September and the End of Life

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The red horizon was pressing up against the darkening blue sky. Wispy clouds floated along the cool air. Soon the grass would cool beneath bare feet. Now was the best time to experience the crisp air.

He would never experience another day like this. It was beautiful outside his hosptial window. It was September. My swollen eyes gazed drearily out his window and I imagined myself walking in the courtyard below, my bare feet making circles in the grass and my face toward the sky. The sun would warm my face and dry my tears. I would close my eyes and see the red of light and breathe in as I did many times on the hill outside his house.

I spent many summer days playing outside my grandparent’s house.  I would scuffle up and down the hill littered with stones along the edge of their house and down to the small pool my grandfather purchased for my grandmother. I would frequently put my hot feet into the cold water and my body would involuntarily pull back. I would dance my feet lightly on the water’s surface as I took in my surroundings. This was one of my favorite places to be. A creek ran through the back of the property,  while numerous trees, bushes and flowering plants, mostly Mother’s Day gifts to my grandma, lined the edge of a field. Well manicured grass extended in both directions and behind me stood their little house on the very top of a hill. They sold the house the year of my high school graduation and it has since gone into disrepair. Nevertheless, some of the best memories of childhood still reside there.

I couldn’t return there or escape to the space below so I stared across the sprawling garden and over to the stained glass windows of the chapel. I closed my eyes and wondered if I should enter and fall to my knees before the alter. I would kneel until my knees hurt and my back ached if God would just take this day away. How could something so terrible happen on a day a vision to the contrary? Could I get him away from his bed and out to the garden below? I wanted the sun to warm his face. I wanted him to feel the grass and experience more than the space between the hospital walls before he would no longer have the opportunity.  Maybe I could ask to move his bed next to the window. With multiple lines feeding his veins I knew it was impossible. His fingers were turning blue and his blood pressure was slowly dropping.

I had never before experienced the anticipation of death. It was awful and cruel. I told myself to be brave. I would stand at the window or wander down the hall in a futile attempt to collect myself and accept what was happening. I tried to fool myself into thinking I had been through plenty of hardship and could be an example of strength. My eyes would flit around the shocked faces surrounding his bed and I accepted the weakness we all shared. Every face was distraught and terrified. Many could hardly speak. I did not want to accept it but I pleaded for the day to end. My mind looped, “I can’t do this.” Then I would try to rationalize my thoughts so I could quickly return to his bedside. We had spent several hours watching him try desperately to acknowledge our presence despite his own agony. We knew the inevitable finish to this normally beautiful day was creeping closer with every tick of the clock. He stopped trying to speak and stopped opening his eyes. The clock grew louder and it became difficult to ignore amidst the deafening silence.

The awareness of death was strange knowledge. My grandmother paced the halls and nervously fidgeted. She could hardly stand to stay in the room and watch over sixty years of her life slip away. We prayed,  shared stories, and told him we would be okay. My mom tenderly cared for her father and only briefly left his side. She undoubtedly suppressed her own fear to make sure his hands were held, he was comfortable, and aware of her love. I wondered how someone who always took up such a large part of my life could be reduced to a small space aloft a hospital bed. We sat in a circle surrounding his bed, holding his hands, touching his feet, and crying until my mom raised her head from his chest and sad, “He’s gone.” It felt like we all exhaled simultaneously in disbelief and our breath lingered stale in the room. It was over and so was more than eighty years of a meaningful life. A part of me also died with my grandfather as happens with all those who share our lives. It was sad to think that his memories, experiences, and wisdom just died with him.

We stayed for an hour. My grandma started calling loved ones shortly after his passing. Her busy hands didn’t make a happy heart but it helped her deal with her new reality. I kissed his forehead and held his hand while he was still warm. His head was moist from fever. I told him that I loved him and hoped he would somehow hear me. This was one of the most defining losses in my life.

I have lost others I have loved. My uncle (my mom’s brother) died unexpectedly three years prior as did my paternal grandfather, but I was very close to he and my grandmother. I spent a great deal of time at their home and it became a place of refuge for me. That comfort was now broken and so was my grandma.

The day he died was gorgeous. I often try to imagine him rising above his bed and lingering in that courtyard outside his window. Maybe he went into the chapel and prayed for all of us still lingering beside his broken body. Maybe in our sadness he was freed and as joyful as he had ever been. Death is an awful truth none of us can avoid or understand until we are looking out to the broken faces surrounding our own deathbed. Maybe I too will be released from life in a hospital bed like my grandpa or at home like my uncle but it really doesn’t matter. What matters is who will surround us when it is time. I would be so blessed to pass like my grandpa. It was awful for those who joined him on his last day but he did not face it alone. The love of family gathered with him on that beautiful September day and remained to his earthly end. My grandma recently told me that she is starting to forget things about my grandpa. I told her it is more important to remember how he made her feel. It is hard to forget the warmth of a loved one.

This was the first time I had been at another’s passing. On the drive to the hospital I had no doubt what I would witness and I knew it would change me. I returned home that night eager to embrace my family. I had an earnest desire to enjoy those I love because my time with my grandpa wasn’t long enough. I wanted to keep everyone within my reach but it didn’t last. I also began to forget and a part of me has yet to accept. It will eventually sink in and I will inescapably be in the throes of grief. For now, I am reminding myself of how fast a life ended on that September day. Today I try to enjoy what time I have been given. I am sure the morning he walked into the hospital for surgery, he didn’t realize he would never leave. He had come in the doors and felt the last breeze on his face, slept his last night in his own bed, and took the last steps to a completion of life. He was a faithful man and I know there was more for him beyond his death but he didn’t want to die. Most people don’t. There is always more to do and another life to touch. There are more gorgeous days to see and grass begging to be tread upon. It is time for me to stop looking out the window and take in life.

*d*

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