On My Grandfather’s Passing…

Normally, beginning a story is easy for me.  Hook ’em with something good, something memorable, something that fits the larger theme.  Something catchy.  Something they can’t ignore.

But I’m not quite sure how to summarize what I want to say here in one or two enticing grafs.  As if any of this could be summarized in one attention-grabbing hook.  Maybe it can by a better writer, or someone more detached.  For me, now, though, it’s a series of disjointed thoughts.  A greater truth constructed out of the glue-flooded macaroni paintings of a six-year-old.

My grandpa is dead.  He shouldn’t be.  But he is.  That’s a fact.  It’s not a fact about me, but in a way, in spite every modicum of sensibility I possess telling me this is just about an external fact, a legacy, an obituary clipping, it’s my story too.

So I’m going to tell it.  Raw and unfiltered, not stopping to borrow the thesaurus from my dust collection.

I suppose it starts with a 3am phone call.  I hear it, but don’t answer in the fog of my interrupted sleep.  What does register, though, however fleeting and soon dismissed by a return to rest, is that no 3am phone calls are good.  And when I hear the voicemail tone, I know it’s something bad.

Upon waking up, further review reveals it’s my uncle Scott, asking for my dad.  I figure a grandparent is dead.  When I get a hold of my dad, two hours behind in Wyoming, this is eventually confirmed through early morning phone tag.

Grandpa.  Heart attack.

It doesn’t really sink in at first.  I suppose I had always prepared myself for the inevitability of a grandparent passing.  And I’d always told myself the same thing—I don’t want it to happen, I want to pretend like it won’t ever happen, but when it does, it won’t be my sadness to incur.  It will be my parents’. And I will be sad for them, but never myself.  Never personally devastated.  Just the soldier, the rock, the good son.

This was my thought.  Tragic, untimely, sudden.  But not my sadness.  My dad’s.  I would just be there to support him when he got off the plane, when we drove out to his mother’s, when we saw the body.  But I would always just be there.

On the day we learned of my grandfather’s passing, it was my responsibility to get necessary items organized in order to make the trek out to Ohio—which sounds close to Indiana in passing mention, but we’re talking Ohio-bordering-West Virginia.  Hotel was in the latter state, actually.

Of course, I still had more than a few items to wrap up at work as well.  Preparation for the next week, assignment schedules, notices to various teams that I would be out indefinitely pending further instructions on funeral services.  Trying to do this while communicating with a dad still trying to catch a last-minute flight in from Denver by way of Montana by way of Wyoming, trying to find available hotel rooms (turns out, natural gas boom—the good kind—had almost every decent place booked from Ohio to Pittsburgh) and trying to figure out what to do with a 14-year-old dog who had never before been boarded was quite the challenge.

But somehow, all these items were handled.  And Indianapolis was in the rearview…well, long in the rearview given construction delays on I-70…the next day.

The six-hour trip out provided plenty of time for headphone-fueled reflection.  As I listened to Fang Island’s latest album, I thought about how weird this whole situation was.  My dad’s side of the family isn’t particularly close.  I hadn’t seen my grandparents since November 2006, Thanksgiving of my freshman year of college.  Schedules just never worked out for anyone, it seemed.  Hadn’t seen any of my uncles or cousins since I was 12 years old.  Just generally had never been too close with these people, other than exchanging phone calls and e-mails with my grandparents, and yet I was destined to spend the next 72 hours commiserating with them, sharing misery over a million casserole dishes of oven-ready condolences.

I was related to these people.  Blood.  We shared the last name.  Somewhere in my childhood, we shared camping trips, cookouts, miniature golf outings.  And yet, I didn’t really feel like I knew them.  Their world had been turned upside-down, and I was just walking in the attic door like I earned a spot on the new ground level because I was in some old photos, because everyone mispronounced my last name the same as theirs.

I was an intruder to their grief, welcomed by last-name only.  And I feared that idea more than anything.

