Grandpa

This past weekend, on Saturday, August 14th, my grandfather passed away. It’s strange writing this out knowing that his email address is subscribed to my blog, so as soon as I hit “publish”, an inbox that used to belong to my grandpa will get a notification announcing his passing. It’s all just…strange.

Two weeks ago, my mom texted me and my three sisters to let us know that both of our grandparents were sick and had tested positive for Covid. Sitting in my home office, I immediately started crying. I felt sickeningly worried about both my grandparents, but especially my grandpa. My grandpa who was 87 years old with a heart functioning at 30%. My grandpa who had fallen a week prior, and was still recovering from that head injury. My grandpa who was so incredibly full of life and as sharp as ever, but whose body had started showing more “wear and tear” in recent years.

As with most Covid patients, it was a rollercoaster. Reports every 12 hours feeling completely contradictory.

He’s not doing well.

He’s doing so much better and is complaining about the hospital food!

He’s on oxygen and has double pneumonia.

He is getting released from the hospital! He’s going home!

He’s back at the hospital. It’s not good.

Being four months into my daily writing practice, I took some time on August 10th to process what I intuitively knew was coming, as hard as it was to write about.

8/10/21

I think grandpa is going to die. Well, I know he’s going to die. The same way I know that we are all going to die. But I think that covid is going to kill him. It’s a very strange, sad, and confusing thing when someone in your life has a possible pending death sentence. It doesn’t feel normal to have the thought, “This person may be fine in two weeks, or they may die.” This is life in a pandemic, though. 

Terminal illnesses don’t work that way. You usually have a few months at minimum with the person. A fatal heart attack or car accident is instant when it kills someone. A terrible, unexpected death. But covid is its own kind of bizarre tragedy. Not easier or harder than other end-of-life scenarios, each one heavy in its own way, it’s just different. It’s a constant up and down, back-and-forth. Feelings of hope and then hopelessness. I don’t have much hope for my grandpa right now. I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing. I’m maybe feeling hopeless as self-protection, but also, I just have this tingling deep feeling, this familiar knowing, that this is the end for him. I would love for it not to be. With tears and grief and rage I am hoping for it not to be. I was so looking forward to going to Williamsburg in a month or so to see Memow and Grandpa for our annual Williamsburg trip. The one where we trick-or-treat at their neighbors houses even though it’s only September. The one where the boys play chess and drink beer until everyone in the room, all of us introverts, decide we’ve had enough of each other and retreat to our rooms. Grandpa would often get up and go to bed without even saying goodnight. We just knew he had had enough, and we laughed and admired his blunt and true-to-himself ways.

My memories with grandpa are maybe unlike other people’s memories with their grandparents. It was never super warm and cuddly- at least in the traditional “warm and cuddly” way. It wasn’t bear hugs, trips to the movies, or mini golf. It wasn’t building pillow forts and ice cream sundaes.

It was summers at my grandparent’s house, quietly nestled in the sand dunes on the Virginia Beach coastline. It was delicious, home-cooked meals on the patio while watching the resident dolphins play in the sunset-reflecting waters. One of those evenings, a bird flew overhead as I was about to take a bite of my salmon steak and it let out a big, wet dropping right on my head. Grandpa exploded with laughter watching his pre-teen granddaughter scream, panic, and writhe.

Grandpa, surrounded by a wife, two daughters, and 6 granddaughters, of course enjoyed his family, but something came to life in him as my sisters and I started marrying our husbands. These husbands of ours, they opened up a side of grandpa I hadn’t really seen before. He loved the husbands, and especially got to know Isaac and Alex really well. Oh, how he lit up when he would see them. He looked like a proud father when they walked in the room. He never had sons, and I like to think he really did view our husbands as his sons. Where fireside conversations with grandpa, before we brought the men into the family, were often spent trying to find common ground to discuss– the husbands and grandpa effortlessly laughed, drank beer, and picked on the girls together. The boys– grandpa finally had his boys.

Grandpa really started to enjoy the grandkids and great grandkids a lot in the last decade, too. He loved to scare Liam and Hailey after trick-or-treating. He would jump out behind walls or run up behind them with his scariest face displayed. Grandpa loved to cook for us. A lot of grandparents like to cook, and the recipients of their meals have to pretend they’re enjoying the overly-salted or underly-seasoned dishes while secretly plotting a pizza order later. Not with grandpa. He was a master chef. And in the 34 years of my life that he cooked for me, I only had a couple dishes repeated– he loved finding new flavors and dishes to experiment with. His dishes and techniques inspired Isaac to learn how to become a skilled chef, too. Almost weekly, as Isaac is sautéing garlic, onions, and ginger on the stovetop, I say to him, “Ahh, this smell always reminds me of my grandpa. I grew up with this smell filling the house.”

