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Friday, December 13, 2013

Thoughts on life after Grandpa's death.

I originally wrote this to be submitted for a website discussing grief and how to cope with it. The article was rejected. I still want to share this, thus I am presenting it here.

In August of 2013, my paternal grandfather died due to complications from brain cancer. The news that he had cancer came at the beginning of the holidays last year. A few days shy of Thanksgiving, we had all thought that he had a minor stroke. After a series of tests and a biopsy, the news came that it was inoperable brain cancer. Of all of us, it was my grandfather who took the news in relative stride. Once the initial shock of the news wore off, he set to work learning everything he could about what was happening to himself and doing everything he could to see to it that his wife of 60 years, my grandmother, was taken care of.

The hardest part of it all for me wasn't his death. It was witnessing the way the chemotherapy made this formerly hale 84 year old man into a frail man who was in near constant pain. My grandfather fought his cancer with the same good humor and determination that he brought to bear on stubborn problems with his farming equipment, his beloved airplane, and the challenges that came up as the patriarch of our family. It was inspiring to see, even as it was heart breaking to watch as his body failed to keep up with his indomitable spirit.

The day my grandfather died happened to be my eldest son's birthday. We got the phone call from my parents that my grandfather had developed sepsis the night before. I had a terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach just as I had the day before my grandfather had gotten his diagnosis of cancer. My intuition was screaming at me that this man I loved dearly was actively dying.

In the middle of the night, August 21st, I drove to the hospital. A queer sense of calm flooded me as I looked at that moonlit night. I found myself reminded of one of the last times that I had gone flying with my grandfather. It was a night flight with a waning gibbous. The stars shone like diamonds and the moon hung in the sky like a disc of hammered silver. The hum of the airplane's engine and the roar of the propellers was muted to a tolerable level by the headphones we were wearing.

As my grandfather explained to me how we were using instruments to navigate, my teenage self was enraptured. It was the closest I had ever come to fulfilling my childhood dreams of becoming an astronaut. When my grandfather let me take the stick and fly the plane for a minute, I was speechless with delight and wonder. That memory wrapped around me as I drove to the hospital to help keep deathwatch, though none of us dared say it out loud.

At the hospital, my grandfather was heavily sedated and beyond the reach of any of our abilities to communicate with him. He lay in the bed with a sickly pallor over him. I spoke to my grandmother and my aunt, desperately hoping that I was providing them with some form of comfort. As the minutes ticked by, the paper mask I wore to protect my frail grandfather from my germs grew hot and stifling. My body became restless and a part of me wanted to flee from the room.

I did not want to be witness to watching one of the strongest men in my life dying. The child in me wanted him to live forever. I forced myself to stay. I watched as his head jerked in seizures that were still wracking his body, despite the medications that were supposed to halt them. When that became too painful to look at, I looked at his feet. It was a curious thing to realize that I had my grandfather's toes.

Looking back on it, I suppose it was my mind's way of searching for something positive to seize upon. When my grandmother expressed her discomfort with remaining in the room, then I felt that I had permission to leave the room. The last time that I saw my grandfather alive, he had just finished shuddering with a seizure and his heart rate had become terribly unstable. I went home but I slept poorly.

The next day, I was frantic with activity. As I was out getting groceries, a curious feeling passed over me. I felt as though the world had become a touch colder, despite the fact that it was a sweltering day of near record heat in the middle of August. When I got home from my errands, I learned that it was the time that my grandfather had died. The next few days were something of a blur.

I had so dearly wanted to do more to be of help to my parents and my grandmother. Unfortunately, there was nothing I could do and responsibilities to my own family kept me from being there with them in their grief. When the day of his memorial services came, I was short tempered and anxious. I had moved from disbelief and shock into anger.

I had mistakenly thought that I had passed through that stage already upon learning that my grandfather had cancer. I was wrong. My husband bore my moodiness patiently and forgave me my waspish temper. I still hadn't wept by this time. Not in the course of the many months between November and August had I truly mourned the situation.

I instead sought to out run my feelings by way of work and staying busy. It was at my grandfather's urging that I wrote the first two books of my adult fiction series. It was because of him that I published my first book. In all of that effort, I struggled with my feelings. I swayed back and forth between shoving them aside and mercilessly picking them apart. I poured my anguish and rage into conflicts on paper. Conflicts that I could resolve with a heroic ending.

I sit here a little over three months after the death of my grandfather. It still hurts, but I find that it propels me forward. The dignity with which my grandfather faced his mortality lent a heroic ending to his story. As I continue to 'write' my own story, I find that echoes of his story come up often. Where this would have paralyzed me and left me a broken mess in the past, I now strive to be like a resonating string on a violin. From the depths of grief, some of the sweetest music may be written. It is this capacity to pick ourselves up and continue on that honors the dead. It is how they live on through us.

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