A 30 year love story
on death, goodbyes, and staying alive
About two weeks ago, I said good-bye to my Grandpa.
I’m heartbroken, alive, grateful, tired. Here I am, in modern society, where death is feared and little is done to honor and worship our elders in a public way. I offer this newsletter as an ode to Grandpa. I offer it with joy and gratitude mixed with many tears from the past few weeks.
Writing in past tense doesn’t quite feel right, and I’ll probably mix it up. Partly because I’m still processing, and partly because even in accepting his death, I believe he is still here. So enjoy my creative grammar.
Grandpa and I are sweethearts. We have loved each other our whole lives through change and aging. And as special as it has felt, being his sweetheart was not a special role, reserved only for a select few or protected by rules and expectations. Grandpa had/has multitudes of sweethearts. Something that inspires and soothes my polyamorous heart. For Grandpa, this wasn’t a consciously radical act (and he was absolutely devoted to my Grandmother), but he loved so big and so generously in ways that change you. This is a glimpse of our love story.
In August 2021, I started regularly caring for Grandpa. Twice a week I’d cross town to spend mornings with him at his independent-living senior apartment. We found a rhythm: I cook breakfast, he eats while I clean, do laundry, change the cat litter, we watch day time TV and listen to music, he asks me questions about current events, how all my siblings are doing. Domestic bliss.
When we first started these mornings together, I felt that I needed Grandpa more than he needed me. My emotional landscape was overwhelming and my capacity to ~keep my shit together~ felt thin and fragile. I craved simple tasks and a schedule, someone outside of myself to care for. Grandpa was a happy recipient.
This time together was an incredible gift. I knew it all along, even if voices of doubt snuck in from time to time, questioning if I should be achieving more or working somewhere else. I knew how special it was to care for someone who has cared for and loved me since the day I was born. With grandpa, the mundanity of each day was a delight to relish in. And sometimes, we surprised each other with something special - I offered him a foot massage, he asks if I’d like to dance.
Recently, I learned that Grandpa was voted Best Dancer in high school. This was a side of him I had never really experienced growing up. Thrilled to learn this, I cling to it as a part of the breadcrumb trail of my own path as an artist and dance floor lover. Once this past summer, we got to dance in public at a restaurant in Little Italy. Grandpa initiates, “want to dance?” *raises eyebrows* and I’m like “Absolutely!” as my parents observe cautiously. A youthful, bold energy shown through his 90 year old body. Maybe it’s the dementia that removes any inhibition (and memory that he needs a walker to get around). But dance, we did! And damn, Grandpa knows what he’s doing!! While at times I kept him upright, I could feel in his hands and arms a deep knowing and confidence - he’s done this many times, and he can spin a lady around no problem. Thank God for this dance.
I grew up right across the street from my grandparents, a rare setup in the American suburbs and incredibly helpful for my parents during child rearing years. My mom tells the story of my birth and Grandpa’s eagerness for his first granddaughter, showing up to the hospital mid-labor, asking if I had arrived yet. Grandpa made me grilled cheese after half-day kindergarten, drove me and my siblings to our extracurriculars, fixed our broken appliances and cooked dinner. Grandpa was a crucial part of the village necessary for raising us kids in this wild world, and it has been/is an honor to be a part of the village my family provided him in his final chapter in this earthly form.
In preparing for my travels this summer, saying good-bye to Grandpa was hard at the time. I knew that, one way or the other, I would return to a different Grandpa as his dementia was progressing. There was some guilt for leaving, but I knew I had to go. Grandma was watching over both of us.
A few weeks ago, returning to Cleveland was returning to Grandpa in the hospital. A fall had landed him with a broken hip - not great. As alive as he felt to us, his body and mind were in a fragile place. This was a very difficult time, for Grandpa and for our whole family.
Transitioning to hospice became the clear, but difficult next step. My aunt accompanied Grandpa as medical transporters took him to a familiar hospice organization, and all of gathered for almost a week at his bedside. I have always had a soft spot for this hospice, resting right on the shores of Lake Erie. It’s right in the thick of life happening – a school and neighborhood nearby, a hospital right next door, park benches, birds, and the big gorgeous lake that feels as wide as an ocean. Years ago around high school, I worked at the hospital right next door as nutrition staff. Memories surface of dark, early mornings driving down 185th street to the blustery shore, joining the kitchen staff in preparing and delivering food to patients. I knew that this hospice building right next door was a place where people go to die. It intrigued me at the time, and something about it felt warm, simple, and loving.
At hospice, we all can partake in the giving and receiving of care. We tend to Grandpa’s dying body, we tend to each other’s tears and spirits. We had a beautiful week, sunset streaming through our window, air fresh and cold, a spirited lake, sloshing on the rocks. This time at hospice is sweetly swimming around in my consciousness, raw and recent, private and intimate, but some truths emerge from my heart.
The death bed is a great gift. So much death is too sudden, unexpected or violent: loved ones transitioning before anyone can gather or wrap their minds and hearts around what is happening. This space and time is sacred and invaluable. To gather, cry, laugh, share stories, forgive, be angry, question, reflect - it might not be pretty or satisfying, but damn, it’s a gift.
The death bed is uncomfortable and raw. Emotions dance around the room, bubbling up and diffusing with our attention. We’re faced with something we can’t change. The vulnerability and intimacy of being human - the care that we need when entering and exiting this earth. We are all caregivers here.
The death bed is timeless. Minutes can be a lifetime, no amount of time is enough. This container - the room, the time, the people, the phone calls – exist eternally in our memory.
Hmmm I wonder how this will change me/us, I wonder what memories will sink in most strongly or how they will change with time.
I am sleeping generously, letting it all sink in. I wake up grateful for the ease of breath and my moving body, for time and food and quiet moments in my apartment. I drink water and coffee, and time marches on.
p.s. I’m feeling drawn to write with more consistency, so I’ll say it out loud to give myself some encouragement. Expect to hear from me Fridays before noon. Every week or every other? that will reveal itself to me as I sink into new rhythms.