My grandfather died in August. At the end, it was not unexpected.
It gets that way when someone passes the 90-year mark, and he was 92-years old. I held his hand a few days before he stopped breathing. He was sitting in an uncomfortable chair, in a dark hospital room with three other dying men, beside a wide window with a view of a brick wall, and I knew it would be the last time. We talked about doctors, and tests, and my grandmother, and how much he wanted to go home. But he knew it wasn’t possible.
Almost every conversation we had over the summer, and even last spring, had a sense of inevitability in it… he wanted to be younger. To be free of the pain in is legs and back. To be able to walk without a walker. To be able to walk the fences on his hobby farm, to make sure they were secure so the cows couldn’t escape. He wanted to be able to talk without pausing for words. To hear without needing repetition.
He wanted to eat properly cooked food, to enjoy taste. Until recently we would meet at a local diner, for a lunchtime steak, with mushrooms and horseradish. That’s what he wanted.
To sit down with his friends over coffee and talk about engineering, to talk about recent news, to catch up on the Canadiens, to trash talk the Senators, to find out more about his grandchildren… to ask about his great-grandsons. To flirt with the waitress.
For the last few years he lived in a retirement home that he hated. A few years ago, there was a fire at the one he liked… the one where he was happy, and he had to move. He was hurt, physically, during the evacuation. And he never really recovered, mentally, from having to abandon his home. From having to run away from his belongings, from having to not be in charge of his life. My grandfather, until then, was someone who ran in to help. He was the one who was most likely ‘in charge’. But after that, I think, he felt smaller. He felt frailer. He felt like there was an ending coming. Like he could see he was losing, or lost, control over his life. And he hated it.
He had been a large man. A quiet, dignified man. A man people listened to, who went to for advice, someone we learned from. He grew up poor, with three sisters and three brothers… his father was a train conductor, his first home was a renovated blacksmiths shed. But he graduated from three of Canada’s top universities. He was a star athlete, he won a Memorial Cup playing for his University hockey team. Strong, vital, intelligent… and he knew, towards the end, exactly what his condition was. There was no dementia in the end. There was no short circuiting.
When he had the energy, he could still be engaging. But everyday there was less energy. Less willingness to talk. More pain in his eyes. More complaints about his joints. More complaints about doctors. About not having control over his life, about having to rely on people to change his fucking pants. About having to wear fucking diapers. About not being able to tell his stories anymore.
He tried, over the summer, to repeat his stories to me… to show his work photos to his 4-year old great-grandson, my son. And I listened. And my son played on the floor between us. I had heard them all before. Several times. And I laughed in the right places, but not because I had to. Because his stories, his life, had meaning. He had done things, met people, had insight worth listening to over and over again.
I never stopped him from telling me a story I had heard a dozen times over. Ever. Later on, I could help him. I could give him the right word to help him continue his story, but I’d always listen. I was always interested. Not because there was a duty, but because he had been around the world dozens of times — he had dinner with presidents of country’s, and university’s, but never talked about those. He never bragged about his accomplishments, or talked himself up. It was always about the work. It was always about the people he worked with.
He talked about his friends. About the people he worked with. About the people he trained and hired. He never talked about being captain of his hockey team, or being the leading scorer in his league every year he played. He talked about the game he was watching. He talked about the players on the ice.
He hired people who needed the work. Then he taught them the skills to keep them working. After church, when we visited him on his hobby farm in rural Quebec during the summer, he would take my brother and myself out for an ice cream. Or a pop. Then we would visit with his friends along the long, winding road back.
On his farm, I would quietly follow him, waiting to be needed to hold a flashlight, or just to be useful. He taught me to drive his tractor when I was 9-years old. He put me in charge of driving the pick-up truck. Of baling the hay. Of feeding the cows, we would walk through the fields — him wearing a handkerchief on his head, me wearing rubber boots that were just a little big, and he would tell me the names of all the cows. Even the ones in the freezer.
I never had a father. So he made sure that I understood life. And he did it quietly. In short, two-week clips.
