dad, his great-grandpa, was probably not going to have another Christmas. My nephew, in his 6 years of wisdom, responded with, “Well, how many Christmases has he had?” The answer was 79. My nephew processed this number, probably compared it to his own six Christmases, and seemed pretty satisfied with the answer - as well he should be. Seventy-nine Christmases are a lot to celebrate. And even though I do not get to see my grandpa for one more Christmas, I will take comfort knowing he had already done this 79 other times.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That was a beautiful piece about your grandfather, it brought me to tears. I am sorry to have heard about your grandpa's passing, but your entire family must feel very peaceful knowing what a fantastic legacy he left behind.
Additionally, I am glad to hear that your situation has turned around and that you are moving in the right direction. I hope that the new year continues to bring you closer to all that makes you truly happy and content.
Your old neighbor-
Heather (Rusnock) Smith