Issue 21 / Spring 2020
I remember my grandfather happy. I remember how he cheered as he drove us up the hill in his front yard in the small town of Hope, New Jersey. His John Deere Tractor going up, up, up, so we could sled down the snowy mountain only to go to the top again and again. I remember the smile that spread across his face when Sleeping Beauty kissed him on the cheek at Disney World, leaving a bright red lipstick mark on his wrinkled skin. I remember his laugh, a mix of an owl’s call and Santa Claus, when water drenched our shirts after riding the log flume at Knoebel’s two times in a row, the amusement park two hours from us, in Elysburg, Pennsylvania, never too far away.
When my grandfather passed away, I couldn’t hear his laugh for a while. Instead, I pictured him in the nursing home where he spent the last few months of his life. I imagined the man that couldn’t remember my name and almost spilled his food every time he held his plate on a slant. I heard the scuffing sound of his slippers on the carpet because he couldn’t lift his feet. I tried to remember the good times, and when I posted about them on social media, I remembered the happiness that engulfed us during those moments and cried. For days after he passed, I thought of the good times, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the bad. Sometimes I felt I couldn’t mourn the same person. One night, I’d grieve for one man, one with a laugh so distinct I felt I’d never forget it, and the next, another man whose laugh was so distant I feared I’d lose it entirely.
Recently, my grandfather, James Grant, passed away on October 2, 2018, early in the morning, in a bed that wasn’t his, surrounded by faces he didn’t know. He was eighty-five.
A year, almost to the day, has passed since I lost Grandpa. Yet, “recently” is a word that I always attach to his passing. To some, the phrase may mean as early as yesterday. “I lost my grandfather recently,” I say, until I realize it wasn’t as near as I think. A year has elapsed, with changes without much fuss from the family, the alterations nothing to them but something new. But the big events and family gatherings for me, the traditions I always looked forward to, suddenly shifted. Thanksgiving passed where we went out to eat at a restaurant for the first time in years instead of cooking at home. Christmas Day came with combined families instead of two separate houses on separate days, an empty chair at the end of the couch where Grandpa would open his Subway gift cards and chocolate-covered cherries. A summer with no swimming pool, tomato garden, or duck-watching. They disappeared along with him, leaving the yard and home emptier. These changes snuck up on me, and instead of splashing in the above-ground pool, looking for pennies that were thrown into the water, shielding my face as Grandpa did a cannonball right into the center of the circle, I looked out the window facing the backyard and saw the open land, bigger now than it ever looked before.
I talked to Grandpa on these days, the holidays or times I felt particularly reminiscent. I talked to his ashes on the hutch above the TV where he would watch Penn State football and The Jets. Grandma and Mom finished cooking lunch or dinner in the kitchen while Dad, Uncle Brian, and my brother Chase watched sports in the living room. I wandered into the room adjacent to the living room, Grandpa’s room as we called it, and stood in front of his ashes.
“Hi, Grandpa,” I whispered. Whispering made it feel as if it were just me and him, as though he was still here, sitting in the same spot, listening to the family in the background as we cooked then played dominoes at the kitchen table before dessert.
While standing in front of the ashes, I re-read the note placed next to the box: a Facebook post I had written after a band concert my junior year of high school that Mom then printed, cut out, and framed and gave to Grandpa as a gift paired with a picture of me and him after the concert. In the photo he stands with his arm around me, wearing his favorite sweatshirt with a trumpet logo on it. A snapshot of a time before his Primary Progressive Aphasia, a form of dementia, started to really affect him.
Reminiscing about this time, I tried not to cry, not there, knowing anyone could walk into the room. I didn’t want them to see me upset, and then I’d have to explain why I was sad, not knowing for sure why I was. For them, the grieving process had ended, and we talked, and still talk about Grandpa together, making jokes of what he would say if he was still sitting in his spot at the end of the table, which is now often occupied by Uncle Brian’s Dachshund, Maggie.
“Grandpa is rolling around in his grave right now,” I say when she hops into the seat, perching like a meerkat. I realize soon after that that isn’t possible because there wasn’t a grave to roll around in. “He’d be yelling,” I say after, somewhat correcting myself, somewhat simply contributing more to the conversation. I imagine his scrunched face shooing Maggie from the table. Dad sometimes mimics Grandpa’s scoffing and we laugh at the accuracy, the mumbled swearing mixed with jumbled words that never quite came out right. We laugh in good fun, knowing if he was here, we’d be doing the same thing, watching as he’d dribble his Chinese food down his chin, as he’d always do at the end, picking almost everything up with his fingers, and blowing his nose into his napkin there at the dinner table. I always hated that, but now it makes me laugh.
