Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Saying Goodbye

I have a relatively large extended family on both sides. Growing up, until I was 5 or 6, every single one of my four grandparents, four aunts and three uncles, their spouses, and all 15 of my cousins lived within an hour's drive from my house and even now, the majority of us cousins still live in the Pacific Northwest. While I have fond memories of both sides of my family, for the rest of this post I am going to focus on my paternal grandparents.

The core of my family, on both sides, is my grandparents. My paternal grandparents lived exactly half a mile from my house, and family get-togethers were common for holidays or random Sundays. I remember many Christmases, Thanksgivings, Easters and summer Sundays spent playing with the barn, climbing up on the haystack, checking out the cows, swinging on the rope hung from the barn rafters, playing in the corn bin, looking in the windows of the chicken house, exploring the old milking barn, playing house under the big split maple in the front yard, setting up the marble run in the front room, and playing with the dolls from the chilly back bedroom.

I remember my grandma making clothes for my sister and I. Her sewing room was a room that was off-limits to us kids unless she was in there and when I go to my grandpa's house, I still instinctively stay away from that room. The living room had a sliding-top cabinet radio and record player that I absolutely love, and sitting on top was a revolving light with Niagara Falls that when you turned it on, would look like the water was actually falling. My grandma had a master touch with plants and 15 or more African violet plants thrived by the massive front window overlooking the garden and fields that stretched all the way to the hill several miles away. My grandpa was a farmer and my grandma was a housewife. They had a huge garden, that my grandpa was able to keep miraculously weed-free. We used to joke that the weeds just knew to stay away. There were always cookies in a green tupperware in the corner of the kitchen, and orange marshmallow peanuts or candy corn in the cabinet above the counter. When we ate dinner at  their house, dinner was never complete without canned peaches, applesauce, bread and jam, and a tupperware of cheddar cheese slices cut into 1" squares.

My grandpa was born into a German Mennonite family, and spoke only German until he went to school. When he was frustrated, he would speak in German and then shake his head and chuckle. He wore overalls every day but Sunday, with a plaid or blue chambray shirt and work boots. On Sundays, he wore a gray suit and black dress shoes. Until I was in high school he wore a pocket watch on a shoestring that was tucked into the front pocket of his overalls and I vividly remember playing with it many times. He wore a John Deere or straw hat when it was hot, and never ever unbuttoned the top button of his shirt or rolled his shirt sleeves up, except to wash his hands in the big metal basin in the garage. Into his 80s, he could buck hay with us young'uns (throwing 40-50 lb bales of hay 4' or higher onto the back of a moving wagon) and until 2-3 years ago, actively farmed along with my dad and uncles.

When I was in elementary school, my grandma had the first of many strokes. Her personality started to change, and it is harder for me to remember her before this point. My strongest memories of her after this point involve her sitting in her recliner in the family/dining room/kitchen, nodding and smiling as we cousins talked and laughed. She gradually lost more and more of her personality, and while I was too young and self-absorbed at the time, looking back it must have been so hard to watch her go. She had beautiful snapping black eyes, like no one I have ever seen before, and gorgeous silvery hair that she wore pulled back in a bun. She always had a half-smile on her face, like she was just listening and enjoying what was going on around her.

When I was in 9th grade, she died, more or less unexpectedly. That was hard. No one in my family had ever died during my memory, except my great-grandmother. I don't really remember much about it, except seeing my grandpa cry openly and brokenly for the first and only time in my life.

After that point, if it was possible, we got even closer. Even as we cousins grew up, we still had family Christmases and Thanksgivings together. Every Christmas and for my birthday 5 days later, my grandpa gave me a card with $10 inside, and he did this for every one of my cousins, their wives, and their kids, in varying amounts. He got quieter, but he appreciated humor and smiled at our jokes and laughed at the stories when my dad and uncles teased him. My cousin took pictures of him that I still have on my dresser. One time when I came home from college, he took me out for lunch and the waitress told me that he was cute, and that all the waitresses there looked out for him when he came for lunch.

After I moved back to the Northwest, when I went home to visit my parents, I would sit with him in church; seven rows from the front, on the left hand side. He never said much, just smiled and moved over. I used to watch his hands in church, gnarled and scarred, with short nails. I have some pictures of those hands on my phone and my ipod, and my computer. He would open the hymnal and sort of hum along, then listen to the sermon. Sometimes I nudged him awake and he would silently grin at me, shake his head, and blush a little.

A couple of years ago, he fell and broke his back. He was in a collar and brace for a while, but healed faster than expected and was back weeding the garden.

Over the past year, I've had to help him find the hymn a few times and he doesn't smile at me quite as easily. He seemed frailer when I would put my arm around his shoulder and dad would tell me about another skin cancer spot that had been removed at the doctor's office. His hair got thinner and he seemed to be...leaving.

Dad called Friday. It's cancer, and it's spread, and hospice has been called.

My aunt has flown in from Pennsylvania. My cousin's wife posted on facebook this afternoon that he's in pain and told another cousin that lucidity is rarer. Discussions are happening about funerals and I have made a lesson plan that can be done on any day just in case.

I'm struggling with this.

I know that my grandpa's faith is deep and unshakeable. I know that he has wanted to go home for a while now and that he knows where is is going. I believe he is going there, and I want him to be free from pain and loneliness. But he's been such a big part of my life for 32 years and I am having trouble letting go.

Ironically, I can't bring myself to go see him. I know I'm being selfish, but I don't want to see him in pain. I don't want to see him forget my name. I don't want to say goodbye.

I want to remember the grandpa of my childhood - the one that wrestled hay bales, taught me to drive a truck, let me sit at his feet in the combine, sat next to me in the seventh row, and fed me 1" cheese squares and home-canned peaches.