My grandfather and I were never particularly close—at least not for the majority of the time we were both alive. The awkwardness of our relationship always left me uneasy. I always thought grandfathers and their grandsons were supposed to be close, but it wasn’t so with us. Was there one specific reason for this distance? No—as I look back, there were myriad reasons he and I weren’t that close.
For most of my life, my grandfather’s health was terrible. Lighting up multiple packs of Marlboro Reds a day usually has that sort of effect on people. It seems like he was always in and out of the hospital. First it was heart trouble. He had a heart attack, then another, then bypass surgery, then this procedure, that procedure. When he died, they should have taken his heart out and put it in a museum—that thing was so goddamn resilient. And while all these heart problems were going on, other conditions began to manifest themselves. Emphysema was one of the early ones. Diabetes came next. Kidney failure was the last major one. I swear, it’s a miracle he never had to deal with cancer on top of everything else.
His health problems kept him largely confined to the recliner in the living room. Every time we’d go to grandma and grandpa’s house, you could almost count on the fact that he’d be plopped in that chair, probably watching Wheel of Fortune. It must have been such an awful existence—such a terrible quality of life.
It was this confinement that largely separated us physically. I’d known him for fifteen years, and the hours we’d spent talking could probably be counted on two hands. Not that I blamed him for that, though. He wasn’t able to go outside and play catch with me when I was a kid. Nor could he come to band concerts at school, or do anything that required him to be out of the house for more than a little while. His failing health meant we never really had any time to form that grandfather-grandson bond.
The two of us couldn’t have been more different, and our relationship was characterized by contrasts. He was advanced in years, but I was young and growing. He’d been a farmer—a man who worked the land and was fiercely self-reliant. I, on the other hand, hated physical labor and usually spent my time running around playing games (or, in later years, with my nose buried in a video game or my phone). Grandpa was the rugged outdoorsman and I was the kid who preferred to toss around a ball and play Pokemon.
The few times we’d actually sat and conversed were awkward. After compulsory discussion of the weather, how school was going, and all the other goings-on in my life, we were resigned to desperately try to find something to talk about. Sure, I wanted to try to get to know him better, but our differences complicated the matter. Our differences created a distance that was difficult to narrow.
My grandpa never communicated love very well. In fact, I’m not sure he fully understood the concept until the very end. He was always so emotionally distant—so removed from the family. Now, I’m sure he genuinely cared about all of us, and I’m sure he was capable of feeling affection, but those feelings were never conveyed. It’s like he wanted to show us that he cared, but he didn’t know how.
In the last months of his life, however, we all began to notice a change in him. In mid-autumn of 2007, we were over at my grandparents’ house for one of our usual visits. I hadn’t seen him in a while, and there was a marked change in him. He was kinder, more engaged, and more energetic than I’d seen him in months. It was a pleasant change, but the real surprise came as my parents and I were leaving. As I was pulling away from my usual goodbye hug, four words escaped his lips. “Love you, big guy.” (‘Big guy’ was his nickname for me for as long as I can remember.) Those words echoed in my head. Love you, big guy. For the first time ever, he told me that he loved me, which is something I had seriously doubted until that point.
Awestruck, I managed to say, “Love you too, grandpa.” We turned and left the room, saying goodbye to my grandma. Again, my grandpa blindsided us.
“I love you all. I really appreciate you coming over to visit.”
The gravity of these words was too great to process in that moment. As my whole extended family exited the house, there were murmurs among my aunts, uncles, and parents.
“Did you hear that?”
“I know, there’s definitely been a change in him.”
A change in him. I wasn’t the only one who had noticed how out of character he had been.
Over our next few visits, grandpa and I became closer than we’d ever been. I would sit on the couch near his chair and we’d talk for hours. We talked about anything and everything—school, sports, my upcoming trip to Europe—we left no stone unturned. It was like I was really meeting him for the first time. He told me about his time in the Army, and how he was stationed in Europe during the Korean War. It turns out we did have something in common: music. Grandpa came from a very musical family. His brother Ronnie attended Julliard and could play a host of different instruments. My grandpa had even led a local big band in the 1950s. This family talent had been passed down to me—I play both the piano and trumpet. Music became the thing that bonded us together. I was absolutely fascinated to hear about all his experiences. Smoking and alcoholism aside, he’d led a pretty interesting life. I loved this newfound closeness between us—everything was great.
In early December of the same year, the phone rang as my parents and I were at home, busily preparing for the upcoming holiday season. My dad answered, talking only briefly with the person on the other line. He came into the living room with a somber expression—I knew it could only be about one thing.
“Dad’s taken a turn for the worse—they aren’t sure he’s going to make it through the day.” Grandpa had been in the hospital for a few weeks, but it had seemed like one of his routine visits and it wasn’t something I was much concerned about. After my dad hurried to the hospital, my mom burst into tears and hugged me.
“We need to pray for your grandfather.”
