January 6, 2016 – the day my grandfather took his last breath then passed away. I was getting ready for work when I got the call from my aunt. I was crushed. I loved my grandfather. He was the sweetest man I’ve ever known. His love for his wife, family and God was overwhelming. Even though dementia had been taking over him for a few years, there was still a lot of Grandpa left the last time our family was together this past Thanksgiving. Realizing that he was now gone and would no longer be a part of our family celebrations was hard to fathom at first. Thinking about making the drive from Michigan to South Dakota and not seeing him sitting in his chair when I got there instantly brought tears to my eyes. I wept uncontrollably and openly as I tried to put on my makeup and get out the door for work. I knew there wasn’t anything I could do at that moment and that I needed to move on with my day until details were available.
In a way, I think my whole family felt a little of the same emotion: relief. Grandpa’s dementia had been getting worse. There was always a flicker of him left and it always made us so happy to see those moments. But daily life was becoming much more of a challenge for him. He had started resorting to a wheel chair because walking caused too much pain. Even though he never forgot my Grandma, he didn’t remember where they were living and why he couldn’t find some of his old belongings . We were all so fortunate though that he remained super sweet and endearing until the very end. He never became mean or grouchy like some memory loss victims do. Even though we were all sad to know he wouldn’t be spending more time with us, we were happy to know that his good health and strong, smart mind would be restored. His death happened very suddenly. We didn’t have to spend long, agonizing days gathered by his bedside watching him go. He went to bed as always, and as far as we know, didn’t wake up again. I can’t imagine a better way for an 83-year-old man to go.
One of the things I’ll always remember about my Grandpa was the love and respect he had for my grandma. They were always affectionate, sharing sweet kisses in front of the whole family. When she asked for help he was right there doing what he could for her. Any frustrations between the two of them were short lived. Grandpa might utter his well known phrase of “oh hah!”, but then would move on. They had 62 years of beautiful marriage together. They did and saw a lot throughout that time. From my perspective as a grandchild, their love only continued to grow. The night before Grandpa passed, my grandma held his hand and said ‘I love you’. He patted her hand back and said ‘I love you too.’ Neither of them knowing those would be their last words, but I can’t imagine their last words being anything else!
My grandpa was always one of my biggest fans and supporters. Due to circumstances in life, my grandparents did a lot to raise me and my brothers during middle school and high school. Before I was able to drive, he would often play taxi service for us. For about a year I took violin lessons in a town 40 miles away. He would often take the time to drive me up there, sit patiently through my lesson, and then take me out to eat afterward before driving home. I remember one time specifically that the President was in town, so after the lesson was done, we drove over to the airport to get a glimpse of Air Force 1. We were on a busy road, but Grandpa didn’t care. He slowed down to a speed he was comfortable driving at while looking around for the jet. Once we found it he actually stopped on the street so he could look at it for a while. That adventurous/’don’t care if I’m not supposed to’ attitude of his was always fun.
Music is a big part of my life. Throughout middle school and high school Grandpa never missed one of my piano, band, or choir concerts. He took the time to drive me to some of my piano contests in the area when the weather and roads were less than favorable. On the day I graduated from college and moved into my first house, my grandparents gifted me an electric full-size keyboard. I remember how instantly the happy tears hit me as I gave them both a huge hug. That evening, after all the furniture was in, I pulled out my music and played his favorite song, ‘This is My Father’s World’ on my new piano. He sat on the sofa and smiled.
Grandpa’s love was abundant. His love for Grandma was always apparent, but so was his love for his children and grandchildren. He wanted to see all of us succeed. He wanted only the best for us. And he would do what he could to help us accomplish the goals in our life. I remember helping my youngest brother learn to ride bike. Grandpa would hold on to the back of the seat and push him along while we all stood nearby to encourage him. Grandpa provided many wonderful lake vacations for our family. He worked hard during these vacations to help the grand kids learn how to ski. My brother spoke about some of his memories of Grandpa as part of the funeral service. It was probably the first time I realized just how passionate Grandpa was about making sure my brother had the fatherly advice he needed during his teen years. He counseled and guided my brother through his first job, his first late attendance, and general expectations of the oldest man in a household. Grandpa was always very loving to each of his grand kids, but I had a new understanding, and appreciation, for the relationship he had developed with my brother.
I’ve been through some crazy and unusual circumstances in my life, but out of all the things I’ve dealt with, I’ve someone never had to deal with the death of a loved one that I was very close to until Grandpa passed away. My brother and I talked about this and wondered how we would handle it. Of course we were sad, but would it be a prolonged sadness? Or would the comfort in knowing Grandpa’s fate help calm us. We’re only 3 weeks out from his passing so I don’t know that this can be fully answered yet as we’re still processing everything.
The funeral was a very different experience for me, mostly because of what I said above, I’d never dealt with something like this before. I remember standing in the church gathering place and seeing Grandpa’s body for the first time. Of course there was the sadness and shock of seeing him lying there so still and realizing that if I hugged him I wouldn’t get that kiss on my cheek back from him. However, I was also overcome with a very strong sense of gratitude. In my mind I just kept saying over and over again ‘Thank you Grandpa’. I knew I couldn’t in that moment even begin to express everything I was thankful for, but it was so much that as I stood at his casket I just kept repeating ‘thank you’. He lead by example and had such a major influence on my life. Even though he won’t be physically in my life anymore, I’m forever thankful for the role he played in it and everything he taught me as well as everything he did for me.
My Grandma decided to have the 7 of us grand kids be the casket bearers. At first I was totally freaked out by this. Emotionally I didn’t know if I could handle carrying my grandfather’s body. And of course just the normal nervousness of something like that – what if I slipped on the ice and dropped it or wasn’t strong enough to hold it, etc. And then I found out that as part of the burial we were going to actually watch the casket be lowered. When I first heard that I didn’t want anything to do with it either. My grandpa was too warm and cozy of a man; I didn’t want to watch him be lowered into that cold, snowy, dirt grave.
Everything turned out perfectly though. Due to the extreme cold, only close family members came to the cemetery for the burial. My cousins and I pulled the casket from the hearse and walked it to the grave where we placed it on the rollers. We then stood there with our parents and watched as the casket slowly descended. Once it was in place, we were given a bucket of dirt. We each took a turn taking some of the dirt and sprinkling it on his casket. It was more touching than I ever could have imagined it being, all of it. As it was unfolding, I realized just how meaningful it was that I was helping to carry my grandpa to his final resting place. He had done so much for me in my life, and now I was able to do one last thing for him. I got to carry his body, place it over his grave, and then physically touch some of the dirt that would forever rest on his casket. What an amazing way to honor such a truly wonderful man.
Grandpa, thank you for your love throughout the years. Thank you for the laughs, support, hugs, and kisses. You will be greatly missed by me and your family. Thank you for leaving us with nothing but good memories. I can’t wait to see you again some day!