With my attention already divided, the sing-song call went unacknowledged.
"Daaa-deee," he called again, now more demanding.
I blinked, and the I refocus on the little voice from the back seat.
"What?" I ask, hoping that the request will be something new, but knowing that it will be the same, yet again.
"Can I have a drink?"
I hear my wife cluck her tongue, impatient at the third asking of the same question in the past twenty minutes. The drive in the car is not long, but long enough that the children are restless and we are on the verge of harried. And the circumstances ... couldn't be worse.
"No," I say, louder than I should. "For the eighteenth time, no!"
I hear a sigh, the loud kind any four-year-old would emit upon being denied, then a lamenting, "You don't have to yell."
When there is no further discussion, I turn all of my attention back to the road. I change lanes, pulling to the left to pass a slow-mover, then change back to the right. I watch the dashed white line pass hypnotically beneath my front bumper. My focus shifts again, drifting this time to the first call I'd gotten that morning.
"This is Steve."
"It's me." My wife.
"What's up?" I glance at the clock in the corner of my computer and think it odd she's calling so early about lunch. Maybe she forgot I have to stay in the building, being on call. But that's not it.
"I just finished talking to your mother." They work together in the same office, and I often get information from my mother through my wife.
"Well, your grandfather took a turn last night. Your grandmother had an ambulance come to get him."
"Oh," I said, and clicked about to turn off the music I kept constantly playing. My grandfather had been ill for a time, and we'd actually been told that he would not live more than a year. He'd fought cancer, and seemed to have won, but then they found leukemia, and other problems, and the prospects were not good. In a month, they were scheduled to move out of the house they'd live in all their lives, or at least all of my life. They were headed here, to be near us, their family. "What happened?" I asked.
"We're not sure right now, but your mom just spoke to him and said he sounds very weak. He said he loved her, over and over again."
I wasn't sure what that was supposed to mean. "OK," I said, not knowing what else I could say.
"Grandma says he was delusional. Mom says she talked to him earlier and he thought he was in space or something." He was suffering from dementia at many levels, thinking that he was playing golf again, or that he was chatting with his brothers. It was scary to some degree. But the last time I'd seen him, he seemed very lucid, but tired.
"That's odd," I said, again not knowing what else to say.
"We may have to go there. We're waiting to hear from the doctors what might happen. It doesn't sound good. He might not have long."
I knew those words would come, some day, even some day soon. But so soon? Just a month ago, the boys, Karen, and I had visited. We were there with my parents, and my grandfather's two brothers. Richard I barely remembered. Lou I'd seen maybe ten times in the past twenty years. But the three of them, aging and breaking down, had the best of times. It was like they were just cavorting on the porch, like it was something they did every day. But in between the laughs were tears, and I felt shaken as I saw my grandfather cry, sobbing for the love he felt from all the family that had gathered. Sad because he knew, as we all did, that this might very well be the last time he saw some of them.
"OK, let me know when you know," I said. The doctors: they could say anything. Maybe it was a lapse. Maybe a stroke or a seizure, but whatever it was, surely there was more time.
The road took my full attention again - construction. In Vermont, they do it all summer so we can wreck the roads in the winter. Four lanes of traffic merged to two and as the cars on the other side of the concrete barrier zipped by, I concentrated on the narrower-than-normal strip of pavement, watching the speedometer to make sure I didn't creep over 55 in the 50 zone. The kids were playing something, pretending to be hamsters or dogs or butterflies or something. I glanced at them quickly to see Jacob laugh and smile as he was caught or eaten or released. Their imaginations could serve them well on these trips.
The oncoming traffic fell away and disappeared, the barrier gone. Quickly I gunned the engine to get back up to cruising speed. I glanced over at my wife who relaxed a bit being out of the narrow area. She turned her head to me. I smiled at her, but her eyes were already shut, hoping to catch a few winks of sleep. A car from Virginia passed me and I glanced at my own speed. I shook my head as I saw myself doing 70, and guessing the other driver doing 80. I hoped for a cop to be up ahead, then relaxed and remembered the next phone call.
