You would be hard pressed to find a more stressful and depressing environment than an Intensive Care Unit. People die there every day, and the parade of grieving family members are continually replenished….forced to deal with sudden loss, prolonged sickness followed by the decision to turn off life support; usually with the bonus of discussions about whether or not their loved one was an organ donor. Because if they were an organ donor, that means they have virtually no time to be with their family member before their body is wheeled off for harvesting. My family had to watch this go on and on for over a week when my grandfather was admitted to the hospital with stomach pains and things took a very bad turn. There really isn’t anything that empties you like witnessing human anguish….everyone displays it differently and unpredictably. My mom, her sisters and my grandmother basically lived at the hospital for two weeks, and I felt bad that this was one situation I could only handle in small doses. If the worst ended up happening, I knew I had to reserve whatever mind I had left to do the thing that I do for the family when the time comes….like I did for my brother in 1989, my aunt in 1996, and my uncle earlier this year. I can shut down long enough after someone dies to get through the business end of dying, and managing all of the details of the service…..because I guess that is actually the easy part….grandpa’s wife and daughters took on the worst of it all. Seeing the man who taught me how to tie a fisherman’s knot when I was eight years old, and loved and supported me through all of the crazy ups and downs that have been my life until now, in the kind of pain he was in, with his wife of 60 years constantly at his bedside, in her wheelchair, holding his hand….was one of the most sobering and sad things I’ve ever seen. At the same time, it was a testament to how great it is to have the family that I do. He had some really bad days after his surgery, having to deal with oxygen masks, tubes, machines, and the ultimate lack of privacy that is the motif of the intensive care unit. So we had a little bit of comfort when we lost grandpa after he had two really GOOD days.
I got to spend some good time with him two Saturdays ago when we lost him. I was up during the afternoon, playing Phase 10 with my mom and aunts while he slept, and then I went back and talked to him for a while before the nightly “no visitors” window. I told him about how I was going to be buying my yearly supply of herbs to plant out on my deck….that was something on which we’d always compare notes…he out-planted me every year AND grew a ton of tomatoes as well. I also let him know how I was on my way to Lowe’s to buy a new lawnmower….and he gave me a crazy look, and told me not to do that when he had a nearly brand new mower in his shed that he couldn’t use anymore since they have a guy who comes to mow since his health got so bad. He’d always do that sort of thing….he gave me his golf clubs when he couldn’t play anymore because he knew I was shopping for some, and then gave me his prized Honda lawnmower. Being the first male born into the family, I guess I was always pretty spoiled. So when the 6:30 shift change started and I had to leave, the last thing I said to my grandpa was that I loved him. He smiled and said “I know you do, buddy”.
I hadn’t been sleeping well, so I took about three Sominex around 11:30 that Saturday night, and no sooner had they begun to take effect than my aunt called to tell me I needed to get up to the hospital as fast as I could. I went to pick up a large Red Bull to wipe out the cobwebs so that I’d be clear headed to deal with whatever I found when I arrived. That was both the fastest and longest car ride of my life, then when I arrived the regular entrance was only an exit after hours, so I had to find my way in….making the trip even longer.
When I got off of the elevator, my aunt was right there waiting for me. She just shook her head and said “he’s gone”. So I hugged her and cried for a minute, and then I did what I do in these situations……be it right or wrong, unhealthy, crazy, whatever…..I told myself “this is the last time I will cry until after the funeral”. Since he was a d0-not-resuscitate patient, he didn’t need all of the machines he was hooked up to in order to monitor him in ICU, so shortly after I left for the night they were going to move him to a more comfortable and private room where they could begin some level of physical therapy. Everyone was getting ready to crash on the waiting room couches for the night, and so that she could get ready for bed they took my grandmother back to spend a few minutes with him. She held his hand, and when his daughters came in he told them “I’ve loved this woman for over 60 years”. A few minutes later when everyone was lying down to sleep, a call for rapid response came over the intercom, and he was gone. He went quietly and peacefully in a much friendlier environment, after giving us two very good last days.
One piece of advice I’d give anyone and everyone who has a family is to plan ahead….buy your plot, your casket, and take care of many of those details as humanly possible. My grandparents did it several years ago, and I can’t underestimate how much easier it makes it for the family. Plus, unless you’ve been involved in funeral planning, you cannot imagine the insane expense. With many of the details already figured out, and the fact that it would be three days before there was an opening in the chapel, it made it somewhat easier on the family to have some extra time to plan, write the obituary, go through pictures and figure out who and what to include in the service. Anyone who has had to go through sixty years of memories in a home where the family lived for over 54 years, can empathize with what it’s like doing something as simple as going through the thousands of photos.
My grandmother and my aunts thought it would be a good idea for all of the grandchildren to do the service, and other than my uncle who read the obit, that is what we did. With the tons of flowers and plants people sent, all of the photos and photo albums to go through, and the DVD of photos my cousin created, the service really couldn’t have gone better. When eulogizing a man like my grandfather, a patriarch right down to the end…sitting at the head of the table calling out the Bingo numbers….someone who raised five girls and helped build their house himself….a fisherman and avid sportsman throughout his entire life…..a prankster and joker who gave me much of that same spirit….a husband of over 6o years…..there is no shortage of material to draw from. But honestly, this was a rough one. Especially so soon after eulogizing my uncle….I didn’t realize until my grandfather got so ill how badly that affected me. This was just too soon, my family has lost three people so far this year. BUT those things aside, you have to do your best no matter what…..pick the right memories, craft a perfect outline where the jokes and sadness work together, hit your marks, time the punchlines, and tie it together at the end with a charge to the family to honor the legacy he left us. And review it enough times that your emotions can’t surprise you during the service. But yeah, no matter how professionally you try to handle something like that, and you listen to your cousins talk about the man, it is a meat grinder. It’s hard to say how much you love someone who has impacted your entire life and helped to make you who you are, and to see how broken everyone is now that such a permanent fixture is gone…..forever. I usually prepare well enough to be a machine when I do these things, but this time I really had to turn into the skid to keep it together. And I mean, I don’t see any weakness in losing it or showing emotion, my thing is I just want to be strong for my family and with everyone being in so much pain I don’t want anyone having to worry about me. So when you’re in the middle of talking about how you keep forgetting he isn’t there anymore and your voice suddenly sounds like Mr. Haney from Green Acres, there is definitely an art to reeling it back in and moving on. But this is a man it will take me a very long time to get over. It’s safe to say that after all of my disillusionment with the church and my flight from ministry, he’s one of the main reasons I’ve kept the faith that I do have left. He was a great example, and he lived and laughed his way through the things in life that scare the hell out of all of anyone and even break many of us.
So I write ’em as they happen. It’s cathartic and plus I would feel irresponsible if I didn’t include some reality in the midst of such genius as the Killers of Comedy writeup. And as one era ends, another begins……I’m getting married next month, and and I can’t think of a happier event to come in on the coattails of something this rough. We’re really starting to get excited about it……my fiance’s friends and family had her bridal shower in Richmond over the weekend, and she’ll be here this week so that my family can have one for her on Saturday. Then next month it’s off to Savannah……and at the end of August, I’m out of a job! YAY! Funny, but you just have to take the good with the bad…it’s not like I’m going to be homeless, I’m pretty sure I’ll have a new job before August hits, and then of course there will be two of us sharing the financial woes instead of just one. I’m glad she got to meet my grandfather, I think the last time we were all together was during a family Bingo night….so that was as good as it gets. And as shocked as they all are, I think my whole family will be blown away that I’m actually getting married before I’m 40.
So happier times ahead, and I’ll try to think of something truly absurd between now and the wedding weekend…….