The death of a grandparent

Spoiler alert: This post is going to be seriously lacking in structure.

I went to the gym this morning, and as I often do, I attempted to craft this post in my head so that I could simply come home and write it without deleting and/or rearranging paragraphs for about 2 hours until I was happy with it.

I am discouraged to report that my plan didn’t work. So you’re about to get treated to some stream of consciousness writing. Think T.S. Eliot, but less poem-y.

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My dad’s mother, our grandmom, died on Monday, June 4th.

Not that people dying is ever convenient, but the timing in this instance was really, really not good.

On Saturday June 2nd, our family had left for Florida for a week-long vacation with two of my mom’s sisters and their families. A trip that we had never done before and had been 10 months in the making.

Grandmom’s health has been quite poor for many years. After years of smoking, she suffered from COPD, and this past November, she was diagnosed with lung cancer. Surgery wasn’t an option. Neither was chemotherapy or radiation. She was simply too weak from living with lungs that hovered around 25-30% functioning for nearly 8 years. (Short PSA: Do yourself a favor and never smoke. Or quit if you do. That is all.)

The decision was made to pursue hospice in the home. Grandmom was quite adamant that the only way she would leave her house, the one she had lived in since 1959, was if she was “carried out feet first” (in elderly people talk, that means she wanted to die in her house.)

Two Thursdays ago, right before we left for our trip, she took a turn for the worse. Her breathing was very labored, like “gasping for air” labored. We tried to decide whether or not we should go. By Friday, she was doing much better and had stabilized. Dad and his sister (who lives out of state) coordinated with the organization who had been providing Grandmom with part-time care, and upped the care to 24 hour coverage. We felt that it was safe to head to the airport.

Dad spent Saturday, Sunday, and Monday attached to his phone, keeping in touch with social workers, caregivers, his sister, his brother-in-law, and our family friends who now own Grandpop’s old music store** that is attached to Grandmom’s house.

**Context: Grandpop, who died in 2002, was a musician by trade. His main instrument was the piano, but he played a little bit of everything, including accordion, various low brass instruments, harmonica, vibraphone, etc. He owned a music store that was attached to the family home and was quite well-known in the community.

By Monday, things were looking up. My aunt and uncle were en route to Pennsylvania to look after Grandmom, so we all began to breathe easier. We headed back from the beach for lunch. As we were getting ready to go back over around 2:30pm, Dad’s phone rang. I was closest to it, so I picked it up, looked at the name, and called to Dad. “It’s Bill (family friend who owns the music store), probably calling with an update,” I said as I offered the phone to him.

Mom was sitting on the balcony, Dude was sitting on the couch, and I was standing next to the table as Dad took the phone and walked into the bedroom.

“Hi Bill!” he said cheerily.

Then his tone totally changed. “What?”

That’s all I needed to hear to know what had happened.

She had been taking a nap and just like that she was gone. In her sleep, in her house, just like she wanted.

In that moment, two mindsets struggled for dominance in my head.

1) She was in pain for many, many years. She missed Grandpop terribly and wasn’t herself once he passed away. She’s happy and at peace now.

2) My grandmom just died and I’m in Florida and not in Pennsylvania and this entire situation really, really sucks (pardon the language).

Mindset #2 won out. I broke down crying while my mom threw all her weight into Mindset #1 in an attempt to comfort us.

Meanwhile, Dude continued to sit on the couch, completely oblivious to the change in circumstances. I really have no idea what his concept of death is. I would tend to think that it’s abstract and hard for him to grasp, but because of his limited communication skills, we really have no idea what’s going on in that head of his. He may be totally on the same page with us in terms of what’s happening, but his body is unable to communicate it. Who knows. All I know is that ten years ago we attended our grandpop’s open casket viewing and funeral and Dude had zero reaction.

However, over the past 8 years, Dude and Dad’s Saturday ritual has been to go to Grandmom’s house, take her out to breakfast, and then take care of grocery shopping, prescription refills, chores around the house, etc. Dude’s job was to eat breakfast and then keep Grandmom company while Dad took care of everything else.  Dude would sit in the living room with her and watch baseball, football, golf, NASCAR, and basketball (Grandmom was a sports fan, if you couldn’t tell).

On the Saturdays that they didn’t make it to Grandmom’s, Dude let it be known that he did not appreciate the change in plans. “No Grandmom.” “Soon we go to Grandmom’s house,” he would say over and over.

Tomorrow, he is going to have to attend another open casket viewing and funeral. This time, the person “asleep” in the coffin will be the lady he spent almost every Saturday with for the past 8 years. I really don’t know how that is going to go over.

