Christmas Day 2015

“Keep on doing what you’re doing”

Grandpa’s last words to me.

The diagnosis arrived by e-mail on Monday, March 14, 2016:

“We confirmed what we thought, which is that the cancer has spread significantly. It involves both adrenal glands, the lymph node nearest his airway, lung, pelvis and left femur. The biopsy indicated a fast growing variety of squamous cell cancer. Dr Oettel said that given how advanced the spread is, it has been active for at least the past two years. He said that his best estimation is that [grandpa] would live six months without treatment. There is no cure.”

As I boarded the flight from SFO to MSP on April 21st, I knew that this was not going to be an easy trip. Heading home to say goodbye to grandpa would be one of the more difficult things I’d face. I lost my other grandpa in 1993. I was 7 years old. For the next 23 years, I had one grandpa. I shared him with 17 other grandchildren, but he was still my grandpa.

Dad and I made the three hour drive to LaCrosse, Wisconsin. He was resting in the bedroom when we arrived. His second round of chemotherapy was the previous day and the significant toxicity permeated his 85-year old body. Grandpa was pale, frail, nauseous, and weak. Over the course of a weekend, I saw him eat two bites of steak, three bites of eggs, and few spoonfuls of cornflakes. His eyes filled with tears as he talked about the helpful visits from his kids and grandkids. Mostly, he slept. Perhaps most heartbreaking was his quiet decline to play our family’s favorite card game, euchre.

On Saturday morning, grandpa had enough energy to make a couple requests of my Dad. The first was to go outside and shake the crabapples off the tree so they could be swept away. The second was to trade in the two-year-old lawnmower for an “electric, self-propelling Toro.” Obsessed with his lawn in the later decades of his life, nothing would stop him from ensuring that the grass was in pristine condition, even after his departure.

I cried myself to sleep the last night there. It would be the last evening I’d fall asleep with both grandparents sleeping in the bedroom below me in the house that my dad grew up in. The next morning, I savored breakfast. French toast on a long slice of white bread from the freezer that grandpa had spent years perfecting in his bread machine. No one else except grandpa made bread of that shape, size or taste.

At noon on Sunday, it was time to depart. As grandpa gathered every last ounce of energy to stand for our final embrace, I tried to stay strong and stoic. I started to wrap up family members in warm hugs, but by the time I got to grandma, tears filled her eyes. I caught a glance of mom, crying as I wrapped my arms around the thinnest version of grandpa I’d ever hugged goodbye. We walked into the kitchen to head to the door. Aunt Betsy pulled me aside and simply asked, “Is there anything else you need to say to grandpa? We’re all out of the room now.”

I lost it.

Yes. There were things. I hesitated, sick that 30 years of thanks had to be forced into this painful last moment, saturated with sadness. I re-entered the living room, face full of tears. “I love you, grandpa.” Deeply pained by my sadness, grandpa took his final turn at comforting me, “You’re our shining star. Keep on doing what you’re doing [in life]. You’ll always be our number one. I love you, sweetie.”

It didn’t seem fair. The grandpa that was with me for 30 years — from the date I arrived on a plane from Korea, my confirmation and graduation, the day I left for college — was being taken from the world. He was supposed to meet and approve of and love my boyfriend in California. He was supposed to dance with grandma at my wedding and maybe even live to meet my future children. Saying goodbye meant erasing his physical presence from those visions of the future. I shook with an overwhelming sorrow.

I grabbed his hand and said for the last time, “I love you. Thank you for being my grandpa.”

Published in memorium of Richard James Meyer, 10/13/1930 — 6/9/2016