After a full life well lived, my grandfather is dying.
As I write this, he is being well taken care of by a team of medical professionals and his wife in the Intensive Care Unit of one of our many excellent publicly funded hospitals.
I went to see him – for the last time – Saturday.
It was one of the toughest moments of my life and something that, despite days of preparing, I wasn’t prepared for.
It was the first time I’ve experienced this – one of life’s toughest moments. All the others in my life who have died, and were dear to me, have done so suddenly without the opportunity for closure that the last goodbye can bring.
I’m thankful that for the opportunity to say goodbye.
I tried writing this entry on Saturday at his bedside while he slept. I managed an outline, but couldn’t handle the emotion of putting those thoughts into paragraphs. My writing was too final, I wasn’t prepared.
I learned over Thanksgiving dinner that my grandfather was admitted to ICU and that this would be the last time – he wasn’t going home.
I spent the past week absorbing the news and preparing.
Today, I write and share with you, my valued readers, how I feel as my earthly relationship with my grandfather comes to an end.
Getting Ready to Say Goodbye
It was a tough week waiting for the opportunity to say goodbye and hoping I would not miss it.
The earliest I could make the trip was Saturday and it weighted on my mind all week. I spent the time thinking about what I would say, what I would do, what would I wear, how would he greet me.
Our Distant Relationship in Recent Years
Our relationship was close while I was a child, this was the man who was invincible, who could do anything. Visiting him was the highlight of my year for so many of my young years.
I spent every Christmas at his house. His mother – my great-grandmother – was very close to me. He was the favourite person in my life.
Our relationship grew distance over the past two decades – first when I came to be in foster care.
We regained some of our relationship when I was a young adult and in the military.
Sadly, common for first-generation university students, our relationship again grew distant when I went to university.
He never stopped loving me, and I never stopped looking up to him; we just lost the ability to relate to one another. It’s not an unique story – this is common between a relative of a different generation and a child who is first in their family to go to university.
When I was in the military, he was very proud. We talked a lot, our relation become closer.
University was another story. I moved away to Winnipeg. The distance, both geographical and in experiences, caused us to drift.
Try as I may, I couldn’t explain what I was doing in university to him in a way he could relate to. He always said he supported whatever decision I made, but I could tell he wasn’t able to understand why.
I only came to understand myself writing for Maclean’s covering the challenges first-generation students faced. This brought our relationship closer again – I matured in my understanding of him.
We haven’t seen each other much in the past decade, his health precluded him from travelling to me and my career made it tough to
The past decade, we talked infrequently. His health precludes him visiting me, and my career made it tough to get the days off necessary to visit him.
I didn’t sleep well last week, it only became worse on Friday night. I had an index card of notes, the things I needed to say when I visited. I woke up Saturday morning, 4:30 a.m., looked at the card and thought what am I missing?
Getting to the Hospital
6:00am, my grandmother (his first wife) and I leave Hamilton. It’s a difficult trip for her as well. This will be the longest road trip her and I take together. Along the way, I’m sharing memories with her of the many road trips I took with my grandfather.
He sold cars and we went seemingly everywhere for car shows and to deliver the cars he sold. Truck and coffee shops were the landmarks of memories.
Some of those landmarks are on my index card. Share with him the good memories, show how they’ve influenced positively who I am today.
I arrive at his house just after 8:30.
I knock, the door’s unlocked. I let myself in. His wife is there.
She speaks with the nurse manager of the ICU by phone and then, she briefs me. I’m there in time, and he is good – considering his condition – this day. We set my visit time at 12:45pm. He has some visitors before me, and I’m not going to take away their time.
I’m told he has accepted this is the end. I still don’t know if I’m relieved or not. There is no doubt – this is the last time.
My grandmother and I leave at 11 to go for lunch. After lunch, we arrive at the hospital.
At the hospital
The hospital, Bluewater Health, is a calm place on a Saturday.
I pray – and cry – in the chapel as I brace myself for the inevitable. I pace the hospital a bit as I prepare myself. I need to be in control of my emotions, I don’t want to upset him with the pain and grief I feel so deeply.
I need to help him in keeping the peace of mind he needs in his last days.
I speak with his wife and nurse. His condition isn’t well, but it isn’t much worse from the night before. A blessing.
I take a few breaths, let out my emotions, regroup, and now the toughest moment of my life thus far is about to begin.
I turn the corner, my grandfather is 50 feet down the hallway. I can see him. It’s hard, I can tell – from that distance – the end is near. I don’t know how else to describe the feeling.
I don’t know if he can see me. He wouldn’t recognize me in a black jacket and with my cap.
I walk into his room, his recognizes me!
“Hello there Sergeant!”, he says in his full voice. It’s the last time I’ll hear his “healthy” voice and he sounds like he always did. What a blissful memory I have to cherish.