"Your mom and dad are leaving," Karen said. "He's apparently not doing well."
I could barely hear her. I was pretty sure of what she said, but she had on her speakerphone, so I said, "What?"
Taking the hint, she picked up the phone and repeated herself. I'd been right on my first guess. "What does 'not doing well' mean exactly?"
"Well, it sounds like they don't expect him to live long."
"What is long?" I asked, wanting computer-precision in the descriptions.
"They don't know. He could die tonight. He might last for a few days. But they're not hopeful. They are moving him to the hospice. People don't go there to recover."
My mind was reeling. How to deal with this? I clicked on my screen and gazed at the line of code that I'd been writing when she called. I quickly positioned my cursor and placed a semi-colon at the end of a line, finishing it. There, order. Something I can control.
"We need to go," she said when I said nothing.
"Yes, we do."
"I'm going to leave as soon as I can," she said. I glanced at my clock again, and saw it was just after 3:00. "You should make arrangements."
Arrangements - to leave early ... yes, I should. "OK," I said. "I will."
"I'll call you back in a few minutes to let you know when we're going." Karen is the planner in the family. I knew that if we had to go soon, she'd have us ready to go. But I also new she hated planning under pressure. I could almost hear the tension in her voice.
"OK," I said again.
There was a pause, then, "I'm sorry, honey."
"Thanks, me, too," I said. "I love you."
"I love you, too. I'll call you."
We hung up and I sent a message to arrange for someone else to take the pager. I was on coverage that week and would need someone else to take over. Knowing the circumstances, my co-workers agreed to take it as much as necessary. "I may be gone a day, or maybe a week," I typed.
I sighed. I hated having to ask others for help. I liked to do my assignments myself, to fulfill my duties myself. But there was no choice this time. Checking traffic and the kids once more, I went over my mental checklist. Even if turning back was unlikely, it was best to remember what was left behind as soon as possible. A few days' worth of clothes, toiletries, medicine ... the essentials. I couldn't think of anything we'd missed.
I passed a tractor-trailer. "Ben and Jerry's" the signage said. I smiled at the Woody Jackson cow as I sailed past it. I could almost taste the decadence of the trailer's cargo. Did Grandpa like ice cream, I asked myself. I frowned when I couldn't remember the triviality.
I did remember my frenzied pace after I hung up the phone that second time. I wanted to leave by 4:00, but I also had things I needed to do. I had to hand off the pager. I had to finish the coding I was doing, lest I forget my train of thought when I returned. I had to start to remembering things to bring with us. I had to plan out the route. As I left, a few people wished their condolences - I'd sent an email to say why I'd be gone and who was to have the on-call duty. I smiled my thanks and ducked out as quickly as I could. I wasn't sure how to handle condolences. They sounded so final.
We unceremoniously passed over the Connecticut River into New Hampshire. It was now past six o'clock, and the demands of the children for dinner were getting down-right deafening. We pulled into the McDonald's off the first exit in the Granite State and ordered. Normally on a trip to Grandma's, we eat in the restaurant. If the kids are asleep, we'll eat in the car, but in the parking lot. But this time, we got the food and headed straight back onto the highway. No time to waste, not this trip.
As I finished off the hamburger, I was able to focus that half of my attention to recall once again. Our recent trip came to mind.
We'd left early, after dropping our daughter off for day camp. The boys were off from daycare anyway, so the four of us packed up for quick trip to New Hampshire. We knew Grandpa, or Great-Grampie, as the boys called him, was in a rehabilitation center. His condition had worsened and my Grandmother needed to have help looking after him. After all, for years, he'd looked after her as she moved about the house, at a snail's pace, having had so much trouble with her legs the past 15 years. At least she was able to get up and about, I thought, and wasn't bound to a walker or wheelchair. I heard that they'd had a visiting nurse come by, but really, she felt she needed to take care of him herself. But it was hard.