A second picture sits on the hutch next to the first, this one of Grandpa’s face that Grandma printed out and put on the box of ashes. The box is a reminder that there was no funeral, and no proper goodbye, at least for me. The black-and-white, zoomed in too much, photo of Grandpa in his sunglasses provides some solace, waiting for me to talk to him every time we visit Grandma, waiting for me to say hello, and then goodbye.
After Grandpa passed away, Grandma put the box of ashes in the closet. I suppose because she was too sad to look at it, or maybe she just hadn’t found a good spot for him yet. Grandma said she heard Grandpa’s voice that night, talking to her, telling her to move the box. Both she and I fully believe it was him, that he was not happy being put away like that, being stripped away from his home yet again. Grandpa wasn’t ready to be forgotten. Grandma moved the box to his living room.
Recently, I began to think, and even overthink, about my grief, something I have never really done before. When my great-grandparents, Nannie and Pop-Pop Eckhart, passed away years ago, I didn’t grieve. There was a funeral, I’ve been told, but neither me nor my brother went. I had assumed until now that there was no funeral. I don’t remember there being mention of one, or it being a big deal. I only remember when I was told Nannie Eckhart died.
“Oh, did I tell you Nannie Eckhart passed away?” Mom had said nonchalantly in the car one day. I don’t remember where we were going, and I don’t remember the conversation before or after. I only remember that phrase.
“No, you didn’t,” I said, stunned at the tone in her voice. I think I asked her questions, how, when, and what came next, but I don’t remember the answers. I remember the questions I asked myself though, wondering mostly, why a death wasn’t a bigger deal. Weren’t people supposed to be more sad when someone died, especially a relative? Were they sad but I just didn’t see it? A short time later, Pop-Pop Eckhart passed away too. That too, I don’t remember, the why and how forgotten just as before. I don’t remember how I was told or if he was cremated or buried. Instead of grieving, I found myself asking more and more questions to myself about their death, wondering if I should’ve been sad, or if I should’ve felt guilty that I wasn’t. I wondered what was right or wrong, how others grieved, how I should’ve been grieving too. I thought a first, personal experience of death should be impactful, but I felt nothing more than a minute of sadness. I didn’t really know my great-grandparents. I don’t know the year they were married or how they spent their days. We went over to their house every so often to play cards, but I don’t know what we talked about. Not knowing someone as well, even if it’s family, makes the death easier to handle, a different way of grieving, but I still felt I was missing something because I didn’t feel sad.
Sometimes I picture Nannie and Pop-Pop Eckhart’s house; the maroon carpets and stairs lined with antiques I feared I would break every time I made my way to the bathroom, and the basement that was cold but held many treasures, like a plastic flower that danced when you put it in the sun. The realness of their house, and their lives, have since drifted away, their lives a memorial rather than recollection. They seem like a dream now. For Grandpa, it feels like neither, like he’ll reappear at any moment, like he never really left.
Grandma met Grandpa in a bowling alley on a Friday night. I imagine the meeting based on Grandma’s retellings. James, a man thirteen years older than the woman across the lane, loses focus of the bowling league he plays with to eye the beautiful woman with short brown hair and brown eyes bowling in the next lane over. Legally separated from his spouse, he takes the opportunity to talk to her. They flirt for a while, but Gail says no to a date, even though she’s been flirting back for the past hour.
“I came with my friend,” she says. “I should leave with her.” But that doesn’t stop her from going back to the alley often, looking for him and the glasses of Coca-Cola with the many cherries in it that she knew he drank, the ones she knew he always left on the table while he bowled. I can’t help but wonder if he did this on purpose, leaving her a message that he was waiting for her too.
The two dated a mere ten months before getting married, a time frame that now seems too short to really know someone. James and Gail met in May, they were married by the following March, and Gail was pregnant with my mom by April. Gail, only twenty-four, was eager to have a baby and was happy when James felt the same way. He was thirty-seven, so they tried right away.