His heart is extremely weakened, there are moments he is not getting enough oxygen to know his wife. I’m fortunate. Not only did I make it in time, I made it at a relatively good time.
He references me as a Sergeant, a military rank. He was most proud when I joined the military and it’s the part of my adult life he is best able to relate to.
He loved getting Maclean’s each week and seeing the full-page ads promoting my blog. He enjoyed my pictures from oversees when I went to the Persian Gulf, but it was my being in the army he was proudest of.
For the next 30 minutes, I talk to him. I made sure to talk about all the positive influences he’s had on me and to share good memories.
He doesn’t have movement of his extremities, he can’t move his facial muscles, but his eyes are still full of life. It is his eyes I watch closely to see if he is returning to those good memories with me.
He is, I can tell, his eyes move up as he remembers the good moments. His vitals on the monitor to his right, my left, are looking better than they have all day.
I relax, I no longer feel the urge to break down in emotion as I did when I first entered the room.
We don’t have much of a conversation, he is having a real hard time drinking the water his wife – a nurse herself – is giving him.
I turn from memories to discussing how his influence is making my life better today. You see my grandfather was self-employed his entire life. He farmed, sold the farm, and became a car dealer.
I told him how I’m self-employed and on the leading edge of new journalism, how I use the skills and morals I learned from him every day. I talk about how I have a good future ahead of me, and relate it back to his influence.
I can tell he needs to rest again.
He asks “Where’s my newspaper?”
He doesn’t have one, but I know what he wants me to do. He wants me to read him the newspaper, like I did as a kid. I loved reading and he is the person who opened my eyes to the world by hooking me to the newspaper and to news.
I say to him, I’ll go get the newspaper. I this is likely the last time we’ll talk. By the time I get back, he’ll be sleeping again. I also know he needs to sleep.
I go to the hospital gift shop, grab the newspaper, and return about twenty minutes later. He is sleeping.
At his bedside
I leave for a bit, I need to let my emotions out. I return to the room and sit at his bedside. After 30 minutes, sis wife, loyally beside him at every moment, takes out her iPad to read. I pull out my tablet and start to write. I outline some points. Then I write:
“I write this post experiencing one of life’s toughest moments for the first time: saying goodbye to a loved one for the absolute final time.
The room is quiet right now. He is sleeping, his wife and I are sitting beside, and the sound of air circulating provides the white noise as we keep watch to hear when he next awakes.
My grandfather, a man born in the 30s, is dying.
I sit here flooded”
I can write no more, my emotions are taking hold of me.
I put my tablet away, and I sit there.
I can’t bring myself to write.
Writing to me is where I put final facts, it’s too much for me to do.
To admit in writing what I know I’ve already accepted, I just can’t do it. I can’t fully accept the finality of it all; this is the end of our relationship here on earth.
I watch him (even writing this more than 48 hours later, I’m becoming overwhelmed) I look at the monitors. I look out the window, it’s a beautiful view of the tree canopy of Sarnia in beautiful fall colours.
I think the timeline of his life and how much changed he saw in his life. Looking around the hospital room at all the technology and thinking how different it would’ve been in the 1930s. I smile thinking of all the cars he had over his lifetime, cars were important to him. He talked in the morning about a car in owned in 1954. It’s good that he is recalling the good moments in his life as he enters his last days.
I look at the newspaper I’ve placed at his feet and remember all the great mornings reading the paper together. I think about how much change there has been in the past two decades. I can’t help but remember how heavy the Saturday newspaper used to be. It was heavy to carry up from the lobby to his apartment.
I look out the window again, I look at his wife. I know she will be there for him at the end, he’ll be surrounded by love. I sit there quietly praying, and being thankful that he is so well taken care of his in final hours.
He awakes, briefly. He looks at me, I can tell my presence brings him comfort. He goes back to sleeping.
I sit back down. I watch him, listening to the peaceful quiet, calmly reflecting.
The time has come, I must leave and return to Hamilton.
I don’t know how to do this, how does one leave for the last time? I look to his wife and I say, it is time for me to leave. She says “I know, thank you.”
Her and I embrace.
I don’t want to disturb his sleep, I walk to the door.
I look at him one last time.
My emotions are overcoming me, I don’t want his wife to see how devastated I am. She has enough and seeing my heart-break would hurt her so much.
I turn and I walk away. It all comes out.
The nurse, Tammy, had given us space. She was sitting just down the hall, watching his vital signs on the computer. She talks with me, hands me some tissues and asks if I need anything. I say to her “it is what it is, he has had a full life. Thank you, I’m comforted knowing his is so well cared for here.”
I thank the other nurses as I move down the hall way. I’m at the end of the hallway.
I turn around and I look back.
From 50 feet away, he is peacefully sleeping.
This will be the last memory of my grandfather. I will cherish it, and his memory forever.