We knew my parents were there - my mother was helping out however she could, and my father was getting their finances in order. We arrived at the center in the late morning, and parked in a remote corner. We walked, following the signs, to a large building on the edge of the grounds. Karen said, "Is that Grandpa?" She pointed to a man sitting by the front door, reading the paper.
"No, I doubt it," I said, and glanced around the parking lot looking for my parents' car. It being nowhere in sight, we pressed on. As we got closer, the man turned the page of the paper and I saw my grandfather's eyes following the movement of the page. It was him, clear as day now. We walked up to him, and I said, "Sir, can you tell me where I might find Mr. Smith?"
He put down his paper, and looked up at me. "I'm not really sure, you'll have to look inside." But as he said it, he extended his hand to me like he always did. Had he not, I'd have been sure the dementia had caught up with him, but with this small gesture, I knew he was just being Grandpa.
"Hi, Grandpa," I said, taking his hand, then bending down to give him a hug. He looked and felt frailer, but still solid. His dress was all Grandpa Smith, his hair as I'd remembered from Easter. His manner was slower, though. More measured, more deliberate. But he looked good.
Karen embraced him, too, and the boys hid behind me as expected. They would warm up, but slowly, like a pot of water put to boil. He teased them playfully, and we all sat to enjoy the sun and the fresh air.
He seemed OK. Slower, but OK.
More construction broke my concentration. I guess New Hampshire works the same as Vermont. The snows slow traffic in the winter, and the construction crews slow it in the summer. I quickly remembered that when we'd driven down that last time, there had been a trooper zapping people with a radar gun right around this area. I watched my speedometer closely. Rumor was the New Hampshire troopers were less forgiving than Vermont ones.
"How much longer till we get there?" Ryan asked.
I looked for a mile marker to give an accurate answer, curious myself. After a few seconds we passed one. "About half an hour," I guessed.
"Why is Great-Grampie is the 'hosiple'?" asked Jacob, misspeaking the word as they do.
"Because he is sick," Brittany answered, parroting the answer I had given the last time.
"Dad, why is he sick?" came the follow-up.
"Daddy's trying to drive, guys, I can't answer these questions again."
"Your father is driving," Karen said, showing her raised anxiety of driving through the construction area. I kept my mouth shut - one of us was enough, usually. We'd already told the kids why we were going. We'd debated, quickly, about bringing them at all, but we had to. The boys had never known my father's father, and Brittany had been so young when he died. We'd regret not having them see Grandpa Smith if he passed and they were not there.
Then we'd debated telling them why we were going, but we had to do that, too. "We're going to see Grampy Smith because he's sick, and he's not doing very well right now," we'd said.
"Is he gonna die?" asked one of the boys.
"He might die," we said, unsure ourselves.
"What's die?" asked the other boy.
"That means your spirit leaves the Earth and you're not alive anymore."
"If Grampy Smith dies, I won't have any more Great-Grampies," Brittany said, revealing a truth we'd not thought of. My wife's grandfathers died well before Brittany was born, and her Great-Grandfather Mount had died when she was no more than two. It was a sad realization for her and for us.
The construction ended, the last set of pylons and concrete dividers fell back in the rear-view mirror. We'd be there soon.
That last visit had gone quite well. We saw grandpa smiling, telling stories, eating in one of his favorite restaurants. He sat between Lou and Richard, and the three of them looked great together. We took some priceless photos. Then we headed back to the grandparents' house while he headed back to the center to rest. I took a nap while the boys played and my wife chatted with some of the other gathered family. When I awoke, it was dinnertime, and my parents and we left to go pick Grandpa up for one last meal before we went home.
For dinner we went to a Smith-favorite restaurant. They had chicken fried steak, an indulgence I'd not had in years. The boys had soup and stole bread from the adults. Grandpa, despite his afternoon of rest, looked beat. My mother helped him order his food, something I'd never seen before. At one point before the food came, I looked over and saw that he had placed his head on the table. I was slightly alarmed, afraid, until I saw my mother rubbing his back. My parents had been with them most weekends for the past month, and they were used to this. I wasn't and I had to grip my armrest hard to gather myself. One of the boys hit a spoon against a glass, bringing my attention to him for a moment. When I looked back, Grandpa's head was up, but not by much.
