Sunday, January 2, 2011
The past few weeks have been difficult for our family. On Thanksgiving night, my grandpa fell on his driveway and hit his head. After over 15 years of fighting a continuous string of ailments including prostate cancer, bladder cancer, diabetes, metastasis of cancer resulting in the removal of a kidney, and severe anemia from worn out bone marrow, something as simple as a fall took his life and took it rapidly. He passed away this morning at a little after 9 AM. I received the call to let me know as I was sitting in church.
While it was heartbreaking to watch him deteriorate, to know that in spite of his will to cheat death once again he had reached the end of his journey, it allowed for some healing within our family.
As we go through life, we hurt one another. We build walls in an effort to protect our fragile egos. We judge not fully understanding (or being willing to consider) another's circumstances. And as we do these things, if we don't set aside our fear of making our hearts vulnerable, in our effort to protect them we harden them and lead them down a path that ends with with regrets and sorrow and anger.
I've tried to prepare myself the past few weeks for my grampy's death and in the process, I've reflected back over my life and the role he's played in it. I don't want to plant seeds of curiosity about my feelings so I'll preface what comes next by saying I have no resentment or bad feelings toward my father. I know he loves me and always has. For whatever reasons, reasons that I've grown to understand have nothing to do with me, he was not involved in my childhood. In spite of that being difficult to try and accept when I was a little girl, I was blessed with a grampy who did his best to fill that role. He was my grampy but he was also my dad. I spent time with him nearly every day of my childhood. He played with me and talked with me. He told me stories. He did all the things a grampy does. But he also disciplined me. He said the things that needed to be said, the things that made him vulnerable to losing the magical always-the-good-guy power a grandparent has. He taught me to ride a bike. He taught me to drive a car. He stepped in and made the difficult choice to take sides between my mom and me during a challenging time in our relationship and took me in to live with him and my grandma. He made what I'm sure was an even more difficult choice to listen to me explain my periods were causing me to faint and took me to a gynecologist rather than sending me back to my mom to deal with! He did the things a father does yet not one time did he ever say an unkind word about my dad. Never did he try to encourage feelings of anger. Never did he try to strengthen the bond between us by weakening the hope I had that my dad would one day step in and do the things he was doing for me. Everything he did was done with the goal of growing me into a happy, emotionally-secure woman who makes decisions based on reason, not reaction. The role he took on had nothing to do with him, his pride, his desire for others to view him as something special. It was all about me.
I have always been able to easily look back and recognize that he was far more than a grampy to me. But as I grew older, sharing my appreciation for it was not so easy. The toll of all the years of struggling with his health gradually turned him into a man who made it seem that being happy with life and others was an effort for him. He continued to go through the motions, to get up each day, keeping a routine, always diligent about his hygiene. He responded with the same loving responses and gestures he always had. But he also became less patient, more irritable. The change from the man who was always the life of the party to the grumpy old man was something we all struggled with. Trying to reconcile my disappointment in his lack of patience with my gratitude for all he had done for me through my life made me choose to harden my heart. My love did not lessen. I still hugged him and kissed him and told him I loved him and meant it. But I stopped making him believe I needed him. At a time when he probably needed it even more, I stopped giving it.
Once the man who was the authority on finances, automobiles, carpentry, the man who was a walking encyclopedia and always had a solution, he was faced with learning to rely on others. He was adjusting to accepting the shift from being the man everyone, not just family, turned to in times of need to a man who had to learn to rely on others for something as simple as changing a lightbulb. While I understood that his crazy demands for how his garbage was to be bundled, carried to the curb, and placed there on trash day were simply his need to still have control over things in his life, I chose not to soften my heart to his struggle. I knew his step-by-step instructions on how to drive his car, how to release the emergency brake and roll down the windows, were a reflection of his need to still be significant, yet I chose to hold on to my frustration. He was building up a wall and instead of chipping away at it by reminding him of the extraodinary impact he had made on others throughout his life, that he needed to let us make a feeble attempt to requite, I built up my own wall just outside of his. And as the years went on, with his health being as fragile as it was, the inabilility to share my gratitude evolved into the absurd idea that sharing it would be interpreted as a disrespect for his continued fight for his life, as though I'd given up on him.
Grampy had surgery on Christmas morning to stop the hemorrhage in his brain. When my mom called on Wednesday to say he had made the decision to come home in spite of the opposition of the doctors, I began to panic that I wouldn't be able to tell him all the things I'd been holding inside. He was no longer able to speak and was having difficulty swallowing. Afraid he wouldn't survive the night, Shawn, the boys, and I set out in the car to Kansas City so I could visit him that night. We didn't get to the hospital until 10:30 PM.
I worried through the whole drive that I would break down and cry when I talked to him. I wanted to be strong, to have the focus of what I had to say be entirely on him. I didn't want him to be concerned for me or to have compassion for me. I wanted his mind to only be on understanding the importance of what he had done for me. Through much prayer, I finally accepted I didn't have the strength and then prayed he would understand. But when I walked in his hospital room and saw his smile when my mom woke him and told him I was there, there was no sadness. I had a sweet and tender time with my Grampy. I cherished his smiles as I shared my favorite memories. I was so thankful that I was able to tell him he had been my dad, something I'd never told him. My wall completely crumbled as I watched him shake his head from side to side as if I'd said something unbelievable, as he squeeze my hand so hard and so long it was uncomfortable. To know that even though he couldn't speak to me he still found a way to communicate his love gave me peace with something I know I would have regretted without it, wondering if he ever understood just how important he was to me.
Though it was heartbreaking to see my grandpa struggling to swallow, unable to speak, to feel his emaciated body when I hugged him, that I got the chance to stroke and kiss his uncharacteristically whiskered cheeks, to see his genuine smiles, to say all the things I never should have waited to say made me realize that even as he was preparing to leave us I could still learn valuable life lessons from him. I learned we should not wait until we have to tell those we love what we need them to know. No matter whether it's I love you, or I'm sorry, or thank you it needs to be said now. Waiting only increases the likelihood we'll come face-to-face with regrets for which there are no remedies.