The morning of Sunday, October 17, 2010, I received a phone call from my mother, early in the morning. I missed the call, as I was doing laundry across the hall from my apartment. However, when I saw that she had called, I knew something was wrong. And so I called her back and asked, “What is wrong?” But I already knew the answer before I even redialed. I knew it had to be about my grandfather. Perhaps another fall, like he did during the summer.
He was in a coma. He had had a massive intracerebral hemorrhagic stroke sometime between 5 AM and 7 AM that morning. Surgery would only relieve the pressure—not relieve the damage. He had at most, a week to live—at the least, less than a day.
So my father came to get me, so that I could be there with my family should the worst happen. When we were on our way to back to the Valley, I did something I don’t think I have ever done: I asked my father a personal question. I asked him about when his grandfather died of Alzheimer’s disease. I don’t recall his answer, but what he said next, unbeknownst to me, would become very relevant to me. He said something along the lines of this: “When the first member of my immediate family passed away, life stopped being fun anymore, it just became about wondering who I was going to lose next.”
We got to the hospital an hour and a half before my grandfather’s heart stopped beating. I think the most difficult part of that day was being around my family. I don’t mean that derogatorily. Its just, I expressed no emotion whatsoever. When he passed, one tear escaped my left eye. That is it. I was just empty. I don’t know if it had to do with all of the other nonsense going on around me and in my head at the time that left me completely apathetic, or if that was just a mental defense mechanism against knowledge of the fact that I just watched my grandfather die. And so, I was patient and quiet and just standing there while everybody else went to pieces. I felt bad not only because I pitied them, but because outwardly, nobody would think that I was feeling absolutely nothing. And truth be told: I really wasn’t.
I was the last one out. I kissed my grandfather on his forehead before leaving. It was still warm. And so the rest of the week ensued. My grandmother stayed with us the entire week that I was home. We all ate every meal together at my mother’s house and my aunt and uncle’s house—food made and sent to us by friends of the family.
My father always told me as a child that I was not to go to wakes, because he didn’t want that to be my last memory of distant aunts and uncles. As an adult, my father always told me that I should go to wakes so that way the first one I ever went to wasn’t for someone from my immediate family.
So later that week, I attended my first wake. It was difficult seeing my grandfather put on display like that, but I guess that’s how it goes. I had to stand there and shake the hands of 500 people who came to pay their respects; it was awkward and unbearable and the most uncomfortable I had been since being a giant tissue for my family in the emergency room after my grandfather took his last breath, but I guess that’s how it goes. [Again, I do not mean that derogatorily—being there for my family is my responsibility, and I am honored and proud to have it.]
I was a pallbearer. My grandfather could have knocked off a few pounds. And the sky could have decided not to rain. And my grandmother could have decided to just have the funeral where every other funeral is held and not up a tight, steep staircase to the church. But such was the situation. The funeral itself was not difficult. The military ceremony at the cemetery was not difficult. The most difficult part of that day, honestly, was everybody asking me if I was OK and saying how sorry they felt for me. I think I just wanted everybody to leave me alone with my non-thoughts. And I think I still do.
And so that was that. A week after the wake and a day before what would have been his 81st birthday I got two tattoos in his honor. I will not discuss them.
I still have not thought much about any of that. I don’t think there is much to think about. He was old. He had been suffering from dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease for 5 years—all of which I had been away for at college and in Albany. I think somewhere in there, I had already let go of him, and had already had had years to deal with it. I don’t know if that s necessarily true, but it certainly is plausible.
May he rest in peace.
I have noticed recently, however, that I am beginning to realize what my father was well aware of after the first passing of an immediate family member: that life isn’t fun anymore, and that I am simply waiting for when I have to go through this all over again for the next family member or friend. I think of my dear cat, and think of when he will no longer be around to greet me at the door, or wake me up in the middle of the night with a barrage of claws to my forehead. He is my best friend, I have finally acknowledged, and when I think of his passing someday, I finally feel something: I am emotionally ripped to shreds. I literally feel awful, and have this unshakeable feeling of despair. The same goes for when I think of my mother. Or other family members.
I had a conversation today in which I revealed these fears. I was told not to look at the people I love in terms of how much time they have left, but in terms of how much time I can possibly spend with them. I have previously thought this over, as well. The life I chose was supposed to keep me as busy as possible and as isolated from friends and family as possible. I just wanted to be independent and alone. I got my wish. And now I cannot help but feel like the last two years where I could have been living in Frankfort, I would have had more time to spend with my grandfather—and could have more time to spend with my mother, and others.
[This has no easily foreseeable place in this writing, so I will just say it: over the past 3 year and 7 months especially, I have become incredibly close with my mother. I now fear losing her and anything ever happening to her more than I fear my own death. I love you, mom.]
But in this conversation that I had today, it was pointed out that that is what life has dealt me, and phone calls and visits are still better than nothing. And this is true. And I need to appreciate this more. But I must say: spending the holidays at my mother’s house, with my grandmother staying with us—it certainly makes me feel like living there again. I could never move back to Frankfort, but I certainly hope (or fantasize) that my mother will move with me when I move out of New York in three years. I think it will be very difficult for me to live further than driving distance from her.
Death is all around me. I just need to find it in myself to try and live with the life I have chosen, and make the best of time that my loved ones and I get to spend with each other, while we can.
For all I know, I’m next.