My grandfather died three and a half years ago. He was in his ’80s, and had steadily debilitating alzheimers. He was so frail, that when the doctors diagnosed cancer, he didn’t even think twice about refusing treatment. And while for the most part we agreed with him, goodbyes are still hard. We said goodbye for over 6 months. There were funny moments, like hearing from his also-elderly and supremely frustrated bridge partner that cards were no fun now that Wilbur couldn’t remember trump. But mostly, he shrank into a skeletal version of himself. No more energy for long walks, but still sweetly smiling at me, even when he didn’t remember my name.
But the thing that Grandpa never forgot were the words to all the hymns he ever sang. And when he was too tired to sing, we sang to him, and he relaxed. Near the end, we held a family party, and lined a reclining lawn chair with pillows and blankets so that Grandpa could sit without pain. He was so gaunt. His shoes were impossibly big for him. But all the sons, daughters, in-laws, and grandkids took turns holding his hand, kissing his cheek, and being close. At the end of the night, we sang. My mother and her siblings grew up singing all the old hymns and praise choruses. They did special music at rest homes and granges. In duos, in groups, and at weddings. And that night, we sang every song Uncle Kurt could play. And Grandpa, too weak to lift his head, raised his hands high into the air.
The thing about those old songs, is there’s always a verse looking forward to death, to heaven, and to the world to come. I can’t get through “This World Is not My Home” without tearing up anymore, but that world to come is what Grandpa craved. The thing about Grandpa is that he was far from a perfect saint. He battled untreated mental illness for most of his life–only agreeing to try medication in his very final years. His impulsiveness and anger isolated him from so many. He dreamed of being a missionary for Jesus in Africa, and even managed a trip to Nigeria. But the closest he came to full-time ministry was working for a man who printed tracts. I wonder if he felt like a failure for most of his life. But, as Kurt said in his eulogy, Grandpa “taught us all how to die.” This very broken man craved death, because it meant life.
This week, we’ve begun a vigil for Grandma. And it’s hard not to think of Grandpa’s last days in comparison. The victim of a polio outbreak during her childhood, Grandma, the youngest of 8 children has had to be a fighter since she was 9 years old. She learned to walk again, refused a cane for most of her adult life, married, kept a small farm, and raised six kids on almost no income. But she never seemed bitter or angry at how her life turned out. Stories about her youth always painted a picture of a flirty, spunky redhead. She worked for McDonnell aircraft during the war. As the pet of five older sisters, she entered rooms as a child by announcing, “Here I am, you lucky people!” It was a habit she continued all her life.
She went to the care center last fall, when the part time help wasn’t enough. She fought every step of the way. She begged to return home. She scolded her kids for disappointing her. She tried to break her nurses’ fingers. She didn’t remember where she was, and she didn’t remember where home was. In the last few years she’s survived two hip fractures, a couple of heart attacks, and a handful of mini-strokes.
Now, well under 100 pounds, she is clinging by a thread. In a conversation with my mom this week, we talked about the difference between Grandpa and Grandma in terms of their last days. Grandpa went so quickly, so willingly into the beyond. He was so eager to see Glory. It’s been 5 days since Grandma has had food, water, or the ability to swallow. She hasn’t opened her eyes since Friday. Sometimes she waits so long in between breaths that we think she’s gone. But she still keeps fighting. I guess it’s because she always has.