“If it’s a girl, we don’t have to have another,” Gail had said. James already had two kids from his previous marriage, two boys, creating a family tree that would take hours to get through due to its complexity. They had my mom, and then my uncle a few years later, ignoring her comment. They were married for forty-eight years before he died.
Grandpa was a business agent who tried to find work for other men. When he retired, he worked in a greenhouse less than two miles from their house. He’d bring home flowers for Grandma whenever she wanted and would take me and Chase there often. We’d ride on the tractor, rarely taking the car. Grandpa would show us the rows of flowers and explain the names of each one, though I much preferred looking than learning. I’d run away from the bees that buzzed around the bright petals and he’d laugh. When we were done, we’d go back to the house and tell mom about it, probably with a flower in hand, even if it was one that I picked from a bouquet.
We’ve rarely seen Grandpa’s first family, but there were few vacations where we’d meet them for a large family gathering. We’d go to Kings Dominion, an amusement park in Virginia, where it only took a short time for us kids to become friends, for the time being, going on as many roller coasters and water slides as possible.
Grandpa never neglected his first kids. His first wife had moved away, but at the family gatherings he picked up right where he left off with his children, making all of the grandchildren laugh as we walked throughout the park. I felt though, that Grandpa loved Chase and me the most. In his garage workstation, there still hangs a picture of me as a baby, which he’d stare at while working on a project. Tears would well in his eyes as he opened the same birthday present every year: a calendar I spent all year working on with pictures of the family covering every page. Grandma would look over his shoulder as he flipped through the pages. He had buttons with me and my brother’s faces on them that he would wear to our football games, me in the stands with the band, and Chase on the field. He asked me every time I saw him when he could watch me perform.
“One more month, Grandpa,” I’d say in July. “The first game is in August.”
“Oh, that long?” He’d ask, his face dropping.
Besides a few outdated pictures on the fridge, I never really heard of, or from, the other side of the family. I wondered about them, but also never really cared that we didn’t see them often. Perhaps I didn’t want to share Grandpa. All of the acts that he did for my brother and I, to me, showed his love, like when he would slip me a few dollars before we left my grandparent’s house, telling me not to tell Grandma. Maybe I was just happy, imagining that he loved me most, and I still let myself believe it because it makes my memories even better. Maybe I didn’t, and still don’t, want to lose moments like those, moments that were ours and ours alone. Maybe he did actually love me the most, but I’ll never quite know for sure.
According to Grandma, Grandpa wasn’t always the affectionate type. When the two started dating, he’d show her off, his younger, beautiful girlfriend, though as the years went on, he stopped. After twenty years of marriage, he finally gave Grandma a rose she hadn’t asked for and she just about fell over. He stopped holding her hand and didn’t kiss her in public. I can see this, the image of Grandpa I knew who had a scowl on his face whenever dinner was served. But, I also can’t believe the person that made me kiss him through the chain link fence at a football game in front of all my friends, wasn’t happy with public affection. I think of the times he’d pick me up in the living room to ring the bell next to the hutch that was just out of my reach and how he’d be the first to greet me after a concert, never failing to pull me into a bear hug. He never yelled or scoffed at me like he did others near the end when he couldn’t serve himself, and I know if he could, he would still pick me up to ring the bell, even though I’m tall enough now. I remember Grandpa’s affection towards me vividly, holding those happy memories close, thinking of them whenever I think of him.
I started to notice Grandpa’s lack of affection more as the illness progressed. I watched as the Primary Progressive Aphasia, which I had been calling dementia for years, slowly changed him. After Grandpa’s stroke, the Aphasia got worse, the syndrome altering his language capabilities and memories more and more each day. I watched, without fully understanding, as he forgot the names of words and got more angry each time he couldn’t remember one. He’d become angry with himself, then at whoever he was talking to because they couldn’t understand. I wanted to understand so badly, hoping for the words to slip effortlessly out of his mouth again, holding onto the beginning of the word myself, waiting for him to say it. I watched him, frustrated, give up and slump in his seat. I knew he wasn’t mad at me. I’m pretty sure he was trying to compliment me. I felt the frustration toward the disease that was replacing Grandpa with someone I didn’t recognize, making me doubt that I knew the man sitting in front of me. This, I believe, is the moment I started to grieve for the loss of my happy, young, illness-free grandfather, even if I didn’t realize it at the time.