When we arrived at my grandma’s house, this idea resonated strongly.  My uncles shook my hand.  I wondered if they even recognized me to some extent.  But when I saw my grandma, I felt foolish for even going there, for ever harboring so much self-doubt.  Because this wasn’t about me, or the awkwardness, or the unfortunate family reunion.  It was about the empty space at the kitchen table and the kind of pain that can only be etched into the reddened, hollow eyes of a woman married 52 years who hadn’t slept since she’d heard the news she never wanted to believe.  It was about all the moments leading up to a hug and two hours of near-silence polishing off six glasses of ice water in the corner.

It was about my grandpa.  And how I kept expecting him to walk in the room and ask what the hell everyone was doing, what I thought about the Steelers’ offensive line, if I had a girlfriend.  All while the hallway remained vacant, and everyone searched for appropriate distractions, things you say in those shared moments of grief.

That’s when I started to realize how much I missed him.  And how past circumstances don’t necessarily dictate emotional entitlement, like the extent of my reaction could be pre-determined by something as arbitrary as the amount of football games we had watched together over the past decade.

I guess I had always figured that I would just feel bad for my father when the time came, but not necessarily feel personally-wounded.  So that emptiness, the expectation of some Houdini act, came as a surprise to my system.

Could this be more than I had mapped out in my head?

I was six, and waking up to a toy lightsaber under the Christmas tree.

I was 10, packing for my first-ever camping trip.

I was 12, rubbing sleep from my eyes at 5 a.m. while balancing a fishing rod against the edge of an outboarder.

I was 18, and playing Tripoly on the eve before high school graduation.

I was over-stuffed from mashed potatoes, turkey and fried oyster (a family tradition), lounging on a leather recliner as the Cowboys stomped the Lions for the millionth time in a row, adapting a certain ennui to Joey Harrington’s mortal suffering.

And he was there in all of those moments.  But not in this one.  Even though I was sure he would be eventually, providing the Ohio Valley with the GOTCHA moment of the century.

But that never happened.

Instead, there was just silence and sadness, and more hurt than I’d planned for.

And anger.  Lots of anger.  Gritted teeth and dagger eyes when my uncle told us how it all happened, never quite answering that cosmic WHY lingering in the communal fog of froggy throats and stinging eyes.

It had started Thursday, when he had been in for a routine cardiac catheterization.  Put simple: grandpa’s heart hadn’t been in the best shape for quite some time.  So I suppose in some sense, this was inevitable, and we all thought this, but we didn’t agree with it, and certainly didn’t assign it to the present tense out of some existential probability—a card game of second chances and dying breaths.

After the procedure, he went home to rest.  But something was wrong.  It would take a lot for grandpa to admit that, to really show any signs of panic, but he did.  He hurried to the kitchen, clutching his chest.

“Something’s wrong,” he told my grandma, “I have to go back to the emergency room.  Where’s Scott?”

My uncle was out picking up some medication.  Couldn’t say for whom, don’t rightly recall.  But in any event, my grandma quickly attempted to reach him, and succeeded in doing so.  He hurried back home.

“Something’s wrong.  My chest hurts.  We have to go back.”

So my uncle dialed 911.

“Tell him to take nitro.  One pill every [I forget the detail here] minutes, hold it under his tongue.”

Grandpa did.  And that didn’t solve anything.

“We have to go.”

So my uncle took him, and he was quickly treated by an emergency room doctor.  The E.R. doc said he was having a heart attack, that the EKG supported this.  Assured he would be admitting my grandpa to the hospital, he contacted his cardiologist first and shared the results with him.

But the cardiologist didn’t agree.

“His EKGs are always out of whack.  That’s normal for him,” the cardiologist claimed over the phone, not physically viewing these charts, mind you.

The emergency room doctor wasn’t sure about that.  He maintained my grandpa was having a heart attack.

“No, that’s normal,” the cardiologist insisted, “tell him just to go home, get some rest and follow up with me in the morning.”

Resigned to this, the E.R. doc passed along the news.  And because the cardiologist overrode the E.R. doc, my grandpa was not admitted to the hospital.

An 81-year-old heavy-set man with a history of heart ailments and more stints than you could count, who had just had a procedure done earlier that day, not admitted to the hospital.

