It was a rare, nice afternoon this past August in Kansas; warm and breezy enough to sit outside. Grandpa had organized a park bench he’d just bought two months earlier, a couple of lawn chairs, and a small table in a half-circle under a large tree in his backyard; that’s where I would unknowingly spend my last Sunday afternoon with him.
With my daughter running carefree around the yard, I sat with Grandpa and my husband and talked. We talked about absolutely nothing in particular - maybe I fawned over the gargantuan English cucumbers he’d planted just for me, or made small talk about the upcoming college football season, or what funny thing his little dog had done recently.
What I know now that I didn’t know then was that his ticket had been stamped. Death had rapped its gnarled hand on his door and we were unwittingly spiraling to the bottom of a dark path. Today he’s been gone exactly six months. Half a year without him in my life, and yet, as his executor, he’s a painfully present part of every single day. The guy gets more mail than I do!
I should have known something was up that day, but having never truly experienced death before, and most likely rejecting the thought somewhere deep in my mind, I didn’t pursue the notion.
When we arrived that morning, I heard him speak with a weak, gravely voice and watched him stumble delicately on to the front porch to greet us, gripping the porch rails - my heart practically stopped. I knew, and yet still, I made no effort to face that reality. He spoke of being ill for almost two weeks, not keeping any food down for 9 days, and a host of other less than pleasant effects from his head to his toes.
“I went to the doctor. They ran some tests and scans. They found a mass in my colon. But I was too tired and grumpy by the time the doctor came to discuss it so I left,” he barely mumbled.
Naturally I asked if it was cancer and he quickly dismissed it. “No, no no.” He invited me to go for the follow-up appointment two days later and we’d figure it all out then.
And for some reason, this curmudgeonly old man with zero medical experience dismissing cancer was good enough for me.
At the end of that afternoon we hugged goodbye, said the I love yous and see you laters, and headed home. I know now that I wasted that afternoon. I had three hours with my very living grandfather to ask questions, or even have a conversation with more substance than cucumbers. But how could I know? The reality we all face is that, we can never know.
I got to the doctor’s appointment early, and the nurses didn’t quell my fears, saying they’d made several calls to him that day with no answer. The nurses had told me the doctor had a death in the family and he needed to leave early. “Can your grandpa be here in the next 10 minutes?” I tried to call and got no answer, but assured them he was on his way. The guy was never late for anything. I begged them, practically hands-and-knees begged them to have the doctor stay. I impressed how sick he was and that we had to see someone that day.
I felt incredible relief when I saw his giant SUV roll in; and then the dread turned to fear when I watched him drag himself across the parking lot. There wasn’t much of him, barely any larger than me two weeks prior, his petite frame looked thin, sick, pale, weak.
He looked like he was dying. Apparently, he was.
The doctor generously sat down with us; I thanked him profusely for taking the time.
Grandpa and the doctor joked around a bit about how one was a “stubborn old man” and the other was “ a mean son of a bitch.” I tried to not pull my thumbnail off of the skin to which it was attached.
There were no romantic segues. The doctor didn’t mix words.
“You have colon cancer that I believe has spread to your liver.”
You have cancer pounded in my head in a decrescendo of water-logged sound that pulled me out of my body. My blood ran like ice.
I’d never heard these words before. Not in person, not from a doctor, and not directed at anyone I knew so closely. I remember sitting there thinking, “So, that’s what that sounds like.”
My Grandpa wasn’t a crier and I needed to be strong for both of us. Maybe? That seemed right at the time. I practically pulled the tears out of the back side of my head. I couldn’t let them fall. I couldn’t let him know I was the most scared I’d ever been because I didn’t want him to be.
What neither of us knew, what the doctor didn’t know, was that with that diagnosis, the egg timer had been flipped. He’d be dead and gone 52 hours later.
He looked surprised, but for a 75-year-old man who’d had a heart attack (his second) and quad-bypass 14 months earlier, diabetes for more than a decade, a hearing aid, and a love of cheap vodka and cigarettes and cheaper red meat and pork, none of us could be too surprised.
We had our first argument - the doctor wanted him admitted to the hospital immediately, he wanted to go home and situate the dogs and pack a bag (I need my checkbook, laptop, electric razor…). He wasn’t budging, so I drove behind him the 30 minutes back to his house. I’ve never cried so hard in my life. The entire drive I didn’t just cry out loud, some sort of howling bark forced itself out of my chest while I cried so hard I’m still not sure how I didn’t drive off the road.
Imagine Dragons’ Radioactive came on the radio and I found meaning in those lyrics I’d never recognized before, and when you draw those connections, the song never sounds the same. Not even six months later.
I'm waking up to ash and dust … he wants to be cremated.
Welcome to the new age, to the new age … in which my Grandpa has cancer, in which he’s dead.
I'm radioactive … because his body is full of chemo.
This is where my head was. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t process, I couldn’t deal.
Three hours later I checked him in to the hospital having pulled over three times on the way to watch him get sick out the passenger door, watched him drag his last cigarette, send his last email, and give me one last letter to put in the mail.