Later that afternoon, mom and I joined our extended family at the hospital. After a few dull hours in the intensive care waiting room, we all headed to the cafeteria for dinner. Despite the circumstances, everything seemed fairly normal. It was as if nothing at all was wrong. Looking back, I suppose it was because grandpa was in such poor health that none of this was out of the ordinary anymore. It had become routine–it was the norm. I guess years of him being in-and-out of the hospital had desensitized us to it all. And as the years went on and his body found new ways to fail, “when” became more of an appropriate word when pondering his eventual death.
Halfway through the meal, we heard an announcement over the intercom—a code blue in the ICU. Knowing that a code blue means a “respiratory emergency,” my dad, aunts, and grandma hurriedly left for that wing of the hospital. The rest of us later found out that they had to resuscitate him.
I sat in the waiting room of the intensive care unit with my mom, an uncle, and two cousins. We sat there for hours and hours. We had our diversions—my cousins with their video games and me watching television—but those were long, long hours. At one point, my mom and uncle left the room rather quickly. “Where do you think they’re going?” asked one cousin—she was nine at the time, and matters of death were still new to her (I, on the other hand, was fifteen, and had at least a cursory understanding of the subject). “I’m not sure,” I replied, “But wherever it is, it probably isn’t good.” Almost as soon as I uttered those words, my dad appeared at the doorway of the room, beckoning me over. He looked strangely calm, even though it was obvious that he’d just been crying.
“David, grandpa’s about to pass away, and I came to see if you wanted to say goodbye to him.” I could feel the tears began to well up in my eyes, and I just stood there in silence. Words completely failed me. I’d been expecting to hear something like this for a long time, but my numbness in that moment froze me. I’d been completely blindsided.
“Oh, Dad, I don’t know. I don’t know if I can do it.”
“He’ll still be able to hear you if you come and squeeze his hand and say goodbye.”
The tears began to roll more freely. Was I ready to face the reality of losing him? Did I have the courage to go tell my grandfather how I felt? The past few months of growing closer had been so wonderful—how could I take him by the hand and say goodbye so soon? After standing in solemn silence for what seemed like an eternity, I managed to say,
“I don’t think I can do it. I just don’t think I can.”
“That’s okay, son. I understand.”
My body now began to tremble; speech became even more difficult. I wanted Grandpa to know how much I cared, even though I couldn’t say it to his face.
“Dad, please tell grandpa how much I love him. Please tell him that.”
And with that, my father went down the hallway, heading back toward my grandpa’s room. I turned around and sat back down, knowing that I had made a mistake. Part of me wanted to run after my dad and go say goodbye to grandpa one last time, but I didn’t.
It was only a few minutes later that my mom and uncle came back to the waiting room with tears wetting their faces, and I already knew. They took us into a little side room. “Briana, Nathan, grandpa just passed away.” They started to cry—even my youngest cousin, who was only four. I, too, began to cry, but I felt so conflicted. Part of me was almost relieved to see him pass. Grandpa had suffered physically for so long, and death had relieved him of that suffering. But sorrow also filled me. I wasn’t ever going to hear another one of his stories, or hear his raspy but warm laugh. God, I was going to miss those little things. After a few tearful minutes, I turned to my mom and asked,
“Did dad get a chance to tell grandpa that I loved him?”
“No, grandpa passed just before he came back.”
My heart sank even deeper. I’d frozen when it mattered most—stood there like a deer staring into the headlights of an oncoming car. I’m the reason my dad wasn’t there when his father died.
I was filled with a whirlpool of emotions, each of them swirling, surfacing, and then disappearing, only to surface again later. Devastation, heartbreak, and anger coursed through my veins. Why did he have to die now, when we were starting to grow closer? None of this seemed fair at all. Death had snatched him away. What other stories could we have shared—what other memories could I cling to?
My mom led me down the hall toward the intensive care unit. I’d managed to collect myself, even though I knew that it would all come unraveled when I saw my grandpa, grandma, and the others. As we approached the room, I dreaded going in. I dreaded to not only see him, but also to face the guilt of knowing that my father had perhaps missed out on a chance to say one last goodbye.
Everything about the room reeked of death. The air was marked by a heavy presence that I had never before felt, and have only felt once since. My eyes were drawn to the pallid corpse that was my grandfather—his once-bulky frame now thinned from the wear of deteriorating health. I ran over to my grandma and let out deep sobs, saying, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” As I embraced each of my relatives, their calmness struck me. Witnessing my own emotional breakdown had moved them all back to tears, but their expressions were filled with an air of acceptance that I’d not expected.
My dad approached me. “Would you like to say goodbye?” I walked over to the bed and took hold of my grandpa’s frail, lifeless hand. I managed to choke out the words “I love you, grandpa. I hope you’ll always know that.”
Putting his arm around me, dad said, “He knows, son.” He looked up. “He’ll always know.”