My grandfather is dying. He's been dying for a while, I suppose (and aren't we all dying a little bit, man?), but he's specifically and actively dying right now.
I will be asked to speak at his memorial service, and that's fine. I'm decent with words and I always have something to say. Are you allowed to write a eulogy before the person dies? Well, he might be dead already - I have a missed call from my parents and I don't really want to return it. This might not be premature after all. Let's get on with it, shall we?
My grandfather is (was?) 93. He grew up the youngest of 13 kids, on a small farm in the Fox River Valley of Wisconsin. The farm is still in his family and some of my favorite pictures of him are of Grandpa out on the tractor - one such picture is hanging above the bed he is presently dying in. He served in WWII, holds patents in... no one's quite sure what (some type of early seat belt latch?), was a skilled electrician, and he videotaped EVERYTHING. He has tapes of me singing songs at my second birthday party, learning to ride a bicycle, demonstrating the ballet steps I was just starting to learn. He has tapes of me - a decade and more later - embarrassed to talk into the camera, learning to drive a car, dancing a solo at my senior concert. When my uncle and my parents moved my grandparents into assisted living a few years ago they found hundreds of VHS tapes of footage my grandfather had taken of our family. Hours and hours of unwrapping gifts and small talk and school plays.
My grandpa was an inventor and a tinkerer. He showed me how to use power tools and the two of us made a swing for me to use when I visited him - it was uncomfortable as hell but I loved it. He was proud of his beautiful lawn, but he put down tarps and a sprinkler to make slip-n-slide for my brother and me, even though it crushed his grass and left a huge mud puddle in the middle of the back yard. He videotaped us running and careening through, laughing like crazy things. And he laughed, too. He loved to make us happy. These are my favorite memories of my grandfather - he was sharp and brave and creative and he loved my brother and I more than anything. As we got older I had a harder and harder time staying in touch. 28 year-old professionals don't have that much in common with 90-somethings in failing health, and I'm lousy at staying in touch with people as it is. I wrote to them a few times and year and saw them rarely. I'm a pretty bad granddaughter.
We visited my grandparents last weekend. We'd already planned the trip when my mom got a call from Hospice that my grandfather was dying. We left early the next morning to try to get there before he passed. I told my mom that I didn't think I'd be sad because I knew he'd wanted to die a long time ago and that he was ready to go. He used to apologize to my mom for living so long - he'd planned on dying ten years ago so my brother and I could go to college with the money he'd scrupulously saved for decades. He wanted to just drop over one day: fine today, dead tomorrow; living in his house on his terms. And that's what we all want, isn't it? He didn't get his wish, though - my grandmother slipped into dementia while my grandfather remained sharp but in a body that had failed him. He tried his best to look after my grandma but eventually they were both too sick and they ended up in assisted living. They're safe there and the staff is wonderful, but it's not what my grandfather had pictured for himself.
The visit was heartbreaking and heartwarming and horrible. I couldn't believe how frail my grandfather had gotten - skin and bones, lying in bed with a breathing machine whirring and his hands clasped under his chin as though in prayer. My wonderful uncle - a lifelong bachelor who stayed in his hometown to take care of my grandparents - was quietly sobbing in the bathroom when we got there. My grandma doesn't know who anyone is except for my grandpa, but she was glad to have visitors. I brought her a book of photos from my trips and we looked through them five or six times back-to-back - they were new to her each time. She thought my husband was very handsome, liked my lipstick, and kept wanting to go looking for my mother, whom she hadn't "seen in so long!" - she was in the next room. When we went to see my mom my grandmother didn't realize she had a daughter or that this was the woman from her photos.
I held my grandpa's hand and kissed his cheek. He'd wake up briefly and, although he couldn't speak well, he'd put both hands on my face and pull it down so he could kiss my forehead. He knew he was dying. Once he got a concerned look on his face. "I love you, Grandpa - we're all here now. You can rest. There's nothing left to worry about - you did it all and you did good. You can rest now." He'd nod and whisper, "I love you." My grandmother got jealous that I was kissing her husband. I stroked his hair. "Thank you for visiting me," he murmured. "Of course, Grandpa. We love you." My brother couldn't come today, I told him, but he sends his love. "I love you both so much," my grandpa whispered. "I know, Grandpa, I love you too." My grandpa said he was worried about my brother - "don't, Grandpa - he's fine. We're all fine." My mother, who is an RN with years of experience with death and dying, cleaned out his mouth and put lotion on his hands and calmed him when he woke up and started whispering that his father was mad at him: "that was a long time ago, Dad - there's nothing to worry about now. It's your time to rest."
We had to sneak out right after the Hospice volunteer arrived, while she had my grandmother distracted - otherwise my grandma would try to follow us out, my uncle explained. My last words to my grandfather will have been, "I love you so much - you were the best grandpa." His to me were, "I love you so much." That's about as good as it gets, I think.
I hadn't been sure I wanted to visit this weekend. I didn't want to remember my grandfather old and broken and dying. I wanted to picture him strong and brave, building a swing and carrying his camcorder. I don't think he would have known if I'd been there or not, in the end. But I'm glad for the reminder of how much I loved him, of how much I looked up to him when I was a girl, and of how lucky I am to have had 28 years as his granddaughter.