My first dog, Bailey, passed away during my sophomore year of high school when she was seventeen years old. We knew it would happen eventually, but after years of growing up with her, her death never seemed truly real. Three days after Christmas, I came down the stairs to Mom holding Bailey and crying. Mom rarely cries. I was immediately scared.
Bailey had a stroke in the middle of the night. When Dad told me we were going to the vet, I quickly got dressed, nothing else going through my mind other than “she’ll be okay, she’ll be okay, she’ll be okay.” I threw on a pink hoodie but didn’t bother to change the pink polar bear-patterned pajama pants I was wearing. I wasn’t thinking clearly, and the thought of actually losing her never crossed my mind. She had to be okay.
I don’t remember the drive to the vet or what time in the morning it was. After pacing around the vet’s office, not being able to sit still for what felt like hours, Mom came into the waiting room. Bailey had to be put down.
I cried while moving from one end of the waiting room to the other and finally sunk to my knees in the women’s restroom, not caring that the other people in the waiting room were listening to my sobs. I couldn’t be in the room when they put Bailey to sleep, so I cried outside, saying goodbye before leaving the room, watching Dad hold her while Mom pet her head softly. Looking back, I wish I was there while she passed. It was selfish of me, I think, to not have been with her, letting my grief blind me from what she needed. I can only imagine the fear she felt in that moment. At least she was surrounded by the people she loved, and who loved her back.
When I got home, I went straight to my room and cried for hours, whimpering through the headache that wouldn’t go away because my mom refused to give me Advil until I ate something, which I refused to do because that required going downstairs. I just wanted to cry alone. I remember my mom coming upstairs to fold laundry and her hearing me sob through my closed door.
“Jordyn, you have to stop crying,” she said through the door. “Okay? It’s okay.” But this only made me cry more, for what reason I’m not sure. My parents stopped crying, but I’ll never forget their faces as we sat in the tiny room with Bailey lying in their arms. I was the last to stop crying. I was the last to stop crying for Grandpa too, my family’s grief so different from mine it made it even harder to process. I didn’t understand how they could stop themselves from crying when that’s all I felt I could do.
Bailey was surrounded by people she loved, gone in a second, unexpected. Grandpa’s illness prepared the family, allowing them to slowly say goodbye over time. For me, it was sudden, both a loss I wasn’t expecting. I cried for Grandpa, for the suddenness, and when I cried for him, and I don’t think I ever really stopped.
On a Tuesday morning in October, I sat in my Small Press class thinking about lunch and the meeting I had right after, zoning in and out of the lecture I don’t remember the topic of. Tuesday mornings were never particularly interesting, and I had zoned out when I heard my phone buzz on the desk in front of me. Something about the phone, the curiosity of the screen faced down, told me to check, despite being in the middle of a lecture. Mom’s name flashed across the screen before disappearing. When I unlocked my phone and opened the message, my body froze, and an audible gasp escaped my lips. I reread the text a few times. Of the longer message, a paragraph long, only certain few phrases stuck out. Grandpa died this morning… What? You don’t have to do anything. No… There won’t be a service. Why? Text grandma when you can. My mind grew fuzzy, not quite grasping what it was reading. The gentleness of the message, explaining what happened, not in a cruel way, but simply an explanation, was lost to me in that moment.
Kayla, one of my best friends, looked over at me, presumably hearing me gasp, confused at the shocked expression on my face.
“My grandpa died,” I whispered. I’m not sure if I didn’t want to disrupt the class, or if I couldn’t get out the words, my body not caring which. Her face fell as I got up from my chair and made my way to the bathroom. I didn’t think it would hit me that hard. I was anticipating this; my whole family was. We knew Grandpa wasn’t doing well, that he was getting skinnier and skinnier in the nursing home, that he could barely speak, but as I made my way to the bathroom, all the air in my chest escaped me and my eyes watered. I went into the handicapped stall and cried, gasping for breath between sobs. You knew it was coming, you knew this was coming, you knew…I kept repeating the phrase over and over in my head, as if that would make the tears stop. I pictured Grandpa’s face and caught myself from sliding down the wall when someone came in.
