I need to start this post off with a couple warnings: TW: death, justice system is trash. Also, because we just moved and changed insurance, I am without a therapist. 1000000% I should be talking to someone right now, but we’re not sure what our mental health coverage is and the first priority was finding a place to live. As a result, this post is a lot of what I’d be telling a therapist, though somewhat sanitized.
My grandparents weren’t perfect people. I mean, who is? But they loved fiercely.
The last couple weeks have been flooded with memories, so forgive me while I wax poetic about them before I talk about what happened.
Two weeks before my first birthday, my mom was activated (National Guard) for Desert Storm. My dad worked, her parents both worked, and Grandma N (dad’s mom) stayed home. So I spent most of my days with her – she was essentially free daycare, especially when I was that little, and it was easy for my dad to drop me off there. It was also easy for my mom to drop by on her lunch to feed me. She and I had an incredibly special relationship – she’s the one who taught me to sew, who taught me to embroider. I’m fairly convinced she haunts my sewing room, given that my sewing machine tends to act up a little when I’m particularly excited about a project.
I never really got to know Grandpa N. He worked graveyard for so many years that even in retirement he slept through the day. I remember being at their house, playing “school” with grandma and wanting to play the piano they had and being told no, because we couldn’t wake him up. What I do remember of him was an incredibly sweet man who loved me so very much. When he died, we were on a camping trip. We left early and flew back to CA, and I remember just sitting at the table, not understanding why we weren’t having a funeral. Apparently he didn’t want one – he was cremated, and his ashes scattered somewhere. It breaks my heart that he doesn’t have a memorial somewhere. He died in their bedroom – she told me that she’d been sleeping on the couch and she felt him tickle her toes and she said “it’s okay, you can go now,” and that was when he died.
His death, in a lot of ways, broke my grandma. She had been a stay at home mom, a housewife, because that was what people did. He had been her connection to the outside world. And suddenly, it was gone. Her oldest son, my uncle B, had died about a month after I was born. We had moved to VA. Her son D was married and living nearby, but still his own life. And her youngest, R, was living with them. B’s daughter, T, was living with her as well with her two kids. And R, T, and the kids became her entire life. The summer between my freshman and sophomore years of high school was hard for me. We were moving from VA to SC, and I had been planning on taking AP European History. We’d been assigned one of the best books for summer reading (A World Lit Only By Fire by William Manchester (not affiliate, support independent bookstores!)), and I was SO excited to tell her about it. After all, this was the woman I’d played “school” with for so many years. She just wanted to talk about how T’s oldest was starting to be able to read and the youngest liked being read to. And it just, I was mad. I felt like she didn’t love me all of a sudden, that I’d been replaced by her great-grandkids. And so, at 14, I decided I wasn’t ever going back.
I know now that she was grieving. Because how horrific to lose your oldest son and then 8 years later lose your husband. She wanted to protect herself – and she could do that by putting everything she had into the people who weren’t leaving her. I tried to stay in touch over the years. I’d call on occasion, she’d call on occasion. Once, in college, she called and told me that she’d been trying to call and my (now) ex had been answering the phone and telling her I wasn’t there. I tried to explain that I’d had my phone, he wasn’t even with me, she must have called the wrong number, but she wasn’t having it. In hindsight, even though all of those things were true, it seems like she probably knew something wasn’t right about that relationship (she was extremely intuitive) and I shouldn’t have completely brushed her off as a crazy old lady.
In 2014, D got a call from R that she was sick, and D told him to call 911. This kicked off a saga of epic proportions – a restraining order against R and T, moving her to hospice because she was diagnosed with leukemia (she held on for a VERY long time despite not being treated), a years long investigation by the police and DA’s offices, and ultimately charges against R and T. They were able to plead out and serve essentially community service, which is completely insane but that’s another story that I won’t tell here. I went out that summer because we were told she had 3-6 months to live, and she barely knew me. She asked for her mom, she talked about a baby on the floor at my feet, and she kept petting the quilt I made her telling me how the cats loved it. None of those things were in the room with us. It was insanely hard to be there, only 24 years old, and this woman I was SO angry at for having brushed me off had no idea who I was. I felt guilty for not having pushed this when I felt something wasn’t right. I still feel guilty. I wasn’t there when she died, and the quilt I made her (the one thing I asked to have returned to me) was donated to Goodwill. And this is why none of that side of the family was invited to our wedding – they are effectively dead to me.
As special as my relationship with Grandma N was, the relationships I had with Grandma and Grandpa R were even more. For them, I was the first grandkid. When my brother was born, to help my parents out early on, they took me to Disneyland for a week. We used to go to Marine World (probably where my love of fish was ACTUALLY started), and there was an incredibly affordable local park called Fairy Tale Town that was also a favorite place of ours. Grandpa worked as a grocery store clerk, and apparently my mom tried to keep me away from chocolate by telling me it was dirty (I hated being dirty). The way she tells it, we were in line, either his or next to him, and she told me it was dirty when I asked what all the candy in the checkout line was, and he grabbed some and was like “nope, we’re done with THAT story now, that baby needs candy.”
