Thursday, July 1, 2010

21-Years Later and I Still Hurt

Before going to bed last night, I turned the page on my wall calendar since today is the first of the month.  Specifically, it's the first of July.  I felt a sharp pang of sadness when I noticed the date because I realized that it has been twenty-one years since I witnessed the death of my beloved grandfather.  I wish that was an exaggeration, but I literally saw him breathe his last breath.

Twenty-one years.  Man, that's a long time.  It seems impossible that it's been so long.  I feel so young, how is it even possible that I was a teenager twenty-one years ago?  It's hard to believe.

Prior to marrying my husband and having our son, the time I spent with my grandfather was the happiest I've ever been in this life.  At one time, my grandparents lived nearby, but they had moved to Washington state and I missed them so much when they were gone.  I'm so thankful that my parents sent me to spend several weeks with my grandparents one Summer.   

That Summer, my mother was going to be gone on a training class for a couple of months.  For several years prior, it felt like my sister drifted in and out of my life and my brother was already gone in the Navy.  I guess that I was basically an only child by then.  With all the other kids gone & grown, my folks had a little extra money and they bought me plane tickets to go visit for a few weeks.

This was my first plane trip and, for some reason, it made sense to wear kitten heels on the plane.  Um, okay.  I've always had odd fashion sense!  My Aunt, my Grandma, and my Grandpa all met me at the airport.  I RAN into their arms - I was so happy!

The Pacific Northwest may not sound like an ideal place for a young girl to vacation, but it was!  We settled into a nice routine, my grandparents and I.  Early in the morning, the three of us (and sometimes my Aunt) would harvest whatever was ripe in the garden.  Then we'd eat breakfast, usually cold cereal with fresh-picked raspberries, milk, & sugar - YUM!  We'd watch television or go to the store.  My love of old television programs and game shows was lovingly nurtured in that house.  At 3:00 pm, Grandpa and I would do garden chores: planting, staking, watering, dividing, etc.  He tried so hard to teach me how to split wood, but I could never get the hang of it.  Grandma would do the washing and I would hang the laundry on the line to dry.  Grandpa taught me how to mow the lawn, but I never could get the lawnmower to start on my own.  I still can't.  Sometimes we'd all go fishing.  That was the only thing I didn't like because the slugs seemed to be everywhere good fishing could be found.  To this day I feel a little light-headed when I see a slug.  But best of all, they had a kitten waiting for me when I arrived.  A kitten!  Oh, how I wanted a pet growing up!  It was like a dream come true.

Nothing will ever taste as delicious as the green beans that I planted, grew, harvested, snapped, and cooked.  A fresh carrot, straight out of the garden, is one of life's delights.  Picking a raspberry and immediately popping it in your mouth is something that everyone should have the joy to experience.

As it always seems with good times, that Summer ended way too soon.  I flew home.  I wrote them letters about the goings-on of my life.  I missed them.

Something I guess I never realized was that my Grandpa was a sick man the entire time I knew him.  He took a drastic turn for the worse around May or June 1989.  I talked with him on the phone, maybe it was Mother's Day or Father's Day?, and I knew.  I don't know how I knew it.  I wish that I didn't hear it in his voice.  But I knew with certainty.  He was dying.  And he would be dead soon.

I sobbed on my father's lap that night.  In typical childish selfishness, I didn't stop to consider that my father was distraught that his own father was close to death.  But my father, bless him, he held me and told me that it was going to be alright.  His calm assurance was what I needed and he somehow found a way to give it to me though he was suffering too.

My parents and I drove up to visit.  It was unspoken, but I think we all knew that it would be our last visit.  We were set to arrive on July 1, 1989.

My mother insisted that we stop to eat before driving into town.  That was uncharacteristic as we'd usually eat after arriving to their house, but we stopped and filled our bellies.  For some reason I remember that I ordered lasagna. 

When I walked in their living room, I stopped short.  My Grandpa had tubes in his nose.  He was on oxygen.  He sat up to give me a hug and I mumbled something about how happy I was to see him.  I'm ashamed to admit that I was afraid.

I should add that I had never had a loved one die.  I'd never had a pet so I'd never had a pet die.  I never had to deal with grief or learn to heal after loss.  All I knew about death is that it was permanent.

At some point the entire family was assembled in the living room:  my Grandpa, my Grandma, my Aunt, my parents, and myself.  My maternal grandmother had taught me how to crochet some months earlier and I was busily crocheting on the couch beside my Grandma.  I remember that it was a grey mouse that could be made into a magnet.  Grey.  That was an appropriate since all color and light were soon to disappear.

Anyway, I was crocheting and I suddenly looked up.  My Grandpa and I met eyes for a moment.  I smiled at him and finally looked back down at my work.  He moaned and his head pitched forward.  He died.  Just like that.  He was alive in one second and he was dead in the next.

My Aunt and my Dad grabbed him and pulled him to the floor.  They began to administer CPR.  I stood there watching, totally impotent.  My Grandma & I were hustled out of the room by my Mom.  My Mom grabbed the phone and called 911. 

I don't know how long it took for an ambulance to arrive.  I don't even know how I got there, but I slowly became aware that I was sitting on the bench overlooking my Grandpa's garden.  It was drizzling.  That was fitting.  My Mom found me and put me in my Aunt's car.  The family followed the ambulance to the hospital.

We were ushered to a small waiting room when we arrived at the hospital.  It was very small and we were the only people there.  My poor Grandma. . .I can't even imagine how she felt in those moments.  A doctor finally arrived.  And, just like in the movies, he said, "I'm so sorry.  There was nothing we could do."  My Grandma cried out and collapsed into my Dad & my Aunt's arms. 

He had a massive heart attack and there was nothing they could do.  His heart stopped and my heart broke.

There you have it.  The memory that I can't help but relive every July 1st.  The only good thing that comes from remembering this pain is that I also remember the good times.  That one wonderful Summer all those years ago.

My Grandpa drank his buttermilk with salt & pepper.  He taught me how to chew tobacco and let me take a sip out of his Wild Turkey a time or two. He always wore a hat and suspenders. He favored flannel shirts.  He really knew how to fish and he caught the tastiest salmon.  He loved watching Elvira's show and he was kind to animals.  He was an expert at whittling wood and he was extraordinarily creative.  He was the best Grandpa in the world.  And, 21-years later, I still miss him and love him.

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