My grandmother said, "Chin up, Bob," as the waitress brought his salad. We all ate heartily - it had been a long day - all but my grandfather. Even with his meal in front of him, he was weary. When we left, we walked at his pace to the car, and we said our goodbyes in the parking lot. We were to leave directly, and they were out after curfew. As I drove away, my wife and I held hands in silence for a while.
"He looked tired this evening," I finally said at some point.
"Yes," she said back, deep in her own thoughts. Aside from the boys' songs, questions, and arguments, it was a pretty quiet ride home.
The hospice was near by the rehabilitation center, my mother had told Karen on the cell phone. So I found the street we'd found that month before, and kept an eye out - we knew what side of the street it was on, but not if it was before or after our previous destination. Turns out we needn't have worried - prominent signs lead the way, and we found the hospice with no trouble at all. My father and sister were outside waiting when we got there.
"How is he?" we asked as we got out of the car.
"The doctor gave him morphine to make him more comfortable," my father said. I knew that my grandfather had requested no extraordinary measures be taken, and that he not be hooked up to machines. Something in the back of my head reminded me that morphine is a last-resort drug. I knew it could decrease respiration, or that was what I remembered. The fact that they gave him morphine was a bad sign, to me.
"Have you talked to James?" Karen asked, inquiring about my brother.
"I reached him on his cell phone," my father said. He was on vacation in New Jersey. "We'll call him again when we find out more."
"We talked to Robert," Karen said, referring to another brother. "He was just leaving his house about 15 or 20 minutes ago."
"They'll be here around 10, then," my father said, doing the familiar calculation in his head.
"Where's Rick?" asked Karen. My youngest brother.
"He didn't want to come," my father said. I understood - part of me did not want to come, either.
We walked in the hospice and I saw my mother, grandmother, and three others sitting in the living room of the facility. My grandmother was eating. One of the visitors I recognized as Peg Champney, a life-long friend of my grandparents. Her husband had died some time ago, I recalled. The other two I gathered were her daughter and son-in-law. I did not know their names, but later learned they were Sue and Bill. Everyone was somber. We all hugged my mother and grandmother.
"They're making him more comfortable," someone said, and we all sat around. The kids, seeing a TV, asked for cartoons. I picked up a magazine. My wife hovered - she's not one to sit by idly. Within a few minutes, my mother got up, left, and came back, telling us we could go see him. My wife and I decided to go alone and left the kids undisturbed. We wanted to see him first, to know what to expect, so we could prepare the children. Following my mother, we walked into the room.
My grandfather was attended by two nurses. The room smelled of baby powder. Apparently he had been balancing cold chills with sweats, and was just coming off a bout with the sweats. The powder was to absorb some of that. Soon, they left the three of us with him. He had a wet washcloth on his forehead. His mouth was open, not quite agape, just open enough to breathe. His eyes were open, but unseeing, gazing off at a point in space the rest of us could not see.
"Can he hear us?" my mother asked the nurses as they left.
"Yes, we think so," they said.
My mother sat on one side of the bed, and my wife on the other. It was my turn to hover. I gazed at him, his body bare-chested, curled up in a sheet, white specks of powder on his skin. He looked pitiful, and I felt emotion well up as I watched his breathing, labored, raspy, loud, but steady. He looked ready to die I - though I forced the thought out of my mind. I stood behind my wife and watched. Her hand felt the wet cloth and then his hand. "He's cold," she said.
"He's been hot," my mother said. "Steve and Karen and the kids are here, Dad," she said, louder, in his direction. Did he move a little in response, or did he catch his breath? I wasn't sure if I'd imagined it or not.
"Hi, Grandpa," Karen said, a smile in her voice, but a tear already in her eye. Having lost her own grandfathers, she saw him as her own, and was showing more emotion than I at the sight of him.
"Should we get the kids?" Karen asked me.