We went to church on Sundays, we’d walk around their neighborhood down to the elementary school playground, and I learned to swim in their backyard. Fun fact – they actually were able to afford their house because the guy selling it was terrified of the East Area Rapist (Golden State Killer) and willing to sell it at a loss. Several of the attacks happened less than a mile from their house.
When I got older, we’d bike down by the American River. When I was in middle school, he bought a Harley. A gorgeous Harley with blue horses airbrushed on the gas tank. He took me on my first “date.” Brought me flowers, took me to a movie. It was sweet (though I’m not actually a fan of the concept now), and we definitely went on the bike. He had a biker club at church, and we got to know a lot of those guys too. They were rough around the edges, but ultimately sweet guys trying to turn their lives around and he was doing what he knew how to do for them – leading bible study, praying with them, counseling them.
And then, in 2016 they went to Jerusalem with the church. When I went out in 2017, grandma was telling me and my uncle T that she was worried – he’d get up while they were eating and just wander off. She’d spent the whole week plus trying to keep him where he was supposed to be. He was forgetting things. We encouraged her to take him to the doctor, and we encouraged her to go to the doctor as well because she’d lost a significant amount of weight and we were concerned. Shortly thereafter, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and she was diagnosed with Lymphoma.
Fortunately, she’s since recovered from the cancer. But her mind is going – we know about chemo brain, and when you combine that with long term damage from celiac disease, it’s been rough on her. He continued to decline. My mom spent a few years going back and forth, trying to stay with them to help out. Ultimately, after COVID started and they were so very isolated, my mom and uncle found them an assisted living community with memory care. And he…continued to decline. They got him on the waiting list for memory care, and early this month they had an opening for just him.
We think that’s what broke him. They were married for 60 years, and suddenly he had to be separated from her. On the 7th, I got a call from my mom that he wasn’t responsive and they weren’t expecting him to make it past the 11th. I told her to tell him he had to wait for me, and I flew back on the 9th. And we sat in his hospice room for 3 days. My uncles came back early from vacation, and on Monday, they went home so they could check on the house, etc. My parents had an appointment that afternoon, so I offered to stay with my grandparents. We’d been sitting there for 3 days with no change, it wasn’t that big of a deal. I read to both of them for a couple hours, and then she went upstairs to take a nap. I stayed, of course, and talked to him. And all of a sudden, he stopped breathing. I called my mom (she was in the building at that point) and told her to get in the room. She made it back for him, but barely.
Guys, watching him breathe for 3 days and then being the one he picked to finish off that process with…guys that’s hard. I’d spent two hours telling him I wasn’t going anywhere, that we would take care of grandma, and talking to him just about life stuff – that Michael and I had moved to Germany, that we were looking for an apartment, that we were excited to do all of this traveling – and it was like he realized “it’s okay now.” And that’s an honor in some ways, because I’m glad I could comfort him and convince him that it really would be okay and that we wouldn’t let grandma suffer, but it’s also this traumatic experience. I was very much alone with him when he started those last few breaths. Something in me panicked that I’d be blamed for his death.
Grief is a fucking bitch. I’m mostly numb still, but occasionally it hits that he’s gone and he’s not coming back. And when it does, it’s a punch in the stomach and I can’t catch my breath. Not having a therapist right now is also absolutely brutal. I’m absolutely terrified of letting the feelings out. Because it’s not fair that he’s gone. He can’t be gone. I feel insanely guilty for having stayed away over the last year and a half – I wanted to keep them safe, and flying 6+ hours, being in at least two airports…that didn’t feel safe.
I am, at the very least, so glad that he popped in for my dress shopping. C spoiled me rotten and booked this thing called the Princess Treatment and we had the shop to ourselves, which unintentionally ended up being perfect because of COVID. We were able to skype in L and T, and my grandma. And then he popped into the frame and made everyone cry because he was just so stinking proud and happy and I will never forget that look on his face.
By the time our wedding rolled around, we had to make the awful choice to not fly them out. They just weren’t able to handle it, plus COVID restrictions, and it ended up being one of the hardest decisions I had to make for the wedding. We did livestream it, and we made sure someone was with them to log them into the stream. He’d lost most of his ability to speak by then, but I was told he was so very proud and happy to be able to see it.
Losing him is hard. I spent the next few days trying to keep my grandma’s spirits up, making sure she was going to things at the Home (I dragged her to EVERY event I could the day after) while my mom and uncle handled making the arrangements. She has a great set of friends who have also recently lost their husbands, and I know they’re taking care of her. But I’m still worried about her. She and I are so very alike, and I know how easy it is to just get lost in the feelings.
I guess this is all for now. I have happier updates, but I needed to get all of this out first and this post is long enough. I’ll be back in a few days hopefully with better things to discuss (and hopefully pictures).