A few days later, I packed up the car, dropped the dog off at the kennel, and started the 14 hour drive home to Michigan to join him and his family. The timing was good and I was able to take a break for a week. Experience told me that it was important to be there.
I'd driven about 10 hours when I needed to stop off for gas and to take a break. When I got off the tollway, I smelled barbecue. The gas station down the road had a hand painted sign that advertised "pop" for sale and the gas pump politely asked me to kindly return the gas nozzle. Behind the gas station was Lake Erie.
I was almost home.
After getting gas, I went down by the lake and sat.
Being from Michigan, we grew up with a natural prejudice against all things Ohio, including Lake Erie. Sitting there by the water looking at the shore bluffs, I wasn't sure why. It was a superbly peaceful place.
I sat there for awhile, thinking.
The day before while I was driving to a meeting for work, tears were streaming down my face as I remembered the trips I made seven years ago between western Michigan and Flint as my own grandfather was dying. First, he was in the hospital, and then when it was time for hospice, my parents moved him back into his house for his final weeks, attending to him and my grandma who was further along in her beginning struggle with Alzheimer's than anyone realized. My grandparents were private types and my grandfather had been sheltering us from the severity of her condition. My mom described nursing him through the dying process as the "worst best thing I ever did".
My thoughts soon shifted to how Matt's grandpa welcomed me as a member of their family when I was only 17. I never knew one of my grandfathers, so Matt's grandpa was a welcome replacement. Like the grandpa I was close to, Matt's grandpa was full of love, but hardly reserved. He loved to have a good time. He loved to help people. He told big stories and had a big throaty laugh that shook his whole body and lit up his face. He gave big hugs, and even bigger kisses. His very big hands had worked many years, first as a carnie in the circus, then as a machinist in the Canadian Royal Navy during World War II, during a long career with an energy company in Detroit, and in his retirement, tending to a garden of flowers and red and yellow tomatoes. Once when he rested his hands on mine during church, my hand fell asleep from the weight.
As I sat by the water, the hundreds of seagulls sitting along the break wall took flight at once.
A few came closer so I could see them in detail.
I think that is how people float through our lives. Most we observe from a distance, but if we're lucky, some fly closer and we get a better look at how they move through the world.
The next week and a half was one of the best worst things I've ever done. Much like my own grandfather, Grandpa Elliott was in the hospital, then was moved to a hospice home. He was aware of what was happening to him, and we sat with him and tried to help him through the best we knew how. Throughout the two weeks, he was surrounded by his children, his grandchildren, and even one of this great grandchildren. Standing by his side while he left this world was not easy for any of us, but Matt's family is good at sticking close to one another and that helped a great deal.
After he passed, I went to visit my grandma who is now living in a home for people with Alzheimer's. She had not the faintest clue who I was this visit, but she seemed much more at peace than I've seen her in a long time. In years past, she spent most of her days in bed, but now she is back to walking extensively as she did before my grandfather died.
We went outside with ice cream cones and sat on a bench. She told me how much she loves ice cream, and how she couldn't get over how beautiful the sky was. We took a walk and she stopped to admire all the flowers. I was acutely aware of how important it was to me to spend time with her. To hear the voice I'd heard since childhood. To see her hands. To watch her face light up, to hear her laugh, and to watch her gestures. She may not know who I am to her but we still have a connection. When I got up to take care of her dishes at dinner, she kept her eyes on me the whole time.
Over the past week, people had commented that Grandpa Elliott's quality of life had not been very good for the past several years, as his memory and health deteriorated. Matt's parents had been working diligently over the past six years to improve his quality of life, by taking him to see his extended family, spending time with him, taking him out weekly for his favorite meal of chicken and dumplings, to get him out into the world. As I sat there on that bench under the blue sky with my grandma, I thought about what is essential to my quality of life. When my health, my mobility or my memory is compromised, what makes life worth living? Is there any point, through the inevitable suffering?
And though my grandma doesn't know who I am, how old she is, or even that she's living in a memory unit at a retirement home, she experiences moments of peace and joy, and being surrounded by love and beauty. In those moments with her, that seemed like enough.
This whole experience shifted something in me. I returned home feeling remarkably more content.
At grandpa's funeral, the minister talked about how through our lives we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. We experience great difficulties, as we lose loved ones and face our own personal hardships. Despite the difficulties grandpa endured, it was undeniable by the way he lived his life that his cup runneth over with love, joy, laughter, adventure, giving, and family. We will always miss watching him move through the world with that sort of robust joy.
I choose to remember each of my grandpas in those moments when they had big smiles on their faces. For my grandpa, that was when we walked through the door of his house for a visit and he opened his arms for a hug. For my grandpa-in-law, that was when a good joke or story was told, often by himself!
After experiencing this loss, I've decided, as much as possible, to sit in each moment and to feel full.