I think he knew that by checking in he was checking out.
I did not, though. I was clinging to the exploratory colonoscopy he’d have two days later and we’d learn more, put together a treatment plan, and move past this.
Twelve hours later, I called the nurse to check on him. “I think you should come up here; things have taken quite a turn.” His kidneys had started early signs of failure and a host of other problems had surfaced.
“I’m not going to make it,” he said flatly when I walked in. “Well, none of us are,” was my snappy response. This was how we talked, always. A constant volley of out-sarcasming one another.
He wasn’t joking though, and since we were rarely serious, I didn’t catch it.
We had 42 hours left and I sat in a chair and kept on top of work emails while he dozed in and out of consciousness. My husband waited nearby in the cafeteria where he was also working, until I sent a text that said, “Get in here now.”
The nurse said he had free air in his abdomen - in other words, his colon had ruptured and we were in the throes of a life or death situation. Our options were to have surgery to repair, at which point we’d be transferred to a larger hospital back in Wichita, or they would “make him comfortable this afternoon.” He asked if he could think about it, the nurse told him he had five minutes to decide. We were told the surgery would leave him with a colostomy bag, among other things they would do to try and save his fading life.
He asked me what to do, and through a few tears I squeaked out, “I’m not ready to say goodbye.”
I was still not aware that he was actively dying in front of my eyes and I didn’t take a single moment to tell him how much I loved him, how much he meant to me, what a strong, supportive presence he’d been in my life, how grateful I was for the wit and sarcasm he’d passed down to me. I just shrugged. My husband made a reasonable argument for the surgery, citing “there’s a chance.” And with that, we put him in an ambulance and chased him south.
I made updated phone calls; this time with more urgency and requirements to come to town immediately.
Situated in the ICU, we lost his last precious conscious hours. I checked email, kept siblings updated, provided history to the staff. Executor duties I’d naively held for eight years were coming to life as he was losing his. It kept me busy and my mind occupied far from the reality in front of me. When it was time for surgery, I kissed his salty, bald forehead, told him I loved him, and said we’d see him soon.
I did see him again, but that was the last time he saw me. Even when he regained consciousness the next afternoon he had no idea who I was or where he was. “Get me out of here” was all he could barely whisper once the chest tube was removed. With eight hours left on his fragile life, my brother, sister and I took turns standing at his bedside.
I stroked the few inches of skin that wasn’t buried under tubes, tape, and needles. I told him he came through the surgery just fine; the surgeon was really pleased with the outcome, even though it confirmed a stage four colon cancer that had metastasized. The doctors were talking “treatment plans” while I swabbed his desperately dry mouth with the little water they’d allow. I told him I loved him and to hang in there and that he was being well cared for. But his hearing aids weren’t in so he didn’t hear me.
At 4:00, we met with a resident who told us “Where we are today and where we were yesterday is a great improvement. We’ll let him recover and look at moving to a private room this weekend.” We were exhausted and encouraged to go home, rest, and eat. So we did. I squeezed his hand and saw him alive for the last time.
At a few minutes before 9pm, while raucously enjoying Anchorman, the phone rang. “The situation is critical, please come up.” My brother drove me, and not nearly fast enough, to the hospital. He dropped me at the door, then parked. And I ran.
My God I ran so hard and so fast I nearly pushed someone off a gurney. I was violently shaking when the elevator doors opened, but then I froze when the chaplain waiting for me.
He gently walked me back to the ICU, and once inside those protected doors, pushed open the consultation room next to the nurse’s station. I drug my feet in to the carpet like a dog who back-peddles being dragged in to the vet. I knew full well what that room’s purpose was for.
On the saddest floor of the hospital, in the saddest room in the world, they let me know that he was on life support. I let them know that he was DNR (it had never come up earlier). The doctor said “I’ll be right back,” and I knew he was going to unplug my Grandpa.
That was it. My brother joined me minutes later, in time for the official death declaration. He was stoic. I was so proud of him. He held me so warmly and so closely and let my soul collapse inside of me. My husband arrived a few minutes later and took over the job. My mom and sister weren’t arriving fast enough, but when they did, they joined us next to his bed.
No words were spoken. I turned to see my baby sister rush to his bedside and made eye contact. I just gave her a look, a tear-soaked look and shook my head. It was horrible seeing her take in that news. My mom hugged us. We all gathered together around his bed and I placed my hand on top of his heart, a heart that hours before still beat with what I thought was a lot of promise.
We told him thank you for never missing a Christmas. We thanked him for always being there. We thanked him for being our Grandpa.
We said all the things you say to someone if you know they have 52 hours to live. And still, then and in the hours leading up to that dreaded moment, I forgot to say goodbye. The words never left my mouth.
The last lesson that old man left me to figure out was death. I’ve never done it before; 32 years old and my family was in tact.
Seventeen days later my favorite grandmother/person on earth died in the same hospital. I forgot to tell her goodbye, too.
Apparently this is one lesson you don’t learn quickly nor easily.