A father of three, grandfather of three.  Loving husband.  Dear friend.  All of those descriptors that sound so cliche yet prove so accurate.  War veteran.  Caretaker.  Avid golfer—could have gone pro.  Woodworker.  Car aficionado.  A good man, a good man who raised and inspired a plethora of other good men, a man whose name has been passed down for three generations now.  Not admitted to the hospital.

My grandpa.  Not admitted to the hospital.

Which was, essentially, a death sentence.

Within minutes of my grandfather returning home following the cardiologist’s refusal to admit him, he collapsed and died.  In front of my uncle and grandmother.

And all anyone asks in the wake of it all is WHY?

“Why?  Why did this happen?” my grandma asks the cardiologist, who didn’t beat the ambulance, who couldn’t quite hide the shame and guilt in having missed the cadaver his negligence may have created.

“I don’t know,” he answered.  “I just don’t know.”

None of us ever will, of course, and that will always be death’s lasting sting.  The whys, the not knowing.  Those split-second decisions and mundane moments that all added up before our eyes while we were busy observing the laws of normalcy, all those day-to-day routines and machinations.

Could it have been different?  Would it have been different?  What made the final difference between living and dying? Where did the margin collapse and the balancing act give way to the shark tank below?

I don’t know.

But the truth is, the angry eyes don’t always care, at least in those first stages of bloodletting.  And so the fury was felt, the fire passed down the line and bottled up inside that next man with clenched fists and a flushed face.  Our five-alarm family reunion.

The next day was easier somehow.  Where the magma once coursed, now came the memories.  Good ones.  Bad ones. Real ones, in any case.  The kind that make you human, prove you really existed.  Memories from Pittsburgh, from Roanoke and Rockville and Peoria and Indianapolis and O’Fallon and St. Clairsville.  Memories of Muskegon, of 15-cent hamburgers at the Eat’n’Park and the Board of Education at the backside of pestering progeny.  My memories: my first dog being chased around the garage with a broom for having gifted excrement to the living room, an open reel rod that almost hooked a procession of unintended targets, being the only boy to walk away from the battered masses with a copy of Goldeneye 64 within the first weeks of its release.

That day was easier.  Better.  More conducive to healing.

The funeral, though, that was tough.

Prior to my grandfather’s, I had only been to one funeral in my life.  It was for my great aunt.  I remember thinking that it was sad, and it was my duty to look and act serious, but I was entirely unaffected by it.  Someone had died that I had never really known.  Her body was openly presented in the nave, and it just didn’t look real.  To me, it wasn’t real.   It wasn’t someone I knew, it wasn’t something alive.  It was my uncanny valley of emotional distance—just off-putting, and nothing more.

(I was also 14 years old, so it wasn’t as if I had a firm grasp of these feelings to begin with.)

My grandfather’s funeral marked a few firsts, for me.  First time I really knew, and knew well, the person being laid to rest.  First time I would be there for the viewing, service and entombment.  First time I would be there in the days leading up to it all.  First time I would be asked to be a pallbearer, to transport casket to hearse and eventually to final resting place.

I woke up that morning too early, with one helluva stomach ache.  Guts were tied in a sailor knot, stomach rolling like a canoe swallowed by a hurricane, clinging to the apex of every hundred foot wave to lash at the unsettled Atlantic surrounding.  I was sick, and maybe it was the ice cream before falling asleep or just the lack of sleep begin with—would have cost $250 to opt out of sharing a hotel room with parents, and for just a few nights, I wasn’t going to bite down on that bullet—but the day started out with intestinal mutiny and a dress shirt one neck size too small (I never was one to perfect the art of formality…)

The hotel room was suffocating, and I had to get out, even well before we were ready, so I wandered into the lobby and out toward the parking lot and the panoramic view of Appalachia from the other side of the Ohio.  I could breathe out there, surrounded by mountains, fog swirling down the declines and collecting in the valleys below, masking whatever wildlife calls West Virginia home.  Outside, I didn’t feel as sick.  And I didn’t feel sick in the first place for any particular reason.  It was just for all of the reasons, all of the ways time and anger and loss and sleep had toyed with my routine, my standard biological cadence.

