My grandfather died this past Thursday afternoon. He was 96, nearly 97. He was an amazing man and lived a big, full life full of big adventures and experiences. He was a medic in WWII and during his time serving he sang to the troops and met the Queen of England. He was struck by lightning. He raised four sons with my grandmother, Helen, who passed about 25 years ago. Together they owned a big old house and a motel on Loon Lake in upstate NY. Years later, after she got sick, he had a cabin built on land across from the lake and there they spent much of their time. He was a wonderful singer, piano player, violin player. A birdhouse building enthusiast.
Claire and I got to spend some time with him a few weeks ago when he was on his way up to the Adirondacks from Florida. I noticed he seemed more tired than I'd seen him in recent visits. more.........resigned. I mentioned to some friends and family after the visit that it felt like he was wanting to impart some important bits of wisdom to me during that visit. Just in case, maybe. He told me now was the time to get Claire started with an instrument. He told me we should just go ahead and buy some land. And other things.
He'd been back at my dad's last weekend, on the way to a cousin's wedding. But then he started feeling poorly and ended up in the VA hospital just 10 minutes from here. I went to visit him in the hospital last Tuesday, with Claire. She brought a painting and her smile and I sat there holding his hand and rubbing his knee as he told me how he was ready to go 'home' (not to NY- I did ask and he answered by shaking his head 'no' and pointing up), that he wasn't afraid. He asked me not to cry when he died.
I told him of course I'd cry, because I love him so and I'll miss him very much. "But more than I will cry, I will celebrate you" I said.
I wrote him a letter that night after our visit. A letter that I planned to leave for him to read the next day when I went back with Mike and Claire. Our hopes were raised and lowered back and forth over those two days, and then things changed and we quietly settled down into the sad reality that we were indeed saying goodbye. And so our visit that following day became our farewell. Some people may not think a 6 year old belongs in the ICU, saying goodbye to her ailing great-grandfather, but I didn't question it once. So we went back and Claire got to hug and kiss him goodbye. I think she'll remember that. I think she'll have at least some memories of him. I overheard my grandfather telling Mike to take good care of me, and then asking him to promise to do so. I watched Mike's face as he assured my grandfather that he would, and I fell in love with him all over again in that moment. There was something in the way he looked at my grandpa- something that so clearly conveyed not only respect and a promise, but love and compassion and the sheer weight of the moment.
Mike took Claire out to walk around, and I stayed. I again told him how much I loved him. I could see how very tired he was, how very ready he was. Before I left I told him I had a letter for him, and I asked him if he thought he could read it. He told me he'd read it after I left, so I left it right next to him. I hugged and kissed and hugged him, then said goodbye.
We left. I made it almost outside before I realized I'd left my bag behind, up in the room. I ran back up to find my uncle trying to read the letter but unable to at the time. My grandfather hadn't been able to either. He pointed at me and said hoarsely, "you read it". I took a deep breath and came around next to him so that my voice was right near his ear. I held the letter up with my right hand and he reached up with his left and held onto the other side. He closed his eyes. I read. It was... difficult. Incredible. Sad. Though really, what I think that moment was is pure love. That is how I will always remember it. I will never forget those few minutes, and I will always be ever so grateful that I left my bag up in that room. After I finished, he nodded his head and said goodbye, and I kissed him again and told him goodbye. It was so, so hard to walk away, but what else was there to do?
The next morning he had all four of his sons with him, and later that afternoon, when they were transferring him from the ICU to hospice, he died. Two of my uncles were with him, and they said he just stopped breathing. So, so tired. So, so ready.
Last night we had dinner with friends. I brought along a bottle of champagne and we toasted my grandpa Joe. The first of many, many, many intentional celebrations of a great man.
I debated sharing this, as it is so personal and therefore feels so vulnerable, but here is the letter I wrote to my grandpa:
I've never written a letter like this before. I'm not actually sure what kind of letter it is. It isn't exactly a “Chin up! Get better soon” letter, even though I hope that's what it ends up being. I guess in the end, it is mostly an “I hear you, and I honor you” letter.
It is, above all, an I LOVE YOU letter. I love you, grandpa Joe. So, so much.
When I visited yesterday you told me you were tired, you told me you just wanted to go 'home', and that you were ready. You told me not to cry when you die. I told you I will certainly cry when you die, because I will miss you very much, but- I also told you that I will celebrate you. I will celebrate you for the rest of my life. I feel like a part of me was supposed to respond by pleading with you to fight more, to 'keep your chin up', etc. But in the end, more than anything else, I hear you, and I honor you. I can see that you are tired and feeling weak. You've lived such an enormously big life, in every way, and I know these days are incredibly frustrating and diminishing to your spirit. And so I don't feel it is my place to just plaster a smile on my face and say to you “Buck up! Hang in there! You're doing great!” - because you've already bucked up and hung in there lots of times in your life and you probably aren't feeling all that great right now.
The fact that you've cried in front of your loved ones recently does not at all make you a coward - it makes you real, honest, and brave. It makes you vulnerable, and human (and so maybe you did not in fact hatch from an egg on Mars like you always used to tell me- ha!) and I think it is important that you share those more vulnerable parts of yourself with us.
I love you Grandpa. I respect you. I look up to you now just as I always have. I have always appreciated your advice and your time, and I have taken it to heart. You inspire me, and you motivate me to do big things. To 'do good work' with integrity, kindness, and love. To make family a priority and take pride in what I do.
I feel like you and I have a connection that is special- that we are able to see one another for who we truly are. I've long felt that way, and if there's a better time to acknowledge it than now, I can't think of one. You're my solid, kind, smart, brave grandfather. You make me laugh and you challenge me to think and wonder about the world in ways I'm not typically inclined to. For that, and for all of the things, I thank you from the bottom (and all the way up to the top) of my heart.