My granddaddy died Thursday morning.
The past six days are a blur of a confusing mix of ordinary and terrible moments experienced through too many tears and too little sleep. When I left Salem Wednesday morning to head to Somerset for what we thought would be the last few days with my granddaddy, I was in the minority for having not experienced what almost all others my age have: the death of a grandparent. When I left Somerset today to head back to Salem, I am probably again in the minority for having experienced what not many people my age have: keeping vigil over the last 12 hours of life and being at the bedside when a beloved grandparent went home to Jesus. I knew why I was going to Somerset. I had the heartwrenching experience of packing funeral clothes for myself and my children while my granddaddy was still alive. But I had no idea that I would see the things I saw and experience what I experienced firsthand. The blur of the past six days is constantly swirling around in my mind and different moments insist on coming to the forefront. Some terrible, some sad, some heartbreaking, some ordinary, even some funny. I’ve written elsewhere a straightforward chronological narrative of the events from Wednesday at 5:30 when I entered my granddaddy’s room to Thursday at 12:30 when my grandmother finally cried herself to sleep after being told that her beloved husband had gone to Jesus while she slept. I needed to do that for my own way of processing and so that I would remember, but the whole story need not be related in this public format. However, some of those broken moments that won’t leave me alone, I share here, again as my own way of processing all that went on in those few days:
* That first terrible moment when my dad, my mom, my grandmother and I were in Granddaddy’s room and we realized that it was time to call the family to come.
* Watching my grandmother realize what was going on–she had been sitting with him almost round the clock since he arrived at the nursing home Monday night, and she knew that this moment was different. She couldn’t speak clear words, but her weeping and pleading with him spoke volumes.
* The long, excruciating evening that turned into night that turned into morning. Sitting in the chair by his bed, I didn’t even get up for the first four or five hours. Cousins came and stayed, friends and ministers came and went. Little snippets of conversation but mostly just watching him breathe. We were told “By midnight” but my granddaddy was a fighter and midnight came and went. Eventually there were only nine of us left: my grandmother, my parents, aunt, uncle, brother, sister, my “second mother”, and myself.
* The moments that were so frustrating we had to chuckle when my grandmother would ask us questions in the words we can’t understand. We would guess this and that, trying to figure out what she was saying, and she would eventually just start laughing at us.
* Sitting in my chair, rocking back and forth and praying two prayers over and over and over: “Jesus, take him home. Please stop his suffering.” And “Jesus, loosen her tongue. Just for one night, please loosen her tongue.”
* The absurd moments when we found ourselves telling funny stories about this or that, and laughing around my granddaddy’s bedside.
* The defining moment when Sheryl, Stacey and Eric decided to go on and leave, and I had to decide whether to stay or go. I didn’t want to intrude on my mom and aunt and uncle, but I could not make myself leave. I said I’d stay, with a profound consciousness that I was entering waters in which I never thought I’d swim, but I just could not leave.
* Those final unspeakable moments when, although Mom and Dad and I had all dozed off in our chairs, we all seemed to wake up at the same time and realize that the end was just a few moments away. Grandmother had finally gone to bed about two hours before, and my uncle was in her room and my aunt was in the activity room asleep on the couch. The nurse asked if anyone else was still here and I knew what he meant. I watched my granddaddy breathe one last heartbreaking time, went to wake them up, and got back to see that he was already with Jesus.
* Riding home with my mom, waiting for my children to wake up–not sure what to say to them until Elisabeth bluntly asked, “Did Granddaddy die?” Telling them yes and watching them just go on and eat their breakfast. It wouldn’t sink in for them until later. Going to sleep at 8:00 am just to be woken up at 9:00 to get ready to go back to the nursing home to sit with Grandmother while my mom, aunt, and uncle went to the funeral home.
* The most terrible moments of the whole time: being there with my sister, watching our mom, aunt, and uncle tell our precious grandmother that 2 1/2 hours after she had finally gone to bed after staying awake as long as she could, her husband of more than 64 years had died. She made us take her back down to his room so she could see for herself and when we rounded the doorway and she saw the empty bed, she just broke, and we all broke right along with her. There are no words to describe how heartbreaking that moment was. I will never get that moment out of my mind.
* The strangely simple moment that was one of the hardest things I had to do: closing the door to Granddaddy’s room that morning after we had gotten all of our things out. Mom’s hands were full so she asked me to close the door. I walked up and placed my hand on the doorknob, but I couldn’t pull it shut. I just stood there–looking at the spaces where the extra chairs had been for all of the people who loved him most, looking at the chair where I had sat for most of the night, and finally staring at the empty bed, seeing it all as it had been just a few short hours earlier while Granddaddy was still alive. I couldn’t shut the door. It felt like shutting the door would be putting the period on my granddaddy’s life. But I had to do it. Somehow I made myself shut that door, but my heart broke a little bit more.