Breakfast was a glass of water I sipped at Steak ‘N Shake while excusing myself to occupy the handicapped stall and stuff my fingers down my throat.  I just needed to empty, without getting too gross.  But there was nothing but bile, and a reddened face for the trouble.

When we finally arrived at the funeral home, it was every bit as stiff and awkward as you would expect.  I say that with no real negative connotation—the place was wonderfully-appropriate.  Consoling, but not overbearing.  No cheesy decorations suggesting that everything is directed according to a greater universal plan.  No organ music recycled at children’s haunted houses every October.  Just kind folks who held doors open, largely stayed out of the way, and arranged a mutual grieving space.

I accompanied my dad, mom and grandma into the viewing room, where the service would be held three hours later.  And there he was, readily visible, the focal point of the room.  Just there.  Unmistakably there.  My grandpa.  Or some lifeless imitation of him, anyway.

We walked down the center aisle, everyone approaching the casket as if we were still waiting for that one last magic act.  But at the end of the walk was still the sight the mind expected and the heart rejected.  Grandpa.  Pasty complexion, same haircut, concave chest.  Everything eerie and amiss, but still him.  The final truth presented.

There isn’t really any accurate prose for that.  For my grandma approaching the casket, squeezing his hand and asking why he had to go.  It’s every grieving widow you’ve ever seen in the movies, but so painfully unique in that moment.  Until it’s your family, your moment, your reality, you don’t realize that’s someone’s husband of 52 years.  You don’t know those moments everyone reflects upon when they stare down into the casket, projecting life on the pale surface just to re-experience those final synaptic firings of something shared.

And any combination of words that could accurately describe that moment when your dad, who just lost his father, comforts his mother, who just lost her soul-mate?  And both are standing there, in that moment of anguish, the most sharpened sense of loss?

Man, that’s tough.  That’s the kind of thing that has you standing to attention three paces behind, squeezing your middle three fingers behind your back for all the tensile strength your bones can handle.

I was next to view the body.  But I don’t remember much about that.  I mean, I can remember exactly how he looked.  Equally similar to the man I remembered and totally foreign.  I mostly just remember thinking that I didn’t know what to think, and trying to silently apologize for not making it out there more often, for just assuming time would…allow, permit, accomodate.  I learned a thing or two about time over these past few days.

The next few hours proved that there exist seconds within seconds and a half-hour of meeting cousins and cousins of cousins for the first time, in such circumstances, can feel three centuries longer than a clock would have you believe.  That’s not meant to read overly anti-social or anything, it’s just difficult to pretend the moment is anything other than what it really is.  And it’s not a social hour or bonding experience.  It’s a farewell.

Unfortunately, the eventual clock strike of the ceremony was hardly the climactic moment anyone anticipated.

Maybe the worst part about this whole tragic ordeal was the sermon, or whatever you call it.  If I could get beyond the fact that the woman butchered my great-uncle’s name, my mom’s name (Jenny?  Really?), kept calling my grandpa and uncle “James” when they had never been referred to as that their whole lives, suggested my dad was a step-son and generally seemed to have no fucking clue who my grandpa was or what his family was like, despite attempting to stuff a presidential debate’s worth of facts in the presentation…I would still be faced with the “everything happens for a reason” motif.

Yes, things happen for a reason.  Medical incompetence was the reason my grandpa died.  Congratulations.  You solved life’s greatest mystery, lady!

It was, quite simply, the most misinformed, trite collection of words anyone could have put together to describe my grandfather’s life.  I cringed quite a bit during it.  I was angry after.  But as I was a pallbearer, I didn’t really have much time to dwell on it.  Just viewed the body one last time, watched my uncles place a pitching wedge in his grip as they said their final goodbyes and waited outside the room with my dad, uncles and cousin, each trying to mask their pain in their own unique way: sunglasses, dry jokes, fidgeting with breath mint wrappers.