No matter how many times I say it, Isaac always smiles at the sentiment. He never teases me or rolls his eyes saying, “I know, you’ve said that at least one-thousand times before.” I think maybe Isaac recognizes that my childhood with grandpa wasn’t bear hugs and pillow forts– it was ginger and garlic slowly searing on the stovetop. And he lovingly lets me relive those memories without criticism or teasing, no matter how many times I repeat myself.

Grandpa said “I love you” to me for the first time just a few years ago. We were all saying our goodbyes in their Williamsburg driveway and grandpa gave me a hug and nonchalantly said “I love you” as though he had said it hundreds of times before. In gesture, yes. But in actual words, never.

I dropped into the driver’s seat, the car door slammed behind me. Isaac asked, “What’s wrong?” and I explained that grandpa had never said “I love you” to me before. It was paralyzing for a moment. I had been saying it for years and it would be met with a smile, averted eyes, and an awkward “Okay.” I never stopped saying it, even though I knew it felt a little awkward for grandpa. I knew he had a very different upbringing from me– one that I didn’t know many details of, but recognized at an early age that it impacted how he was able to express himself. I never felt like I needed him to say “I love you”, but the impact of hearing those words that day was still profound.

In the last 10 years, grandpa softened– both in body and in spirit. He seemed to love and appreciate family more, and in turn, I appreciated him more too. It wasn’t cuddles and bear hugs with grandpa. It was flight simulator computer games and learning about his newest kitchen gadgets. It was roasted parsnips and beef stew. It was Bridget the beagle— grandpa loved her so much. It was chocolate pasta. It was the big boat out back, Boxwood bushes that I can still smell when I close my eyes. It’s how the TV was always too loud for him no matter how low the volume was. It was Chihuahente, and the hundreds of other spooky, made-up stories he would tell me and my sisters to make us squeal. It was sitting on mom’s cabin porch talking for 3 hours, even though all of us were shivering from the winter chill. It was watching my normally reserved grandpa let loose at each of his granddaughter’s weddings, and being the lucky recipient of a dance floor kiss on the lips from the tipsy maid of honor at my wedding.

It was the way he would yell at us when we were on our cell phones in a room full of people– he hated the distraction and time waste that they were. It was the recipes emailed, the treats from the gourmet market, the kayaking in his backyard. It was the way he and my grandma, married for 66 years, were complete opposites of humans yet shared a beautiful, well-oiled, loving marriage. It was the way he watched his grandkids parent their children with tears in his eyes and told us what amazing parents we were– even reflecting once that he wished he could have been that kind of parent to his kids. It was the classical music constantly streaming through his house, which I like to think is the reason I also have a constant stream of classical running throughout my house.

Those were his “I love yous” over the years, before he was able to say the words out loud.

I love you too, grandpa. Just as you were, just as you are.

Thanks to my sister, Charlotte, for going through grandpa’s computer today and making a playlist of the songs he had saved as his favorites. She sent this to me as I’m sitting here finishing writing this post and it perfectly soundtracked the memories (and tears) flooding in.

7 thoughts on “Grandpa

  1. Courtney: this is such a beautiful tribute, a real tribute to your grandfather. Wishing you and the family peace as you navigate this together. Your photos invite us in to share the joy, even as the pain touches the moment deeply. Such a treasure trove of memories you have to draw from as days pass by. Thank you for sharing. Sending peace to you all.

  2. You have captured you Grandpa. Amazing. I was so touched about the “I love you” that he finally said to you…the stories about the “boys and beer” were poignant. Thank you for not making him “perfect” like so many do when there is a death. Duane had MANY talents and shared his kitchen/brilliance with me, his politics and his dry sense of humor. It is the memory that I will keep, as well as at Katy’s wedding. He truly LOVED your family and your truthful tribute really is a testament to YOU and your writing. Keep these sharing your talent with us…You make me smile and cry. A true writer.

  3. So beautiful!!! I will always remember the kindness he showed me and your mother (his daughter) throughout our marriage., especially in our younger years where we would be surprised with special dinners out. He NEVER let me pay, even when there were four little girls at the table!! Thank you, Courtney, for capturing the uniqueness which defines Duane!

  4. I’m so sorry Courtney. God be with you.

    I lost my 2 remaining grandparents in a few month period in 2016, with my grandpa dying suddenly on my birthday. 5 years later it still doesn’t feel real. Wish I could say something to help, other than I know what it’s like.

    As always, you write so vividly and eloquently, thank you for sharing your difficult, but powerful and moving emotions, it takes a lot of strength.

    I’ll be praying for you.

    Jake

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