I opened the door to the stall after recognizing the voice. There in the bathroom, Kayla let me cry on her shoulder, and I did, yet I was fully aware that I would have to go back to class looking like a mess and endure the rest of the day the same way. After a minute, she told me to grab my stuff and leave, but I was adamant about going back to class. I thought it best to be distracted rather than grieve, at least in that moment. To me, there wasn’t time to. It would come later.
I wiped the mascara off my cheeks and went back to the classroom, eyes still puffy and red, hands shaking. I fought with myself, wondering if it was the right decision, hating that it probably wasn’t, that people might see this as foolish or wrong. But then again, nothing that day seemed right.
I went about the day, though tears always threatened to ruin my makeup even more. I worked on a group project after lunch and met up with one of my partners in the stairwell before meeting the rest of the group in a study room.
“Hey Jordyn, how are you?” I didn’t know how to respond.
“Not good,” I said numbly. I expected a generic “that sucks” in return.
“Why’s that?” I found myself wanting to answer, genuinely answer, rather than brushing him off. I said what I had already said out loud, but it still didn’t feel real.
“My grandpa died today.” His smile dropped to a frown.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Are you sure you want to be here?” I didn’t. Of course I didn’t.
“No,” I said with an exasperated sigh that mixed with a laugh, “but we have to do this, and I’d rather be distracted right now.”
I didn’t cry during the meeting or in my next class, though my body wanted me too. I forced the feelings down, not letting them escape. I wonder now if this was wrong, how I and the people around me would’ve reacted if I’d cried all day, locked myself in my room, not caring about any obligations. Would it have made more sense? I didn’t cry at dinner or walking across campus to my room. I tried not to think about it. When my roommate Amy went to shower that night, I listened for the sound of the water running before crying into my pillow, worried she’d somehow hear me through the running water and bathroom wall. I’ve cried in front of her countless times before, openly feeling, never receiving anything but support and love in return. But this felt like something I needed to grieve alone. After she went to bed, I felt the tears coming again and I snuck into the bathroom where I cried on the floor, finally letting myself sink to the ground, letting out the sadness and rage while still stifling my sobs so no one would check on me. I grieved then, letting all of the pain out from throughout the day which I had been holding in, the feeling of trying to be “normal” finally being released from my body. I don’t think it was a good idea to keep the feeling in for so long, but once I let it out, I finally felt what I needed to feel. Though, my mind kept racing as I sat on the dirty bathroom floor at midnight. How could he leave without saying goodbye?
Grandpa passed away in a nursing home in a bed I can’t imagine was comfortable on his brittle bones. I don’t know who was there when he passed, perhaps a nurse or his roommate who was even more grumpy than he, and I wonder if anyone held his hand. My dog passed away with two of the most important people in her life next to her, and yet I don’t know how Grandpa could let go with nobody there. Thinking of the day he died makes me think of the last time I was with him, and how I barely recognized the man in front of me.
I sat in the healthcare facility, watching him hunch over so much that his head nearly touched his knees. He didn’t realize I was there.
“Jim,” Grandma says to him. “Jordyn’s here, do you see her?” Mom and I were visiting before I went back to school. I was hesitant on going. I’ve never liked hospitals or anything resembling one, so I was nervous to walk through the halls of people that were most likely never going home again. It smelled like hand sanitizer, sterilization, and linen sheets, but mom wanted me to see Grandpa before I left.
He slowly looked up, but dropped his head again to readjust the pillow that slipped from his lap. I couldn’t look him in the eye. He didn’t look real. He didn’t look like the grandfather I grew up with. His stomach had deflated, looking nothing like the protruding tummy that showed when he’d swim in the pool during the summer. Instead of looking plump, his body sagged as if he couldn’t brace against the gravity that pushed him down. His face sagged too, his eyes dull and empty. He was silent except for a few moans that would escape his lips every few minutes. I wondered if he knew he was making the sounds. I wondered if he knew I was there.
I felt my heart beating in my chest and didn’t know why I was so nervous around him, around the person who I’d kiss on the cheek twice when I said hello and goodbye and hugged just a few seconds more than everyone else. In that moment, I worried about kissing his cheek because I was afraid it wouldn’t feel the same.
