My mom called me at 5: 26 pm Monday May 30th to tell me my grandfather was dying and I needed to come home. Memorial Day 2016. I packed up my car, my kids, my dog and didn’t so much drive to Texas as use my car to fly along the roadways.
My grandfather holds a special place in my heart. Many times you will hear someone use the phrase, ‘He was like a father to me.’ He was never my father figure, he was just a really good grandfather. One of the best.
My relationship with my grandfather became something more than just a vague ‘responsibility relative’ to check off my list right about the time I became pregnant with my first child. My grandfather held on to the hope of seeing his first great-grandbaby to stave off cancer and I used his house as my new home base when I would come into town to visit.
Other than very distant memories of staying at his house as a child, I had never spent any more time in his home than a few hours scattered around holidays here and there. We weren’t particularly close. I have time spans several years in length when I never set foot in his home. I just never had a reason to do so.
stubbornStaying with my grandfather when I would fly my newborn back to Texas to visit came about for a variety of reasons and it did not start out as convenient or easy for anyone involved. It was a lot like my first month as a freshman living in the dorm. We would circle each other with the vague politeness you bestow on strangers as we would try to build our routines around each other.
Well…I would build my routine around my grandfather as that man is stubborn combined with obsessive compulsive disorder. He doesn’t change his routine for anyone. You don’t go through Granddad, you go around him.
coffeeThat first holiday I spent with him will go down as one of the most irritating holidays I had experienced thus far in my life. Parenting did not come easy for me and life in general was one exhausting struggle at that point. I had a three-month old I had no idea how to manage gracefully and a 70-ish holiday roommate that had decided I was unpaid labor to tackle his unending list of chores he couldn’t manage or just didn’t care to manage. The man was relentless. I remember the baby waking me up at 5:00 am the first morning I was there. I sat in the dark attempting to breastfeed my screaming child and praying she would go back to sleep when granddad got up to be ‘helpful.’ Helpful was me getting him coffee.
And so it began.
My grandfather and I are a lot alike so by the end of each day we are usually grumpy with each other. He has demanded that I do about 10 more chores for him than I think he should be asking for and my kids and I have moved too many items in his home and changed up his schedule too much for his OCD to tolerate.
Many nights that I’ve stayed with him over the years have ended with him grumbling under his breath as he huffs himself to his room while I’m slamming stuff around trying to get my kids settled as I complain very loudly about my irritations. Overly loudly. Just in case he couldn’t hear me.
Nights at Granddad’s house can be hostile and grumpy.
CoffeeFThe nights may be fueled with irritation and impatience but the mornings are golden. My grandfather and I have coffee together every morning that I stay at his house. It’s our thing. It’s the reason I have refused to stay anywhere else long past the point when it made sense for my family to stay at his home when we travel back to Texas. That first irritatingly inconvenient coffee clutch at 5am over a wailing child began a routine that continued up until the last morning that I spent with him this past Christmas. Coffee in the morning with Granddad was sacrosanct as far as I was concerned.
Regardless of the time I got up, we had a routine. I’m not the quietest person so he would hear me shuffling about when I woke up. I made the mistake of not jumping into the bathroom as soon as I woke up only a few times. If Granddad gets into the bathroom before you do in the morning, you might as well go pee in the bushes outside because it’s going to be a while. The man will not be rushed.
By the time I have the curtains open, kitchen lights on, coffee brewing, newspaper retrieved from the driveway and placed near his chair, old newspaper never thrown away until after he has read the new paper, rubber band from the newspaper placed in the jar he has just for those rubber bands, and creamer on the counter; he would be in the kitchen with me.
He would take his morning pills while I poured our coffee. He would ask me if I slept well and then he would verify what time my mother was coming over to cook us all breakfast. (I’m not sure she enjoyed that routine as much as I enjoyed my coffee routine.) Then we would move to the recliners in front of the window to begin our day together.
friendGI can’t think of a topic we haven’t discussed over coffee. I have very few topics that I feel are taboo or inappropriate or flat-out embarrass me to discuss and in 11 years off coffee discussions I never found a single topic my grandfather wouldn’t discuss in-depth. He’s given me some real gems of advice over the years and some real bad pieces of advice I made sure to leave back in the 50s where that advice belonged.
My grandfather has a reputation for not actually saying ‘Thank You,’ to anyone performing the endless chores he is snapping out or taking care of preparing and placing his meal in front of him exactly the way he likes it as he sits at the table like a king. It is enough of an issue that I can’t recall a Thanksgiving where that wasn’t on the list of TOP 3 irritations of the event for pretty much everyone in the house. But in the mornings he will take his coffee from my hand and tell me, “Thank you, Sweetheart. I love you.”
Wednesday morning, June 1st 2016, I woke up at Granddad’s house about 7am and started shuffling around. I went straight to the bathroom so I didn’t end up peeing in the bushes, I opened the curtains, turned on lights, started the coffee, retrieved the newspaper from the driveway and placed it right next to the armchair and the rubber band in its proper spot.
I poured my cup of coffee and didn’t pour Granddad’s into his cup because he likes his hot and I didn’t want it to get cold before he got up.
painI was staring at the spot on the wall just above the counter where he keeps his pills when I realized he was not going to join me for coffee that morning. He was not going to be joining me for coffee ever again.
My brain went a little fuzzy in that moment. I just kept starting at that one spot on the wall while I shoved that pain into the invisible backpack I carry. My own personal oubliette where I place all the thoughts and pain I don’t want to look at ever again but can’t set down.
I didn’t take a sip of my perfectly prepared coffee. I just placed my full mug in the sink and quietly turned off the coffee pot. This was no longer a refuge, this house was just an empty shell making an echo of a home I once had.
I spent the entire week in that empty echo of a home while I watched my grandfather die in his hospital bed. It wasn’t gentle and it wasn’t easy. It was one of the worst things I’ve ever had to watch or experience.
griefFearWhen the depth of love that you feel for someone is bottomless, the grief you feel when they die is bottomless as well. It doesn’t matter how hard you try to shove that into the hidden corners of your mind, it’s too big to be contained.
Life isn’t fair and life doesn’t stop even on the moments you want to forget all your responsibilities so you can grieve. So I’ve been shoving the pain into my oubliette and in the midst of life I will notice that tears have run down my face un-noticed and un-checked in a way that is similar to a nose bleed. It happens out of nowhere and I’m scrambling for tissues once I sense the moisture dripping down my chin.
This past Saturday I spent the day getting my mother into a rehab facility so she can recover from her hip surgery. I was only going to be in town for one night and I had the moment when I had to decide where I was going to sleep.
beginningsMy father has been asking me to stay at his home for several years. I just couldn’t make the change as it felt like I was abandoning Granddad. So that night I dragged my bruised and weary soul into my father’s house. It would be the first time in over 21 years I had spent the night in a place he called home.
I had a very long drive back to Missouri the next day so I went to bed early. I woke up to the sound of my father and the smell of coffee. He had made it very strong, just the way I like it. We gathered in the kitchen as I found the creamer and sugar and we sat in the living room discussing quite a few topics as the sun rose up.
I didn’t set that backpack down, but I was able to gently close the door to my memories sharing coffee with Granddad and stride boldly towards the wide open door my father had been holding open for me for years.
The heaviest of burdens sometimes bring the brightest of blessings.