"Yes, I'll go," I said, not wanting to stay, though not wanted to leave. I did not know how to deal with impending death. I'd seen my other grandfather just eight or so hours before he died. The entire family had rushed to California, flying cross-country hoping against hope to arrive in time. We had, but the pace of everything had made it surreal. This time, it was real for sure. I needed more time.
I got the children, and told them to come in. They came in with me, my father, and my sister, and all said hi to great-grampy. My mother rose, and I sat down next to him so the boys could sit on my lap. From their angle, they could barely see his face. He'd been turned to one side to alleviate the pressure, so they had to stand on my lap to see him. They watched him, quietly, as my daughter did from my wife's side. The boys asked a few questions about the room, about the white stuff on grampy, about whether they could have a drink of water. They were tired, wired, restless.
My father announced he was going to go out to get dinner for himself, my mother, and my sister. The kids all volunteered to come, always ready for an adventure. They took my car so they wouldn't have to move car seats around. As they were leaving, my grandmother and the guests came in. I took my seat again. Karen rose so Grandma could sit next to him.
"Here's your bride," my mother said as Grandma scooted into place. Peg, Bill, and Sue stood by for a few moments, then all bid tearful goodbyes, to both my grandparents. I watched them walk out the door, and my mother followed them out, hugging them all in the hallway. My grandfather had hardly moved, though he pursed his lips a few times and blew out a "P" sound. I wasn't sure if he was trying to say "Paula," or if it was something else.
My grandmother said, "Oh Bob, do you have the burps again?" I'm not sure if she knew what the sounds were either.
My mother returned with seats for Karen and I. I sat near his knees, with my mother sitting towards his head. On the other side of the bed, Karen was across from me, my grandmother across from my mother.
"We had some good times, Robert," my grandmother said. That they did.
"You and mom were an inspiration to us all, Daddy," my mother said.
"You can go now, sweetheart," my grandmother said. With that, my eyes welled with tears. I had whispered that same sentiment to my other grandfather, at his bedside, during that hurried visit years ago. I vowed after I'd never say that again, to anyone. But there it was. A common sentiment to offer to one you love, and who is in pain. But I said nothing. I just watched, consumed and aggrieved.
He moved his legs, bringing his knees up towards his chest. I thought it was just random movement, but then he moved his arms and made the "P" sound again. He grasped the bed rail and pulled himself towards his wife. Despite everything, he wanted to be nearer to her. That was Grandpa, to a "T."
"I think he wants a hug," my wife said, choking back tears.
But my grandmother wasn't able to reach over the bars, so she grasped his hands and said, "Oh, Robert."
"We all love you very much," my mother said. "And you have lots of people waiting for you on the other side."
My mother and grandmother ticked off a few names, Mary, Tom, and several more I did not recognize. "And the choir of angels is waiting for your baritone," my mother said with a smile.
"And lots of cribbage," my grandmother said, referring to his favorite card game. The moment was light and we all smiled. He shifted again and moved towards her a little more.
"We had a good life," grandma said. "It's OK for you to go."
"You were the best Daddy," my mother said. With that, I started to cry. The tears fell as I watched the three women, and him. I knew that he loved us all dearly. And we him. But so many times, I had been able to spend time with him and had not. All the things that had gotten in the way, and now were regrets all that I had? School and friends, or the television, or my work, or my own family. They had all made our visits shorter than they could have been. We'd had some good conversations, but we could have had so many more. I cried because I knew he was a great Daddy, as good as I wanted to be. He was a great Grandfather, too, but had I failed as a grandson? Now, it was too late. What had been had to have been enough.
"You can go, Bob," my grandmother said, and my grandfather made the "P" sound again.
Suddenly my mind was racing. Wait, I thought. You're telling him he can die. For the past five minutes, you've been telling him it is OK to die. What if he doesn't want to die? What if he wants to hold on? To see the golf course again, to play cribbage again, to drive the Caddy again? What if he wants to sleep in his own bed again?
What if I'm not ready for him to go?
"We'll be right here, by your side," my grandmother said.
"So will we," my wife said, and I thought Damn right.
