I have a confession, although it is not one to pause your movie for or stop the car or ignore your girlfriend over. It is merely a confession about how I have been dealing with (or not dealing with, whichever makes more sense) the recent death of my father's father. This confession is actually a response to the anniversary of my mother's father's death 4 years ago today, however, it can also be considered my confession about how I deal with death period as I have just now noticed many similarities between how I have handled the deaths of people in my life.
The most recent death, that of my paternal grandfather, occurred on the 67th wedding anniversary he and my grandmother were to share. It saddens me in a profound manner to think of how he fought so long only to lose his battle on such a celebratory day. He had been fighting lewy body dementia for the past 7 years. At first it wasn't too bad as it only seemed as if he was aging faster than he had been in recent years. But he began to lose his ability to speak clearly. He began to lose his physical mobility. After a few years of this slow deterioration, he was bed bound. He was unable to speak or communicate his needs or desires in any way aside from incoherent mumbling that was his obvious attempt to let us know he was still awake and aware, just unable to voice his requests. This was one of the hardest parts of watching him slowly slip away. He had been a lawyer and an assemblyman. He had been in the Air Force in World War II. His aircraft carrier was sunk when a Japanese plane crashed into it, breaking his leg in the process if trying to save his friends and countryman. He had raised a family of 6 and traveled all over the world with them. Now he was in a bed, unable to get up and go to the bathroom, unable to tell his wife of 65 years that he loved her (although she knew it as we all did because they were more in love than any couple I have ever seen in my life when he was healthy).
There was a point with my father's father when I would visit and he wouldn't know who I was. He would look at me when I spoke to him as if I were some stranger invading his personal space. I would try to talk to him but he would turn his attention back to the television and I would just talk to him about soccer and teaching. It hurt to see him this way. It shot me through to my core. I had always heard from friends, seen in the movies, or read in stories about Alzheimer's and how it slowly ate away at people's memories. Here I was, trying to gt my grandfather to remember me, to acknowledge my existence as a member of his family and it was going nowhere. I remember feeling dejected and heart broken. It hurt so bad that I stopped visiting as often as I had before. Unfortunately, I regret this in so many ways now that I have trouble thinking about it. If I had just stopped by for a cup of tea to talk with him and my grandmother. If I had only been there to distract my grandmother from the suffering her life mate was enduring. But I wasn't, and I can't get it back and it's no sense in feeling shitty about it because there is nothing I can do but go to her now and visit often.
The last time I visited with my grandfather, before I learned that he had only days left on this earth, I was over right before his nap time. We watched a little television together and I caught him up on the world cup. He was quite passionate about soccer for most of his life and I felt like he was following what I was telling him. When he was put back to bed by his nurses, who happen to be the most incredible people I have ever encountered because they made his life and my grandmother's as comfortable as possible during this time, I sat by his bed and continued to talk to him. He stayed awake with me longer than he had in months the nurses told me. When I said goodbye to him and told him that I loved him, he squeezed my hand and looked me in the eye and I saw him again. He held my hand tight with what must have been the last ounce of strength he had that day and the life that I had not seen in years in his eyes was there and I knew that he remembered me. I knew, as I know now, that he had always remembered me.
The reason I am now writing this confession though is because today is the anniversary of my other grandfather's passing 4 years ago. While I have a fair amount of regret with my paternal grandfather's passing, I also have an equal amount of regret for my maternal grandfather's as well. I recently told someone that I try to live my life with no regrets and half jokingly referred to the only real regret I have in my life as selling my '99 Tahoe Sport much too soon (I tend to lean on humor, good or bad, to remove myself form uncomfortable emotions as I am on a bit of an emotional delay much of the time). My mother's father did not die of any specific disease that we were aware of; he just decided that he was done and allowed himself to slowly drift away. That was another hard passing. Here was a man, a strong, capable man whom I had looked up to my whole life that was now just slowly withering away in his bed because he was tired and old and fed up with not being able to do what he wanted to do.
