A few months ago, I kissed my grandfather’s rough-shaven face, told him I loved him, and walked out of his hospital room. I knew I probably wouldn’t see him again, even though the doctor said he might have a few more months to live. My husband and I live with our two small children in central Virginia, and my grandparents live in southern Ohio, about seven hours across the mountains. I saw him a few hours before I left, nearly translucent against the white bed pillows, draped in a white towel for mealtime, his legs shrouded with a thin white afghan. He was radiant. He was dying.
While we were visiting, we stayed with my other grandparents — my dad’s parents, who live fifty miles away from the hospital. They are younger, by a decade or more. They are slowing, but they are still spry. My grandmother told me how she hasn’t had as much energy since having a three-week bout with the flu this winter. “Then again, Dick reminds me I’m eighty-one now,” she added. And then she pulled out three kinds of cookies and two cakes she made in the days before we came.
Every morning while we were there, they read the obituaries to each other. They have lived in Chillicothe, their small paper mill town, for most of their lives — nearly all of their 64-year marriage. They know everyone. They keep a mental tally of who is still alive, who got left behind, how many years younger or older they are than the deceased. They know that couples all across town will read their names one day. Someone will say, “Oh, you know Dick, he always had a new joke,” or “You remember Joanne, she was the one who cooked for everything.” Someone will remember his many years chairing boards, his strong bass in the church choir; her steadfast presence and countless casseroles at every blood drive, election day, church bazaar, funeral luncheon. Joyce or Roberta or some other church lady will realize, in a surreal moment, that Joanne can’t make the funeral lunch for her own funeral. With a shade of panic, she will start paging through the Tyler Methodist Church Cookbook, my grandmother’s name appearing every few pages, and she will wonder, Is it proper to make the dead woman’s own hot chicken salad for the family luncheon? Someone will gossip. Someone will pull a spare sympathy card from a drawer. Someone will, like my grandmother, say a simple, mournful, “Well…” followed by a pause before turning the page, noting the sales, making the grocery list.
While we were away from home, I checked Facebook on my phone. Many of my friends from the progressive theological seminary I attended after college were tuned into the news I was missing: Kelly Renee Gissendaner was scheduled to die by lethal injection in Georgia the night we arrived in Ohio. Friends of mine were keeping vigil, writing letters pleading for her life, making phone calls, praying, watching, waiting. I was blowing up an air mattress and texting my mother for updates on her dad. I wondered who would die first: this woman or my grandfather. I went to sleep. In the middle of the night, I woke up to go to the bathroom. I thought of the vigil I wasn’t keeping. With a twinge of guilt, I pulled up Facebook to learn that Gissendaner was still alive. No one knew for how long, but she was alive.
In the morning, I called my mom and found out they were transferring my grandfather to a different hospital for a new procedure. His lung had collapsed. They were going to try to re-inflate it at the research hospital in Columbus. We would have to save our planned visit for the next day.
So I went upstairs for breakfast. In the afternoon, I went to Kroger with my grandmother. We ordered fried chicken for 5:30, and then she asked, “Have you ever had the Bob Evans mashed potatoes? Would you think less of me if I bought them instead of making my own?” We checked the price and she said they cost more than a five-pound bag of potatoes, so she placed them in the cart.
When my husband and I went back to Kroger at 5:30, we learned our order was still in the fryer: “It’ll be just a few minutes, if you have any other shopping to do.” We stood side by side, watching people place orders for deli meat. We talked about the kids, wondering aloud if they were behaving for my grandparents. And then we heard a shattering crash, started, and turned to see a boy, about ten years old, wearing round glasses and a hooded sweatshirt.
“I’m so sorry,” he said to no one in particular. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry!”
We all surveyed the damage. On the floor were half a dozen large pieces of thick, green glass, plus a scattering of shards. Several cakes, still sealed in their plastic tubs, were strewn about, misshapen from the impact. The boy, though on the edge of adolescence, found his way into his mother’s gravitational pull. She enfolded him, said “it’s okay,” stroked his hair and patted his back automatically. “He’s mortified,” she said to the deli workers. “I’m so sorry,” he said again, crying now.