Grandpa grunted and closed his eyes. He opened and closed them every once in a while in the hour we were there, but he didn’t talk. The anxiety of the hospital, the depression and lack of stability of the residents, got to me, and soon the only thing I thought of was leaving. When we said goodbye, I didn’t kiss his cheeks. I wonder if he knew. In this moment, I didn’t say goodbye. The words escaped my mouth, but the gesture that I always associated with love, especially for him, I had left behind. Perhaps I thought that he was already gone, at least the grandpa who used to kiss me on my cheeks was, but I should’ve showed my love like he did for all those years. I should have told him, without saying it, that I still loved him, that I still saw him as happy and lively like I used to, even if I didn’t. I didn’t kiss his cheeks. I wish I had.
The day Grandpa died, I waited to call Mom. I needed to wait for a time I knew I could talk without the sobs clogging the phone. I’ve never liked crying in front of my parents, the worry of me worrying them engulfing me so much that I forced myself to calm down first. When I finally called, Mom told me she texted me the news because she was afraid I was in class or asleep. She never quite memorized my schedule. An understandable gesture, a text not uncommon. Although, something about receiving the text was more jarring than a phone call would’ve been. I always imagined a phone call, one with Mom or Dad or even Grandma’s voice, stricken with sadness and a shaky voice, gently telling me the news. Why didn’t she just call? If she had called, would I have grieved the way I did? Would I have taken the call or sent it to voicemail? Would I have listened to the voicemail and immediately broken down like I did in class or waited to cry until after I hung up? Would I have listened to it at all? Would I have kept it or deleted it immediately? Would I have done the right or wrong thing? Though, I’m not sure I could decide if I don’t know which is which. Grief is different for everyone, and with grief, for me, comes inconvenience. The only person I want to inconvenience is me, which may be wrong, but I’m not sure.
“Are you okay?” I asked Mom on the phone, expecting a no.
“Yes, I’m fine.” Her voice was saddened slightly, but I knew she was telling the truth. Her dad had died, but I think she had started to grieve the moment he started to forget her name.
“How’s Grandma?” I asked. I hadn’t called her yet.
“She’s okay,” she said. When I called Grandma later that day, her voice was sad and tired, sadder than Mom’s, but I could only wonder if she felt a sense of relief, perhaps like Mom did. Grandpa’s Aphasia made it so he didn’t remember our names, and his stroke made his bones so weak that he couldn’t even pick up a spoon. At the end, he could barely pick up his head. Grandma had come to take care of a man thirteen years her senior who instead ate, walked, and lived like a toddler. He was frustrated, mostly with himself, at his body that wouldn’t do what he told it too. I was frustrated for him, at the illness that took him further and further away.
Grandpa’s demeanor changed over time. He did not change into a different man in a night, but his stroke, which occurred five years before he died, and the Aphasia, affected him slowly. He would start to forget words, stumble over flat surfaces, and hold his plate on a slant so much so that we often thought his Chinese food would end up on the floor, though, miraculously, it never did. He had always called my trumpet bugle, so when he stumbled over the word, it didn’t seem out of the ordinary. But when he couldn’t go to concerts because they were too late, and he couldn’t climb the bleachers’ steps, I started to really notice the difference, though I never failed to hear his signature whistle from the first row in the balcony.
Grandpa once forgot the name for a cheesesteak. This moment, for some reason, finally made me truly understand the depth of his illness.
“Wha- What’s that?” he had asked. We sat in Humpty Juniors, a small restaurant in New Jersey that’s home to fifty flavors of milkshakes, a mere ten minutes from my grandparent’s house. When I was young, we would go all the time, although back then it was called Humpty Dumpty’s. Through three owners and three name changes, we enjoyed the restaurant and the kids meals that never failed to put a sticker on the tray beside my cheeseburger. Since then, I’ve upgraded to cheesesteaks. We had been sitting in a booth in the middle of the restaurant, my iced tea in front of me, Grandpa’s signature drink, lemonade, in front of him. I don’t know when his drink changed from coca cola to lemonade, though I’ve never seen him with the prior. It’s strange to picture him with anything other than a lemonade in his hand.
Grandma had ordered for him that day, as she had become accustomed to doing, and soon his Fish and Chips were placed in front of him. He had stared at the food, then back over to me. He shook his finger in my direction, although I don’t think the shaking was intentional.
“That. Wha-what’s that?”
“It’s a cheesesteak, Grandpa.”
“A cheese…a what?”
I had looked at my dad for help.
“It’s meat,” he said. “And cheese on a roll.”
“Oh,” Grandpa said, and picked at his fish. My heart sunk.