A few years ago, he told me he understood how sick I had been. That he understood — between the manic depression, and my father abandoning us — how hard my life had been. He actually told me that, just quietly and without judgment or accusation… “I know you’ve had a hard life.”. And I nearly broke down. Not out of sentiment, but because I finally understood that he had been watching me.
Then, in the end, during his last few days in the hospital, my quiet grandfather started talking about love, and life, and hope. He had visits from friends, people he had golfed with for years, people he had worked with years ago, family. And he told me he loved me. That he loved my son, my family.
That he respected me. Then I held his hand. I gently shook it. And left.
My mother was in the room when he died. He was talking to her, decided he wanted to take a nap, and didn’t wake up.
Because there were so many people who wanted to be at his funeral, to pay their respects, the service was held a few weeks later, on September 6. The next day, we buried him in a small cemetery, close to his hobby farm, in the mountains of Quebec.
…my baby boy, my grandfathers third great-grandson, was borne later that night.
This is stunningly beautiful. Your love and his shine through so clearly, and we’re all better off because of it.
Thanks, Julia. Really. I haven’t had time to properly grieve for him until I wrote this last night… a few days after he died, my wife was in the hospital due to complications from her pregnancy. So I was in and out of the hospital for the two or three weeks leading up to his service.
I missed the service because we thought the baby was coming. But I managed to be there for the burial. My wife gave birth eight hours afterwards. So it had been too busy to stop and think. Writing this has helped a lot, just in getting my thoughts and memories in order.
Thanks again for commenting.
This was an amazing, thoughtful, and absolutely wonderful tribute to your Papa. I lost mine 2, almost 3 years ago.. And its so hard. It still is. My Papa would sit and tell my daughter, his 7th great grand child, that she was “the Boss”, she was responsible for changing me and my life. That she was incredibly important, and she knew it. I cherish the fact that she was the absolute last person he had any actual response to when she left earlier in the day, before he died.
He had been unresponsive, save for a few hands squeezes, for almost a week, and it was killing everyone to see such a strong man reduced to this. We’d take turns by his bedside, holding hide hand, just praying for a squeeze, or something. I got a squeeze out two, not just reflexes, and I knew it was going to be his time to go soon, so I daughter up so she could see her favorite man. His appearance scared her, as it does small children. They’re not used to tubes and machines.. Esp in their favorite people. She wouldn’t go near him for quite some time.. But then finally, before it was time to go, I was like, “give great Papa a kiss before we go. He needs some love”. Sure enough, she gave him a kiss and he puckered up to kiss her good bye. I tried to kiss him, to illicit the same response, but nothing. She was the “Boss”, and he’d had to say good bye…
We’d left for dinner.. And on the way back to the hospital, we got “the call”.
Xo sorry for hijacking your comments
You know you can hijack whatever, whenever you feel like it. That’s a beautiful memory for you and your daughter. Having my son meet my grandfather, and being able to have the photos around to remind him of his great-grandfather, is something I’ll always be thankful for. Somewhere in there, inside his memories, is my grandfather’s voice. Somewhere, in there, is the memory of holding his great-grandfather’s hand. Of sharing an ice cream. Of being held.
Thanks for being here, and for sharing.
Wonderful bit of writing about what sounds to of been a wonderful man. I am sorry for your loss Gabriel. Congrats on the new wee one!!!
Gabriel, I am sorry for your loss. You had a wonderful (grand)father and lots of great memories.
This really touches me .. I never had a father either, and I really needed someone to be a positive male influence in my life. My grandpa was sick when I was 5 and died when I was 6, so I never had that bonding experience like you did. I’m glad you were able to have the time to make memories and learn about life from him. Thank you for sharing this.
I’m sorry for your loss, but I am glad you had this person in your life and I’m glad he had such a good grandson in his.
Gabriel, I love the way you write — the way you use words to paint a picture of your grandfather and create a snapshot of his life. You not only preserve the memory of him to remind yourself of the man he was, but you give us a glimpse into both his life and yours. Thank you for that. I have never met your grandfather, but as a reader I have a taken a moment to read about him and understand a little about him. My thoughts are with you. And, mazel tov on the birth of your son!
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