* Sitting on one side of Grandmother’s bed stroking her shoulder while my sister sat on the other side of the bed holding her hand while she cried herself to sleep, pleading and speaking in the language we’d give anything to understand, after they left for the funeral home. We just wept right along with her.
* Waking up on Friday morning and having the startling realization that this was the first day that Granddaddy had never taken a breath.
* Watching my cousins family walk into the funeral home Friday night, already crying, and realizing how intensely difficult the next few hours were going to be. Walking into the chapel, all of us together for the first time since before Grandmother’s stroke, and walking up to his casket. We gathered around my grandmother–again, there are just no words.
* Watching my 15-year-old cousin–who was always Granddaddy’s special “favorite” because he was the only one who used to say “I’m going to Granddaddy’s house” instead of “I’m going to Grandmother’s house”–stand behind Grandmother’s wheelchair, his hands on her shoulders and occasionally stroking Granddaddy’s suit coat, for the entire three hour visitation. He did not step away from her once.
* The confusing moments when someone would speak to us and things seemed ordinary, only to have them walk away and find ourselves in tears once again.
* That sweet moment when I saw the windchimes and the flowers that some of my sweet Salem friends had sent to me. I felt so loved and thankful that they had cared enough for me to let me know they were thinking of me in that way.
* The moments I wasn’t prepared for–watching the youngest of the great-grandkids who actually were old enough to know him well–my little girls and Tiffany’s little girls–breaking down in tears over and over again.
* Sitting at Grandmother’s bedside all that night, catching little spurts of sleep, but dreading the day to come.
* The moments on Saturday morning when we were doing something so completely ordinary–getting dressed–but it was so incredibly difficult because of where we were going.
* The long, drawn-out moments sitting in our reserved pew waiting for the funeral to start, when Clay couldn’t sit with me because he was a pall-bearer. Watching friends and family arrive and greet my mom or some of the rest of us, causing a fresh wave of tears every time. The bizarre juggle between surviving my own waves of grief, helping my girls through their waves of grief, and then parenting them through their ordinary moments of fidgeting, arguing, or needing to go to the bathroom throughout all of that.
* The funeral itself. Being so thankful for the life he lived, the Lord he loved, and the legacy he left, but just wanting to hug him one more time.
* The almost-disturbing moment when I realized that the funeral director was having the great-grandchildren roll the casket out to the hearse. There was something that was just painful about watching my little girls roll my granddaddy out like that. He carried all of us, and it was just bizarre to watch them carry him.
* The absolutely normal yet hilarious conversation in our van on the way from the funeral home to the cemetary. Elisabeth, through her tears, said, “Mommy, are all yard sales like that?” I was flabbergasted and asked her to repeat herself. “Like Granddaddy’s that we just went to. Are all yard sales like that?” I have no idea how she got a funeral and a yard sale confused, but it provided the comic relief that we needed at that moment.
* The last moment–turning my back and walking away from his gravesite, a rose from his casket flowers in my hand and in my daughters’ hands. It was over.
* The surreal moment of pulling into my grandparents’ driveway and walking into their house Sunday afternoon to take a bunch of leftover food from the dinner after the funeral. I had not been there since sometime before my grandmother’s stroke. The last time I was there they were both healthy and strong and there–holding babies and cooking dinner and writing poems. I was broken from the time we pulled in the driveway. We set the food on the counter and I just stood there staring into the living room. They weren’t here this time, and once more, I am left with no words to describe what was in my heart at that moment.
* The awful finality of the moments on Monday when we were packing to come back home. Coming home was so hard. As my dad said, we wanted Saturday to hurry up and be over, and Sunday to never end. But Monday came as Mondays do, and we had to come home. It didn’t feel right that life should go on before I was ready. Clay offered to stay another day, but I knew that I wouldn’t be ready tomorrow either, so home we went. I cried our way out of town. Leaving, knowing that this was the last time I would have come to Somerset with four living grandparents, and from now on my life would be touched by the pain of this loss, seemed almost more than I could bear.
I am home now. Tonight we watched our kids play soccer, tomorrow I’ll unpack the suitcases and put everything away, and Wednesday we’ll start school again and go back to church. People will ask me how I’m doing for a little while, then eventually they’ll stop. Life goes on, as it should. But I will have to figure this out. This is new territory for me. Not only did I have the rare blessing of having almost 32 years with all four grandparents, but I also had the rare blessing of growing up in the same town with all four of my grandparents, so I have very close relationships with all of them. There is a huge hole in my heart now. I will have to find away to work life around all that I have seen and experienced in the last six days. The only way possible for me to wake up tomorrow and get on with my life is the hope I have that the faith of my granddaddy was real, and was in a real God. In the midst of my brokenness, He is there, and He will be there tomorrow when I wake up in Salem for the first time without my granddaddy. Hold me, Jesus.