Then I noticed that his breathing, still loud and labored, was not as steady. Then he paused a second between breaths and my own breath held as I waited for his lungs to fill again. When they did, I reached out and placed my hand on him for the first time since I arrived. I touched his side and grabbed on. Don't go, I thought to myself, but then followed with, It's OK to die. I was torn, inside, between needing him here and wanting him to be free.
For several minutes, my mother and grandmother spoke to him, small platitudes, but still I said nothing. I absorbed it all, and came to realize that this was it. This was the end. My grandfather was going to leave us, and soon. I gripped him tighter with the tips of my fingers. My grandmother kissed her hand and placed it on his lips.
"We love you, Bob," she said. And he stopped breathing.
I placed my head on my arm and took a deep breath as tears flowed from my eyes. Two or three seconds passed and he took a breath. It was his last.
All four of us held him tight, waiting for another breath, but hoping for no more. After a minute, none came and through the fog of tears, I looked up and saw his eyes, open, gazing off into that unseen point in space again, his hands locked in my grandmother's. My mother reached for me and we embraced and sobbed. He was gone.
My wife pressed the call button and in the distance I heard a buzzer. A few moments later, a nurse came in and we told her he had passed. She listened to his chest with a stethoscope and said she still heard tiny heartbeats. She summoned another nurse to check him and left us to our grief.
A few minutes later they checked him again and heard nothing. I finally let go of him and wiped my eyes clear. My father, my sister, and my children returned. We said, "He's gone." The blood drained from my sister's face. My kids looked at him and we told them to say goodbye. My daughter understood and snuggled her mother. She whispered goodbye. The boys waved to him. We took them into the living room. The boys asked how he could be gone if they could still see him. We said that his spirit was gone, but that his body was still here.
"To be buried?" one of them asked.
"Yes," I said through new tears, "to be buried."
Two days later, we drove to a veterans' cemetery, a small New Hampshire version of Arlington, with straight lines of white granite tombstones lined like ranks of our nation's finest. My grandfather would join them.
At the gravesite, the boys and Brittany sat with their grandparents while the priest blessed the casket. The American flag draped over it, spilling over the sides. After the blessing, two soldiers in dress uniforms removed the flag and folded it. They paid close attention to the final tuck, making sure the neat, respectful triangle would not come loose. The sergeant presented the flag to my grandmother. He saluted her and I felt patriotic pride in my grandfather well up in me at that moment. He had been in Italy and North Africa in World War II, and though he never spoke of it to me, I hoped to hear his stories of that time relayed to me in the future.
The sergeant stepped back and joined the private. They both saluted and as they did, Taps played from a hidden loudspeaker. The tune meant the end of a day, or of a life - a sun setting on either. The tune is final. Suddenly, my pride and the sorrow of the finality overwhelmed me. I sobbed quietly as tears flowed again. My wife turned and embraced me. I heard my brother cry with me. The long, woeful notes echoed through the cemetery until that last long C-note played. There were no jet fighters overhead, no 21-gun salute, no riderless horses. Those would have been too fancy anyway. The end was simple, graceful, and classic, like my grandfather.
On the way home, the Interstate rolled beneath the tires of my car, as we put miles between us and my grandfather's home, his grave. I thought about his life, a life I'd heard about in stories, a life which I'd shared in short spurts over the years, and a life I thought I'd like to have, in the long run. I don't know if there is a Heaven - but if there is, I think he will always be watch us, making sure to keep informed on our progress.
"Dad?" came a familiar call for attention.
"Yes, honey," I said to Jacob.
"Where is Great-Grampy's spirit now?" he asked.
I could not answer. I gripped my wife's hand and she took over for me.
"His spirit is in us. All around us."
There was no reply from any of them. Maybe they had finally understood what we meant. Then, as if to prove that his playful spirit was indeed in all of us, Ryan said, "Daddy, I'm hungry."
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This was written in August 2002, just a few days after my grand father died. It is at least 98% non-fiction, with some literary license taken with a few points. We all miss him.
Last Modified: 14 May 2003
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