When Grandma tried to help him with his food, he scoffed at her, telling her through choppy speech that he could do it himself. I was surprised when he first started to do this, and felt bad for Grandma. I felt embarrassed on behalf of her, watching as the rest of the table avoided everyone’s eyes and focused on their food. But soon it became normal, and instead, it was surprising when he was polite, thanking Grandma for her help or even asking for it. Still, even though it was normal near the end, I still couldn’t look him in the eyes. I missed the politeness he once had, and I know Grandma did too.
Other signs of the Aphasia were there before the stroke, but none were too concerning until later. Grandpa had trouble with the checkbook and altered words, but didn’t everyone? One day, however, Grandpa collapsed while working in the greenhouse and he didn’t tell Grandma until years after. What if, we wonder now, we could have found it sooner? What if we would have known then that something was wrong? What if this was the moment that determined life or death, and we had no idea? There is no cure, so would we have started grieving even before the disease had fully affected him, wondering how much time we actually had, fearing every second? Maybe he didn’t want that.
I think of Grandpa’s deterioration mirroring the deterioration of the backyard of my grandparents’ house, a continuous, slow deformation that wasn’t truly noticeable until the end. The pond, with lavish brush where we would search for turtles and fish, overgrew, and the tomato garden shrunk from towering stalks to single tomato plants that Grandma took over. The pool was taken out, and when it was, the backyard looked even bigger with green grass and giant trees that my brother and I would ride our electric cars around, mimicking Grandpa and his tractor that we used to ride on.
The worst of Grandpa’s suffering though, and I do believe he suffered, occurred all at once. Grandpa had to be taken to the hospital in an ambulance after having what Grandma thought was a seizure. He was in the hospital for five days, and when the doctors realized he couldn’t handle his body anymore—couldn’t stand or walk, or speak—they moved him to Forest Manor Nursing Home, the last place he would live.
I wonder if my family grieved for Grandpa before he died, and if that’s why it was so different for me. I didn’t fully realize that Grandpa was dying until he was gone. Perhaps it was because I was away at school for the months he was in the nursing home. But my family knew. They watched firsthand as he got skinnier and skinnier, visited him in the hospital for months, watched as he slurped up Jell-O, and talked to him even though he barely talked back. I imagine my mother visiting, she more comfortable than I ever could have been, walking in and kissing Grandpa right on the cheeks. She’d sit with him and talk with Grandma about the next time she’d visit, and talk to the other residents in the hall that she became friends with. She’d tell Grandpa her name, and prepare to say goodbye every time.
Although I convinced myself I was ready for when he passed, the grieving process didn’t actually start until the day I got the text during class. I tried to remind myself that he’s no longer suffering, that his death was, in a way, a relief, though the feeling of suddenness opened a frustration I didn’t know I had. I was angry at myself for not saying goodbye, and at the fact that I never could. I was angry that the person who was the most supportive of me would never drive me up the hill again, and I’d never hear the laugh that always made me chuckle. I grieved because I hadn’t yet done so. I grieved because I was angry. I’m still angry, I’m still sad, and I have these feelings that have yet to fully leave. I wonder if they ever will.
None of my family members want a funeral. They don’t want the attention, the inconvenience, the fact that they are dead to be a big event. I don’t think they understand that funerals are not for the dead, but for the living. Grandpa didn’t have a funeral as he wouldn’t be happy with one, but I wasn’t happy with that decision. A funeral would have been for me, if no one else. A funeral would have allowed me to grieve when everyone else had, leaving me with closure rather than pain, even if I was uncomfortable in the moment. Separate from my family, I long for the moments of goodbye, secretly want a funeral myself, if anything, to let others grieve for me. Perhaps making the grieving easier for them, perhaps the stubbornness in me holding on to that wish just like Grandpa did.
Grandpa was a stubborn man before he got sick. He wanted to do things on his own, and do them his way. He was always adamant about cleaning that pool and did so often. If someone smoked, he’d go right up to them and tell them to put it out. We’d have to stop him from yelling at strangers outside restaurants many times. He hated dogs, and wouldn’t let Maggie out of the back room while we ate dinner. Through her crying and barking, we’d eat dinner then rush to play with her when we were done. Near the end though, we’d find Grandpa sitting with Maggie on the couch, and wondered if he was coming around, if he ever really disliked dogs, or if his illness made him forget that he had in the first place. His stubbornness was always evident, but his empathy poked out at times too.
