Not quite a month ago my Grandma called and said she thought I should head home. I could tell she hated saying it. Not just because the news was sad but also because it meant a cross country trip with five kids. I acted like I wasn't sure if I could while beginning to throw snacks and diapers and clothes on the kitchen table. I threw a load of dirty diapers in the washer and when they were dry we hit the road. I told her we were on the way when we reached New Mexico because she worries.
About two years ago I sat eating lunch at one of my favorite restaurants with one of my favorite people following the funeral of a well loved older woman from our church. She said, "You're about to go through the hardest thing in your life." I knew she was talking about losing my grandparents but I couldn't even go there. I couldn't get into the head space to even fathom it. My grandparents raised me from fifteen until I sort of kind of got out of their hair and married at 22. The teenage years are interesting. They are even more interesting when you move in with 70 year old people. They loved watching me excel in school and I loved doing it. They came to every school play, every awards assembly, on more church trips than I can count. They paid for prom dresses and for braces. They watched me fall in love, get a broken heart, and stood by me when I got pregnant the year after high school in a relationship that should have stayed in high school. I brought my first baby home to their house and my sweet Papa was so worried about me getting anemic after birth that he made me steak every single day for a month. He taught me to drive and to balance a checkbook and how to talk on the phone. He was mostly retired by the time I moved in so we had more time together than the usual parent/child relationship. I was a typical teen. My head so self absorbed I didn't think nearly often enough to ask about his life. When he knew he was dying he began talking deeply about life; about mistakes he had made as a young person and I was sort of shocked. It sounds silly. We all make mistakes. My Papa was the kind of person people listened to. He didn't talk just to hear himself talk. He was wise and full of the common sense that seems to have skipped my generation. The idea of him making mistakes was laughable. He was the rock of our family.
We drove and barely made it out of California the first night. My mind raced with thoughts and I'd packed funeral clothes. But I never really believed he'd actually die. He was too strong. Too steady. It wasn't time. Except that it was.
When I got to his hospital room he immediately held his arms out and said, "Give me Jane." Isla Jane is our newest baby. 8 weeks old at the time. He evidently wasn't fond of the name Isla and had decided to just call her Jane. He held her. Said how perfect she was. Then he asked me to take her because he couldn't think of anything worse than dropping her. He asked about the plumbing disaster at our rent house and when I told him it was all fixed up he winked at me and gave me his hand sign for "good deal." Within a few hours his pain was unmanageable without Morphine and we gave him his wish of being placed in the care of Hospice. We weren't going to have him poked and prodded anymore but allow him to leave this life as comfortably as possible. In my mind this was an "easy" decision because he so firmly wanted it. Looking back it was "easy" because I still didn't believe he'd actually die. As I type this I still can't wrap my mind around the fact that he isn't up eating ice cream in the middle of the night or putting on a pot of coffee for Grandma when he knows she's on her way home.
The thing about life is that there are only two things we all get to experience. Birth and death. They are so commonplace no one is surprised or in awe when our friends welcome a new baby or lose a loved one. The newspaper and our social media feeds show us that it happens every minute of every day. But God, when it happens to us, it's earth shattering. Life will never be the same. We will never be the same.
In his last days I watched my Grandma love on this man she has loved for 63 and a half years. The man she grew up with. Had babies with. Lost a son with. Caring for dying loved ones is not new to my Grandma. Her calm and strength got the rest of us through those difficult last days. She held his hands and his arms. Sat at his feet. Spoke calmly to him. We watched her heart break as one more time she was able to give him exactly what he wanted. Permission to let go. The reassurance that no matter how much we relied on him it was okay if he was tired. We would continue on and be okay. What a gift to give someone.
I wasn't there when my Papa died. Helene had been having a rough morning and after three days of mostly being at the hospital I wasn't comfortable leaving the kids again. The previous night I left around 11. I ran my fingers through his hair, kissed his forehead, and told him that I was going home to take care of my babies. I don't regret it. That's exactly where he would have wanted me to be.
And now we do go on. As strange and wrong as it feels, we go on. We're thankful for the years and the memories and the wisdom and the love. We're so grateful that he was surrounded by his family and friends in his last days. That his mind stayed sharp up until the very end. That we had the opportunity to tell him exactly how much he meant to us. We know not everyone gets that.
And today I hope he's some place beyond where we can see building something.