The thing that is awesome about Dude is that he didn’t care about the decline in Grandmom’s health. His attitude and behavior towards her never once shifted. She was simply his Grandmom. He was a constant for her, and I think she loved him very much for it.

He was never weirded out by her coughing fits, or her bouts of forgetfulness due to long-term poor oxygen circulation, whereas the rest of the family would sometimes feel down because we remembered the feisty, strong woman she used to be (don’t get me wrong, she was feisty to the end, but in a different way).

I hope you’re happy now, Grandmom. I hope you’re with Grandpop and that he’s playing old jazz standards on the piano while you sing along.

 

In closing, keeping with the “positive” theme of the blog, here are some classic Grandmom stories:

Deutsch

On dad’s side of the family, our heritage is Pennsylvania Dutch (aka German descent) and Swedish. Both of my grandparents were very European and had a particular fondness for German culture. For example, Dad and his sister always called their parents Mutti and Vati, which means Mom and Dad in German, respsectively.

Grandmom’s response when I started learning Spanish as a freshman in high school? “But it’s such an ugly language! Why not study German?”

My response: “Spanish is more practical in America.”

What I actually thought: Spanish is ugly compared to German? The guttural, phlegmy language?!

ARE YOU RACIST?

One time she got in an argument with a young cook at the local diner regarding the U.S. women’s team winning the Women’s World Cup in 1999. He posited that they won because Brandi Chastain made the winning penalty kick. She argued that the kick would have meant nothing if the American goalie, Briana Scurry, hadn’t blocked one of China’s penalty shots.

The argument continued for several minutes until she demanded to know, “Are you racist?! Are you denying her the recognition she deserves because she’s BLACK?!”

The stunned young man looked at me for support, but I had already crawled under the counter in embarrassment. (Ok I didn’t actually crawl under the counter. But I was sitting there with my mouth agape, watching my grandmother gleefully run circles around this kid’s logic.)

Dine and Dash

Grandmom had many stories about the summers she worked as a waitress at the Jersey Shore when she was a teenager. One of my favorites was when her and a girlfriend allowed two gentlemen who they really weren’t interested in to buy them dinner, but towards the end of the meal they excused themselves from the table, went to the ladies room, and climbed out the window.

The Case of the Missing Vibes

In the past 5 years, Grandmom’s memory had been a bit patchy. She often couldn’t remember if she had eaten that day, or what pills and/or breathing treatments she had done, if any. However, one day she asked my dad where Grandpop’s vibes were.

Context: When I started high school and decided to join the marching band, I spent a month deciding whether I should learn baritone or learn how to play the vibes (think xylophone). Grandmom leant me Grandpop’s old vibes so I could get a feel for them. I ultimately decided on baritone, and the vibes sat untouched in my room for two years. Then my senior year (2005), an acquaintence of mine from school, who was interested in pursuing a jazz career, expressed interest in them. I asked Grandmom if it was alright if I gave them to him, since we didn’t really have any use for them. She said it was ok if I leant them to him. But then I went off to college and completely forgot about them.

Flash forward to March 2011. OUT OF THE BLUE, Grandmom asks Dad, “Where are Grandpop’s vibes?”

Thankfully I wasn’t there, because I am an absolutely TERRIBLE liar. Plus, I had actually forgotten about the vibes exchange altogether.

Dad answered that he didn’t quite remember, and would have to check with me.

Grandmom responded, “The last I remember, she leant them to a friend in high school. But I’d like them back now.”

Let me reiterate. The lending occurred in 2005. THIS WAS 2011 AND SHE RANDOMLY REMEMBERED EVERY SINGLE DETAIL.

I Facebook messaged the high school acquaintance, who I literally hadn’t talked to since I had graduated, and received the very nice following message:

Hey Julianne!

So good to hear from you! I hope you are doing well and thanks so much for the kind words about the music!

Unfortunately, I traded in those vibes about a year and a half ago and got a new pair. They were pretty run down after a few years and were stripped for parts.

Wish I could be more help- it was such a gift to receive those from you years ago, and they were HUGE in my development as a percussionist. So thankful for you and your family’s kindness, and I hope to return the favor somehow one day.

Uh oh. I can’t tell her the vibes were stripped for parts! Dad and I decided to stick to the story that the vibes had traveled to Boston, where the young man went to school, and were up there somewhere but he wasn’t sure when he would be bringing them back.

Irony of ironies, the very last time I saw my grandmom was Mother’s Day weekend, AND SHE ASKED ABOUT THE VIBES AGAIN.

I’m going to go ahead and convince myself that I wasn’t technically lying to her, since the vibes were stripped for parts in Boston, so the vibes are IN Boston, just not intact in Boston.

She’s probably up there now, realizing that we strung her along for over a year, thinking to herself, “Jerks.”

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