Grandma tells me a story of my great grandfather’s, my grandmother’s father, funeral.
“Your great grandpa had Alzheimer’s too—” she said to me on the phone one night. This scared me, the fact that this has run in the family longer than I thought, and I pushed the thought of my father or brother with it out of my mind. It wasn’t the time to think about that.
“—and he wanted to be cremated, but my mother wouldn’t allow that. She dressed him up in a suit and tie and had a funeral. Your grandpa knew my father didn’t like ties, so when he saw he was wearing one, he went straight up to the casket and took the tie off him, in front of everyone. ‘He didn’t like ties,’ he said.”
My mouth fell open, but, I could picture it. I could see the stubbornness that lives in all of us shining through him, and I laughed at the thought of him taking off that tie. I wonder what he did with it; if he kept it, or if he returned it to his mother-in-law out of spite.
Grandma said that after her father died, she and Grandpa bought burial plots, but decided not to use them soon after. I understand now that Grandpa would never have wanted a funeral, the stubbornness in him not wanting to inconvenience anyone else, not wanting all the attention on him. Yet, as I cried in the bathroom on the day he passed, all I could think of was wanting to say goodbye, and how talking to his ashes wasn’t good enough. I wanted a funeral, for the first time in my life. I never wanted to go to any for fear of seeing loved ones for the last time. I’m not sure if I’m scared of death, or if I fear the thought of the last time seeing someone. But in this moment, I wanted a funeral. I wanted to kiss Grandpa’s cheeks and tell him I loved him. I wanted to say sorry and thank you. I thought that maybe if I saw him, I would get the closure I have yet to feel. I hate that I couldn’t get that.
“Grandpa loved you kids so much,” Grandma said, still on the phone. I asked her about her life with Grandpa, a part of their story, and therefore a part of mine, that I didn’t realize I was missing until I tried to recall it. Before I hung up, I asked her one final question. “What was your favorite thing about Grandpa?” I asked. She paused, thinking.
“I think my favorite thing about him was how much he loved kids,” she said. I imagine Grandpa and Grandma young again, walking out of a bowling alley, perhaps getting something to eat. Grandpa acts in ways he did with me, laughing as he picks a child up out of a stroller (yes, a random child, because things were different back then), making him or her laugh with his Santa Claus laugh. His mouth widens into an O shape as he tickles their stomach, their laugh making him cackle even more.
“He really did love you,” Grandma said, and I know he did. “Just like Great Grandpa did, Grandpa loved you.” I know from years of hearing his laugh myself and watching his eyes light up as I entered the room, even after the dementia started poisoning his brain, that he loved me.
“He loved his Jordyn more than anything,” Mom comments on my Facebook post on the first anniversary of his passing. I’m hearing this more and more now, and I tear up every time. I think of my Grandpa as both men now, seeing the continuation like a timeline in my head. Images of him picking me up and holding me after my surgery that I’ve seen pictures of and memorized, memories of log flume rides, walking into the living room and sitting next to him as he watched sports, listening intently as he tried to compliment me through garbled speech, and watching as he shuffled over to me to hug me goodbye. Through grieving, I miss both men because I loved both men, just as both men loved me too. Perhaps the grieving process has taken longer because I’m grieving twice as much. I hold on to the frustration as part of the grief. Perhaps a bad thing to do, as I’ve not yet learned how to release it. I wait for a moment where he will talk to me like he did Grandma, perhaps in a dream or a vision, as silly as that sounds. I wait for him, for closure. Until then, I’ll keep the happy memories and the images close, knowing that they were important; lemonades and tractor rides a part of who I am because they were a part of him. But I will still grieve, and I still cry. I cry for the good times and how they’re gone. I cry for the bad and how they were different. I cry for the memories, for the fact that he is at peace, and for the fact that I wasn’t there when he got it.
Jordyn Taylor is an emerging writer from Bangor, Pennsylvania. She is currently pursuing Creative Writing and Publishing and Editing majors, along with a Professional and Civic Writing minor, at Susquehanna University. Her work has been published in two of Susquehanna’s on-campus literary magazines, and her poetry chapbook This (Dis)abled Body has been published by the university as well. She is honored to be published by the Santa Fe Writer’s Project.