My husband and I looked at each other. He was remembering the unwieldy awkwardness of pre-adolescence. He wanted to tell the boy that someday, these kinds of fleeting nightmares would fade in his memory. I was blinking back tears. I wanted to thank the mother for loving her awkward boy in public. I wanted to know that I would be so graceful with my own children.
We got our chicken and went back to my grandparents’ house. We kissed the kids hello, and together we all ate the Kroger chicken, Bob Evans mashed potatoes, four more sides, and five desserts. In the morning, we drove to Columbus in the rain. I thought, This is the road toward grieving.
I am thirty-one years old, and all my grandparents are still living. The youngest is my dad’s mother, 81. The oldest is my mom’s father, 93. Ninety-three and dying. This is the start of the endings, I thought. This is where the story of losing all of my grandparents begins.
When I was a child, when my grandfather was still mobile and he and my grandmother still lived at the farm, he would prepare for our visits by taking the Bush Hog out and cutting a trail into the woods. We grandkids would pile into his blue Chevy pickup, and the dogs, Bear and Corey, would race us to the woods. Through the truck bed’s rusty holes, I’d watch the grasses flashing past and then the forest floor. My grandfather’s cigarette smoke would waft out the driver’s side window, passing over us like a gentle blessing before we left it behind in the air.
When we got to whatever clearing my grandfather had scouted, he’d climb out of the truck, reach into the low branches of some tree, and pull out the cut end of a strong grapevine. He’d give it a final tug and then hand it to some grandchild more daring than me, probably my sister Erin or my cousin Joel. My grandfather would open the heavy tailgate with its usual screech and thud, and Erin or whoever would climb onto it, grasp the vine, take a breath, then jump. They would swing out, out, out through the clearing or over the ravine. They would shriek and my grandfather would lean against the truck and laugh, tell me it was my turn next.
In the evenings, on summer nights when we were staying over at the farmhouse, my grandfather would snap limbs with his heavy shoes, draft my dad to retrieve logs from the woodpile, and enlist us girls to gather sticks in the growing darkness. We’d roast hot dogs and marshmallows, then watch the stars grow bright as the coals dimmed.
In the morning, we’d pad down the stairs, rubbing our smoke-parched eyes, and my grandfather would be feeding the woodstove, or sitting at the breakfast bar with a cigarette, or lacing up his heavy brown shoes with the metal braces, the shoes he wore every day of my life. After breakfast, my grandmother would scrape everyone’s leftovers into a bucket of scraps for the dogs, and my grandfather would walk outside and find them already running from the fields to meet him. My sisters and I would head off for a shallow bath in the clawfoot tub, taking turns in the water, precious from the well, rinsing off last night’s lingering smoke.
When I was eight or nine, my grandparents took me with them on a trip to Florida to visit their daughter — my aunt — and her husband and kids. My grandparents had five children; I was the ninth of twelve grandchildren. But on that trip, I was the only one. The day the three of us took off, I read Roald Dahl and paged through my activity book, switching from seat to seat in their big red van. They always traveled with all their own pillows, a few each, and I piled them all on the middle seat of the back row and climbed on top, riding high like the princess and the pea. My grandfather caught my reflection in the rear view mirror, tall and wobbly, swaying with every turn. He nudged my grandmother, who turned, saw me, and laughed.
Later, while they were getting unpacked and organized in our hotel room, I pulled out a huge dresser drawer, climbed inside, and called out, “I’ll sleep here!” By the time we got back from the trip, we had a litany of jokes that we’d recite between us, like a prayer, on every subsequent visit.
A few years later, not long after my family moved to Chicago, my grandfather had his first lung cancer surgery. It went well, and when he was in recovery my family gathered in our living room and passed the phone around. Usually, when we called them on holidays or quiet Saturday afternoons, we would each talk a few minutes with my grandmother, and my grandfather would call his hellos from the background. But today, we all talked directly to him, including my dad. My dad and my grandfather had always admired each other, always got along well for in-laws. But on the day of the surgery, as we all listened, hushed, to each other’s conversations with my grandfather, I exchanged wide-eyed looks of surprise with my sisters when our father said to him, “I love you, too.”
