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The Privilege of Goodbye

I’ve only ever lost people suddenly. I can feel the punch as I was told in person of a sudden medical passing. I remember hearing a voice waver over the phone with news of a friend’s suicide. I remember searching my friend’s eyes, hoping it was some sort of twisted joke when they told me of the accident.

Reading it unexpectedly. Hearing those words. Nothing prepares you for that.

And yet as I sat by my grandfather’s side for the last two weeks of his life, I realized that nothing prepares you for that either.

On December 6th 2018, my grandparent’s 66th wedding anniversary, my mother signed the paperwork to admit my 97-year-old grandfather to hospice care. On December 16th, I flew into Pittsburgh International Airport and spent every day with my grandparents.

The first thing I noticed is how he was sleeping more than usual. But he still stayed up to visit with me a bit and we still went to the dining room at the assisted living facility together. My grandfather was the strongest man I ever knew. Physically, he would never pass for 97. In fact, he took such pride in stumping the “I Can Guess Your Age!” man at Kennywood.

As the end drew closer, my mom and I spent nearly all our time there. My grandma would sit and pray with him. In between, we would do crossword puzzles, not as if searching for clues would erase what was happening in the bedroom, but to allow us to distract our mind for a moment.

The night before he passed, he was laying in the bed next to his wife’s. My mom and I were setting up our own sleeping quarters in the family room – hers on the recliner, mine a makeshift sleeping bag devised from two blankets on the floor. My mom had turned on America’s Funniest Home Videos – a show we enjoyed watching with my grandpa because he loved to see the videos with dog and babies.

I was ready for bed – glasses off – but after the 3rd or 4th “look!” radiating from my giggling mother on the recliner, I decided to put my glasses on and told her I would sit up with her until the show ended at 10. Something so mindless, like watching America’s Funniest Home Videos felt like what we needed – a reminder to laugh.

Krystal, one of the nurses, came in and told us about an upcoming fire drill. She had cleared our room from having to evacuate but told us it was going to be loud. Loud was an understatement. I’d never felt my head rattle like that. I held my grandfather’s ear as he slept through it.

The next morning, he passed.

My mom, grandma, and I were drinking coffee and tea and talking. It was December 31st and I had asked my grandmother if she had any new year’s resolutions. She said to be more grateful.

The nurse came back. She nodded at me with tears in her eyes. I knew.

It’s a hard thing, to wait for death. To know it is coming and to keep doing the brave thing, to keep showing up. To find the habits and routines that soothe your soul in those times.

What does waiting for death look like?

It’s not always sad. Sometimes it’s watching America’s Funniest Home Videos and laughing with the people you love. Sometimes it’s skipping lunch or eating crackers and chocolate covered nuts and whatever else you can find in your grandmother’s cupboard. Sometimes it’s crossword puzzles and other times it’s quiet prayer. It’s sharing memories. It’s laying on a bed with your cousin working on a Where’s Waldo book because both of you want to remember what it felt like to be a child when death couldn’t touch us, and our grandparents lived forever. It’s questions that don’t have answers. It’s hard and it’s gritty and it’s heart wrenching.

And it is a privilege.

In his last days, I would sit quietly with him, the slow rhythm of his oxygen tank the only sound. Other times, I would read out loud to him, his love of learning forever engrained in me.

Even in those final days, those final hours, the saying goodbye, I was reminded of the beauty in pain, the light in darkness, the love that supersedes death, and the privilege of being able to say goodbye.

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