Saying Goodbye to Grandpa

By Juli

It’ll have been two years this August since I lost my beloved Gramps, a larger-than-life, vivacious, always energetic man with a loud laugh, a tight, strong hug and sparkling eyes. He taught me and my brothers and sister, his only grandkids, about how to tie different knots, all the names of the constellations, and how to stir up the phosphorescence in the water with a swish of a dinghy paddle to create little “galaxies” in the water, as he called them. He loved my kids, too, and not just because he had to. He would spend time with A and marvel at his command of reading and writing at an early age. He would hold S on his lap and tickle her while she squirmed with glee. He would read to both of them, with such drama in his voice that I would often get drawn in to the story, listening from the sidelines and wishing I was still small enough to crawl into his lap and nestle under his bristly chin.

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When he got cancer, he seemed to take it in stride. He didn’t want us all to worry, and it was easy not to with positivity eking out of every crevice in his smile-lined cheeks when we’d ask about it. He described going to chemo as like “going to the spa.” He sent us email updates on his progress, but he rarely wanted to spend time talking about it in person. He’d ask me about me — about all the goings on with my schooling, my work, my kids. He’d ask thoughtful questions. He’d have strong opinions, and voice them. He was my Grandpa. He loved me, and I knew it.

When he started to decline, he declined quickly. Within a matter of months he became frail, tired, weak. He became everything he wasn’t before. His booming voice quieted to a whisper. All too quickly we were making plans to go over to my Grandparents’ home to say goodbye. I wrestled over whether or not to include my kids in this. At the time they were three and five, and the idea of explaining to them something that I myself was finding hard to understand and accept felt hollow and cold. But I am a believer in proper goodbyes, and so I wanted to include them, for better for worse, and embrace whatever conversations came of it.

The day we drove to their apartment to say our goodbyes was beautiful — sunny with a bright blue cloudless sky, which felt incredibly wrong. My tears tried to teach the sky what it should be doing, but it didn’t work. My husband drove, and our kids sat in the back of the car, cheerfully chirping away as if nothing was out of the ordinary — we were just going to Grandma and Grandpa’s apartment, like we had many times before. My throat stung and my ears were hot, while my eyes tried to figure out what to do — Grandpa wouldn’t want my tear-stained face, I told myself, he’d want me like usual — happy, joking, light and breezy, laughing loudly with him over Earl Grey and pizza. But I needed a place for my sadness, so on the tears fell, blurring my vision and trying to get out of me before we arrived, so I could throw on a light mood for ol’ Gramps. In between bouts of sadness I attempted to explain the significance of this meet-up to the kids — this mostly fell on deaf ears. I explained that Mommy was sad, and that it was okay to be sad, because this would probably be the last time we’d ever see Grandpa. A few days later I would explain this again.

“Where’s Grandpa going?” My five-year-old would ask.

“Well, honey, Grandpa’s very sick, and he’s dying, so when he dies we won’t get to see him for a while. But I believe he will be in heaven, and that we’ll see him again someday … when we get to heaven. And if you have any questions about anything, you can ask me and I’ll do my best to answer.”

My son grew thoughtful, then, and I wondered how much that Caillou episode he had seen about a baby bird that had died was turning over in his head and “helping” him make sense of It all. I waited in anticipation for what seemed like ages until he finally opened his mouth: “Where do the garbage men take the garbage when they come to pick it up?”

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When we arrived to see my Grandpa I would be the one to hold him, strong in my arms, like he had done with me since I was small enough to pee in his lap. I couldn’t hold him for long enough, though. We talked about what he wanted to talk about — and definitely NOT about the fact that I would likely never see him again. I brought up jovial memories for him to weakly smile at, and my eyes betrayed me to tears on more than one occasion. He was clearly physically uncomfortable the whole time, too skinny, too frail. The kids sensed the emotions in the room and compensated by ignoring the situation completely. Grandpa wanted to hug them, to talk to them, to give them things that he had always had at the ready to play with them — namely some little animal statuettes that he kept right beside his easy chair. The kids didn’t perform well — couldn’t sit with him like I had hoped, couldn’t cope in general. They were Just being kids, clearly, trying to absorb all that was going on around them and not being able to, so just not engaging at all. In some ways, I envied them this ability.

It was hard, and tearful, to say goodbye. Grandpa was uncomfortable and needed to rest. Also, what do you say to someone you won’t be seeing again? “See you later!” is out. “Talk to you soon!” is gone. I settled for a blubbery “I love you,” but it didn’t feel like enough. I find it hardly ever does, actually.

And I had wanted to write him a letter to tell him how much he had meant to me — the paddle galaxies, naming constellations, all those knots he taught us to tie, but by the time the knots in my heart had finally resolved themselves enough for me to be able to write it, it was too late, and he was gone. Stolen, really. Stolen in the middle of the night.

And so I write this, and as tears fall again I realize how unresolved it all really is. But it doesn’t have to be resolved, I tell myself. Because when the conversation continues with my kids, as I know it will, likely unexpectedly, such as in the car when we’re racing to a dentist appointment one day, or on the road when we’re already late for school, I want to be able to approach it again with all the softness and vulnerability I have toward it now, to show them that it’s okay, and messy, and somewhere we can all meet if they also ever feel like they need to say goodbye to Grandpa, again.

So goodbye, Grandpa, again. I love you, I miss you. Thanks for leaving your mark on my heart. 

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