My grandpa had played tennis until he was 75 years old. When I was growing up I played tennis and got to be decent enough to where I could rally and play with him or other adults and sometimes win. Except I could never beat him. He was the most frustrating opponent in the world. He had a drop shot he employed often that would just destroy any hope I had of earning any points. He would make me run left, run right, and all the while return the ball right back to wherever he happened to be. When he felt like taking a quick rest and serving or receiving, he'd hit his drop shot after a deep shot to a corner and I would have no chance of ever making contact. That was one of the greatest things about him. He never let me win. It was always friendly competition, but he never let me win. I never asked him about it, mostly because I never thought about it in this way when I was younger, but now it makes so much sense to me. Why lose to someone on purpose? All it does is breed a false sense of strength, not to mention its dishonest, and he is neither of those.
Like my other grandfather he was in World War II, a member of the Greatest Generation. He had lived during the great depression and joined the air force as soon as he was old enough. He flew many successful combat missions in his P-47 until he was shot down behind enemy lines in Belgium. He was injured and soon to be in trouble if help didn't arrive quickly. Through what can only be described as an act of God in some form, he was discovered by allied troops and brought to a medical center where he was cleaned up and cared for. When he returned home he immediately married my grandmother whom had grown up next door to his family in a duplex and they had 7 children together. He raised an incredible family who overcame many struggles, finally to settle down in Petaluma where he finally laid down his head for good.
The regret that I feel when I think of my grandfather comes in two forms. One is identical to the regret I have for my other grandfather in that I didn't visit him enough during his last days. Not only that, but I didn't muster up the courage to let him know that it was okay for him to let go and pass on through to the other side. I couldn't do it because I wasn't okay with it. I wasn't okay with the fact that this man who had taught me so much about being a man was now disappearing before my very eyes. I wasn't ready for him to go and couldn't bring myself to accept the fact that he was ready. It stings me when I think of how I didn't tell him that because I am sure it would have meant something to him.
The regret I feel most often when I think of my grandpa though is from a specific visit. I was over visiting with him and my grandmother and he had to go to the bathroom. My grandmother had been taking care of him and asked me to come over and help hold him up while she helped him urinate into a bottle that was specifically designed for this purpose. I sat on the bed and held him up while she helped him with the rest. I could tell that he was uncomfortable and knew that he did not like how it was going but I didn't say what was on my mind, which would have been the perfect thing to have said. My grandmother said to me, "Thank you Charley for helping him out like this. I know it's a bit different." And my response was just a blanket, "Oh, it's not a problem." What I had wanted to say and I still do not know why I didn't say to them was, "Well, it's not like he wouldn't do it for me." While this may not seem very important or huge to anyone, it would have been the best way to express to him what he had taught me growing up. I always think about how just for a moment it would have eased the tension he felt and brought us that much closer before his passing. The reason he had allowed himself to die was because of the fact that he could not do what he had been so used to doing his whole life and here I was helping him pee, one of the most manly things a man can do on his own and he couldn't do it without help. I felt his pain then and there and knew that it wasn't long before he would be gone from us.
His passing was soft and silent as he slipped into the night. A few weeks later we had a service for him at my parents house. Family and close friends came and shared stories and we fired off a makeshift 21 gun salute with our shotguns. My uncle caught a rattlesnake that was quietly watching everyone and we felt that it was the spirit of my other uncle, Robby, whom we had lost many years before, stopping by to see his old man off to wherever he was going.
It is torture to hold on to this regret but I find solace in it. I know there is nothing I can do to make up for it now as their time here has come and gone but the regret reminds me of how much I loved them and how important they really were in my life. I guess that I have been dealing with their deaths in my own way, allowing myself to feel the sting and carry the longing for their voices one last time. The gruff "Hey Kid" of my grandpa and the "Hello Charley" of my Papa are sounds I will never forget. They were friends with each other by way of their childrens' love for each other. They played backgammon and drank scotch and water. They watched their families grow and multiply and they both were proud men. They were gentlemen. They loved their wives dearly. They loved their country. They provided role models for the men and women in my family that just don't seem to exist any more. They were good men, great men.
They were my grandfathers and I miss them.