Everything from there, or at least from transportation of casket from funeral home to hearse, seems to lose significance.  There’s a long drive out into the country, rolling fields of flowers diving into reflective ponds and ornate mausoleums.  There’s a reception afterward with sweet sausage and honey-glazed ham, where it still feels awkward to eat at the same table I ate some six Thanksgivings ago and talked football with my grandpa.

There’s a certain air of relief: he’s at rest, we’re here for you, we can smile and tell stories now, but the truth that stays behind is that there’s a lingering hurt, something far less anesthetized as the cars begin heading toward the highway.

Of course, there is also the truth you take with.  Or truths.  Plural.  And those are what are most predominantly on my mind.

My family is strong.  My grandma, my uncles, my dad.  Those are some strong people.  They don’t just act tough.  They are tough.  That’s one lesson I take away.  I know my family better now, and I’m better for it.  The example has been set for dignity in the face of such sudden tragedy.  I know, when I face similar challenges, I can always emulate my family.  And more importantly, I can lean on them, and they will steel my resolve in return.  I will be tougher for knowing them, and having them support me.

My support network and my friends matter.  A lot.  And I need to be better about reminding them of this, and being a better friend, son, relative, etc.  The biggest regret I hold, and it’s hardly a unique thought, in the wake of my grandfather’s passing is not better expressing how much I loved him while he was alive.  That’s always an easy sentiment to express in death, not always so much in life, when we take heartbeats for granted.  People can and do die.  Every day.  Again, more obvious cliche there, but it’s true…people die, and the worst feeling in the world is to know you’ll never be able to express your appreciation for them when they’re gone.  Things left unsaid and undone have a nasty tendency to remain unsaid and undone.  No sense in sitting on the truth there.

My grandfather mattered.  His life was cut short unnecessarily, but he still lived a long life.  His funeral was attended by representatives from Rhode Island, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Indiana, Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Missouri and California.  People loved him.  He had an impact on so many people.  What he did mattered.  His life mattered.  It wasn’t just me losing my grandpa, it was the world losing a truly great man.

I’m glad to know these truths, and more unmentioned, even if revealed through such unfortunate circumstances.  As much as I wanted to reject any possession of this, the legacy left behind then becomes my story, and my opportunity to learn, to grow, to impact the people that mean the most to me according the example left behind.  The loss will always linger, and it will still take me a while to realize he’s gone, realize just how much he meant to my life and realize exactly what it all means versus what I always thought it would mean.

But I’d like to think the structure my grandpa built throughout his life, out of his love for family, the example set for his sons in turn set for their own sons, lives on.  Maybe that’s cheesy.  Maybe that’s on a Hallmark card somewhere in some quaint beachside town.  I don’t know.  I just know that I miss him more than I ever realized I could, and I better understand the finality of things, our mortal obligation to make life mean something, make the people in our lives that we love and cherish realize that they mean something too.

I always thought I would just be there.  That this would just be a thing that happened, and it would be sad, but it would just be a thing in the end, an event, something to get over.

Now, I realize being there (for my grandma, for my dad, for my friends and family and everyone that matters to me) has far more dimensionality than I originally realized, and that’s exactly what my grandpa would want me to do.

Normally, this is where I would end the story with a cute callback to the hook.  But I’m not sure this story calls for that.  And I hope that this story is more than a story.  I hope that my story can maybe become yours, and you can write a letter to someone you haven’t talked to for a while, call your mom, let your best friend know how much they matter, or tell your son how proud you are of him.

My grandfather’s passing was tragic.  Still is.  Your grandfather’s passing probably was too, or will be.  That hurt will always be there.  It cannot be prevented.  But the regret of not injecting meaning in life, or letting your loved ones know how much they mean, can absolutely be prevented.  So I suppose that’s my call to action.  Embrace the things and people that are most important, live for them, love them, cherish your time with them.  Don’t hesitate to say you love them.

Because in the end, you never know.  You can’t know.  You can only react and reflect.  Death may be a cold inevitability, but if the life preceding means something, to you and others, maybe it’s a hard truth we can all learn to accept in time.

I love you, grandpa.  Miss you, and hope I can do right by you in my time here.

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