I received a short e-mail almost two weeks ago now. “Grandpa is in the hospital with pneumonia, not doing well,” was all it said. My grandfather had not been in good health for years. He had spent the last three years in a nursing home. But, this latest illness looked like it might have dire consequences. I kept up with his prognosis through e-mail and phone calls, and Tim and I discussed the possibility of a visit to go see Grandpa.
The truth is, I was not really that close to my paternal grandfather. He was always a very quiet man and my family had not lived close to him since I was three years old. Though we would go to visit often when I was a child, there were always aunts and uncles and cousins filling the house and I never really had much personal interaction with my grandpa. He did not go out of his way to hang out with us grandkids and we were much too busy playing with each other in the finished basement to be bothered with the boring adult conversations going on upstairs. Like my grandpa, I was quiet and shy and so the two of us never knew quite what to say to each other on the occasions when we were all together. I have many memories of being with my dad’s family, gatherings that would include my own aunts, uncles, and cousins as well as my dad’s at times. My memories of being with dad’s family are good memories full of talking, laughing, and tons of extended family who were always thrilled to see my siblings, my cousins, and me but in most of my memories Grandpa was not a prominent figure. He was there, quietly sitting, always sort of in the background of our visits and of my memories. I have only a few special personal memories of Grandpa. He always had butterscotch candies in his shirt pocket and he would share them with us whenever we saw him. I remember he would burn his trash in a fire pit in the backyard every evening and sometimes he would let me throw things in, like my Styrofoam cup or plastic candy wrappers. I loved seeing how they would curl and dance in the heat before being burned up, neither Grandpa nor I knowing anything of the damage we might have been doing to the environment. I remember one time sitting on Grandpa’s lap as we watched home movies for what seemed like hours. And I remember going with my grandparents to a festival where Grandpa was playing his harmonica. He was a professional harmonica player for years but I was only there to see him play in public that one time. As I got older, our visits got fewer and farther between and since Grandma and Grandpa were never comfortable traveling we saw little of them in my teenage years. Once I became an adult, it was even harder to see my grandparents. I moved even farther away, Tim and I were on a very tight budget (still are actually), and our family was growing quickly, keeping us busy. Time has a way of slipping by more quickly than I realize and, somehow, nine years passed without a trip to see Grandma and Grandpa. So I found myself two weeks ago, reading my e-mail, not sure how much time Grandpa had left and not at all sure how I could get to see him, yet feeling in my heart that I needed to be there.
Tim and I talked about driving up to Pennsylvania, where Grandpa lay frail and sick in his hospital bed. We talked about the 800+ mile drive, the time it would take to make the drive, the cold, snowy weather we would encounter, and the cost of it all. It just didn’t seem feasible to go. Then my mom offered to book a flight for me, with her and my dad, to fly up for five days. It would require me leaving my four older children (the baby could fly free, sitting on my lap on the plane). Tim would have to take time off work to be with them, but it was the only option and Grandpa’s health continued to deteriorate rapidly.
My grandfather died before we made it to town. I did not get to talk to him one last time. I did not see him before he passed away. I did not get to introduce him to his youngest great-grandchild, my daughter with whom he shared his name and a definite family resemblance. Instead of one last visit I would be there for his funeral.
The time I spent in Pennsylvania was an emotional roller coaster. I was surrounded, like in childhood, by aunts, uncles, and cousins. I got to see family I hadn’t seen in many, many years, including my grandmother, who though she was very sad seemed comforted by the presence of her family all around. One night my uncle came by to hang out in our room and we sat up until midnight, my parents, my brother and I, listening to his stories and laughing so hard we practically cried. And then there were the moments we did cry. Not tears of joy but tears of mourning, tears of loss. In many ways, I mourned as much for the relationship Grandpa and I never had, as for the end of his life here on earth. I was sad for the years that he and I never spoke, the visits that went by with little more than a hug and kiss as we came and went when I was a kid, the significant moments of my life that Grandpa was not a part of. I was sad that I knew my grandpa without ever really knowing him and that he knew me but didn’t really know me, either. I was sad that my love for him, while very real, was rarely shared as it should have been. I was so sad that Grandpa had suffered at the end of his life and that I had not had a chance to be there for him in his suffering. I was sad for my dad who had lost his dad, for the times he had not seen his father for years at a time, for not being able to be with his dad at the end. I was sad for my grandma who after 63 years of marriage was now a widow, alone and unsure of her future. The emotions I experienced over the course of the week were raw and varied and overwhelming, at times. The visit was joyful and sad, comforting and upsetting, close and far all at once.
My mom overheard one of my cousins explaining to her young niece, my other cousin’s 8 year old daughter, that some family reunions are happy and some are sad but that what matters most is that we are all together. I wish my most recent visit to see family had been under different circumstances and that it had come earlier, at a time when I could still visit with my grandfather before it was too late, but I am glad my extended family was together and that I could be there to pay my last respects to Grandpa, offering my prayers for his soul and thanking God for his life.