When it was my turn, though the “I love you” wasn’t new, the catch in my grandfather’s voice was. This man of logistics and laughter, cut grape vines and inexhaustible jokes, was crying in a hospital room three hundred miles away.
But then he recovered, and my grandparents hit the road again: for my sister’s high school graduation, for mine, for my college graduation, for a quick visit when I moved to Atlanta for graduate school, for other family gatherings, weddings and funerals. They moved down their country road to a smaller house, one story, with wide hallways and a chair lift to the basement. They hosted us for picnics, games of Rook, Thanksgivings, ping-pong. When I got married, they got back in the car and drove across the mountains for the wedding in Virginia. When our daughter was two and we were visiting them, my grandmother helped her into the chair lift so she could ride all the way down, all the way back up to the top.
When we got to Columbus, my husband and I unloaded the kids and made our way through the labyrinthine halls of the hospital to my grandfather’s room. He was sitting up a in chair for the first time in days. I sat on the bed so I could lean toward him as we chatted, my hand on his shoulder. When a hospital volunteer stopped in to see if anyone wanted a newspaper, I bought a USA Today and we worked on the crossword together.
Later, the doctor came in and drew us all a picture on the dry-erase board. “This is what a healthy lung looks like,” he said to my grandfather, “and this is what your lung looks like.” He scribbled to fill the lung with scar tissue like my daughter doing a coloring sheet in Sunday school. “It’s completely shut down.”
“Okay, doc. So how long do I have?” my grandfather asked, as if asking what time it was. “Days? Weeks?”
For the first time since entering, the doctor seemed human. “Oh, gosh, you could go on for months like this. I wouldn’t pack it in yet.”
We all heaped thanks on him as he left the room, as if he had issued a stay of execution out of the goodness of his heart. Then my grandfather, through tears, told us all that he loved us. He told us to live for the Lord. Then he told us that my sister had given him a jar of homemade pickles, and he wanted to have a pickle party together. We gathered around his bed, and passed the jar until everyone had one.
“Maybe you’ll remember this down through the years,” he said as we all ate together, “and maybe you’ll have a pickle party someday when you’re dying.”
A few hours later, it was time for us to go. “Come and see us when you can,” my grandfather told us. We lingered in the waiting room before leaving, catching up with my mom and sister and aunt. The kids climbed up and down the shiny upholstered chairs while we all traded stories.
My mom told us about the last couple of nights, which she had spent on a cot in my grandfather’s hospital room. He couldn’t sleep, she said, so she couldn’t either. He kept calling out to her for a sip of water or a change of position, asking her questions. A couple of times, he called her out of sleep because he wanted to tell her something. “I don’t want any more of that morphine,” he said. “It makes me funny.”
“Okay, Dad,” she told him every time. “We’ll talk to the doctor in the morning.”
One time he woke her, he was remembering the U.S.S. Arizona, all those sailors entombed in their ship a few feet below the surface of Pearl Harbor. The next time, he wanted to tell her about the ships that came back from the war carrying stacks of caskets in their holds. “They stacked them four by eight,” he told her. “All those boys, coming home.”
The next day, my husband and kids and I drove back across the mountains. It was almost spring, but it felt cold, the sky indecisive, spitting rain and snow indiscriminately. When we stopped for fuel, I checked my messages. I had one from my mom: my grandfather had been discharged; they were going home; hospice care was waiting, with everything he’d need to be comfortable. At a stop, I bought a coffee and donut for the road, milk and crackers for the kids. We rubbed our bleary eyes, turned up the heat, and got back on the road toward home.
Shea Tuttle writes poems, essays, recipes, letters, and grocery lists, and blogs about parenting and liturgy here. She lives in central Virginia with her husband, daughter, and son.