Wednesday, August 8, 2012


My grandpa was larger than life.  He was a large man with massive hands.  He made his living as a carpenter and even though I only knew him as an older man, he was still one of the strongest men I ever knew.  And yet, he was gentle, funny, and loved the Lord.  He was so tickled when we named our son after him, that he carried him around and showed him off to everyone, buttons bursting.  Anytime Billy was misbehaving, grandpa just smiled in that way that meant he thought that little boy could do no wrong, and said, "He just takes after me!"

Nine years ago, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and his health began to decline.  It was hard watching my hero becoming more frail, crying, and saying his goodbyes as though he might not make it to the next Christmas or the next family reunion.

Three years ago, he went into the VA hospital and came out with a permanent feeding tube.  While visiting him there one day, I was sure he was very close to leaving us.  I immediately rejected the idea because after my dad's death and my divorce, I couldn't take losing another man from my life.  However, he was still strong and kept going.  He did a couple of stints in a nursing home and several trips to the VA hospital.  He learned to eat again twice before he completely lost the ability.  He was also suffering from longer and longer bouts of dementia.

Gradually, I realized I had to let him go.  He told me that he was tired and wanted to go "home."  I knew it was selfish to want him to stay in this fragile body on this troubled earth.  So, every time I saw him, I would hug him and tell him that I loved him, prepared for it to be the last time I would see him on this earth.

About two and a half weeks ago, my mom texted me that they had taken him to the hospital by ambulance.  This is not the first time, but this time, they had to put him on a ventilator.  They tried a few times to take him off the ventilator, but he wouldn't breathe on his own.  He had two kinds of pneumonia, sepsis, and had decreased brain activity from small previous strokes.  After lots of discussion, they decided to take out his ventilator a week after he had been admitted.  We packed up and drove to Wichita.

I stayed by his side as much as I could. For one, I felt like it was the least I could do for a man that was the backbone of our family.  For two, my mom and my grandma needed my help and support.  And three, I think I was trying to make up for not being there for my dad when he died.  I won't go into the next week and a half of watching him fade away in hospice. I don't want to dwell on what it was like listening to him choking and gurgling or on the tears we shed, but on his life and the example he left behind.  He is exactly the kind of man I want my son to grow up to be like.  I have no doubt that I will see him again and that he is with Jesus. He went home and I can imagine him strong and whole, walking with his Lord, whooping and hollering his praises.  I wouldn't wish him back to this life of pain and suffering for anything.

One moment I will never forget.  A day or two before he died, he was mumbling a lot.  He was never fully conscious, but he was looking around more that day and focused his eyes on grandma for a second.  I walked to his side and patted him and said, "I love you, Papa."  He mumbled a response.  He had been unresponsive since entering the hospital, so this was unexpected.  I said, "I know you love me too," because I could hear in his mumbling what he always said to me, "I love you, too, sis."  I will treasure that goodbye for the rest of my life, until we are reunited in heaven.

The morning he died, I had stayed the night at the hospital.  My mother had been debating about taking a shower, afraid to leave for even a moment.  I had been reading about hospice care and knew he couldn't go on much longer without food or fluids.  But, I encouraged mom to go take care of herself.  Not long after she went down the hall to the family bathroom, as grandma and I sat talking, there was a hitch in his breath.  We had been so attuned to the sounds he made that when it suddenly stopped, we immediately started.  Grandma started to cry and said, "Oh, it's happened, he's gone."  I told her to wait a minute, that one of the signs of the end was pauses between breaths.  Sure enough, he took another breath.  We both gathered around his bed and she held his hand and stroked his hair while I patted him.  She prayed, "Jesus, take him," and I whispered a thank you in his ear.  The nurse's aide came in to care for him and when she saw his breathing pattern, she went to get the nurse.  We debated about whether or not to go get my mom.  Grandma thought it was best that she wasn't there, but I knew mama would be upset that she wasn't.  So, eventually, we decided I should go get her since we had no idea how long this may go on.  I knocked on the door and told mom what was happening.  She said she would be there as soon as she was done, thinking that it could last for a while.  When I came back in, the nurse's aide was back with the nurse and the chaplain.  I saw papa take a breath as I crossed the room to his bedside and then he was gone.  Of course my mother was upset that she hadn't been there, but grandma believes that he was waiting for her to leave, that he hadn't wanted any of his children there.

I have never been a particularly strong person, but I am glad I was there.  I am glad that I was able to do something for him and for my family.  I'm also glad that I was able to experience some personal growth through this.  If no other good came from his death, it brought my brother and I closer together, as we sat in the hospice waiting room, talking for hours.  That, in itself, was worth all the tears.

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