"When are we going to see Pop today?" the three kids asked me. This had become our routine this summer: schedule out the requisite drop-offs and pick-ups-and figure out what time we’d see Pop.
Pop is the name our kids had chosen for their paternal grandfather. Geebee is how they gifted their paternal grandmother with a moniker of her own, a mangling of "Grandma" when our oldest was learning to talk.
These were the grandparents that our children physically saw the most, the ones who lived only a three minute drive away, the relatives who often came for supper. (The Illinois-based grandparents, by necessity, have a completely different relationship with them, one of less frequency but more prolonged contact.)
In June, it was clear to even the kids that their grandparents’ health was failing, Pop more so than Geebee. By early July, Pop was in the hospital. Pop, the kids agreed, needed their visits. They worried about Geebee, too. Even with their aunt living at their house, the kids thought Geebee might be lonely. We tried to stop in there more, too.
Our daily visits started at BMH, and we were hopeful that he’d soon be returning home. Instead, he moved to Thompson House. The first night in his new room seemed almost oddly party-like. Family had gathered, and even though Pop was tired from the move, he clearly wanted us all there. Geebee and Pop were both smiling, Geebee laughing even, as the kids kissed them good night.
Our second son did not like this idea of Geebee and Pop living apart: "Why can’t Geebee go live with Pop?" Even though we explained the economics of health care and nursing homes, he still persisted. "She’d be happier if she were with Pop."
The very next day, Geebee suffered a massive stroke.
The kids asked their standard question: "When are we going to visit?" They had already gone through a massive heart attack, followed by emergency triple bypass surgery, five years earlier. They had watched-and visited-when Geebee had a stroke two years ago. With every health setback of their grandparents, the kids just adjusted and accepted the situations.
But this time, we held a family discussion about strokes and their varying severity ... about how Geebee no longer really knew us ... about how unrealistic her recovery chances were. We remembered how she was the night before, agreeing this was the best way to remember her. We talked about age and life. We talked about the inevitability of death and the cancers Pop had.
We had all those conversations that we don’t really want to have.
Five days after Pop moved from the hospital into Thompson House, Geebee, his wife of 67 years, joined him in the same place-just as our son had hoped for, but in completely different circumstances.
Two days more, and she was gone.
In Fred’s small room, we all gathered-aunts and uncles, siblings, cousins, in-laws, long-time friends. Ever the patriarch, Fred graciously hosted those who came to pay their respects that afternoon. He proclaimed himself at peace: his greatest worry -- and hers -- had been how the other would do after one died.
We continued the coordination of life’s schedules and visits. Sometimes it was more than one check-in a day, sometimes someone was away at camp. Many days, we’d grab lunch, and in we all would traipse, food bags in each hand.
The kids shared stories from their day-little things, really, like "Today I went to mountain bike camp, Pop. We were going downhill and did this really cool jump." Another one might pipe in with details of her field trip from camp. Or I’d contribute some silly story about the dogs or the rabbits or the chickens, anything, really, to bring the outside in.
During these weeks, with pain medication abating his constant daily grind of bone-on-bone in his back, we conversed more with Pop than we had in the last few years. He was more "himself," a blessing that nurses told us often happens at these last days.
One day, we brought some of our bunnies actually physically into Thompson House. Geebee had made it up to see them, but Pop had not. I’m quite sure that the kids and I enjoyed this visit much more than my father-in-law did, but he humored our enthusing over the cute little rodents. Pop regaled his grandchildren with stories of the bunny their aunts had brought home once, the one that they had dared to name after their father in hopes to win him over and keep their furry friend. (They won; the rabbit stayed.)
Around this time, the hospice chaplain shared an observation with me: "There’s a lot of love in that room," she said.
Yes, I thought: that’s what this summer is. That’s what we are doing here, with this massive upheaval of our daily routines. We are remembering to be present. To be here, now. To live fully for today. To witness the love that these two had for each other, to appreciate anew the love of family as their children coordinate their time so that their father is alone for short periods, if at all.
And from Fred himself, we are being taught how to say goodbye, how to face the inevitable with a sense of dignity and graciousness, with honesty and calm.
This past Saturday, we visited. Two played a card game, another two of us worked on word searches, one fidgeted on his phone, while Pop dozed a bit, and briefly answered our questions about what he’d eaten and who had been there. That night, we warned the kids that Dad would check in with Pop before we visited the next day. This suited them all fine anyway; they had grand plans for sleeping in.
As each got out of bed on Sunday morning, their first question was, "When are we going to see Pop?" This time, I had to tell them that Dad thought Pop was not having a good day, and that we were not going to visit. We spent our day very quietly, somehow unable to engage with others.
By the next morning, we gave them the sad news that their Pop was gone, that he had joined Geebee.
As these two souls leave our world and our family, the gracious words of the kind hospice chaplain stay with me: "There is a lot of love there."
It’s a life lesson I feel blessed to have learned.
Jill Stahl Tyler is a parent to three children involved in the local schools-now at the high school, middle school and elementary school levels. She firmly believes in all education, and currently sits on the board for the Brattleboro School Endowment, the Brattleboro Town School Board and the Early Education Services policy council. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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