While the Light is Still Good

I stood next to the hospital bed. Grandpa looked awful. My active, road-tripping, track-walking, forever-appliance-shopping grandfather’s hair was messy over his eyebrows; his face was long and drawn with tubes coming out of his nose and throat, his hands were limp on his hospital gown. My grandma sat next to him, and while I knew for sure you could read every feeling on my face, you could never on hers. Lips pursed, feet tucked under the chair, one hand on grandpa’s arm, nodding or looking around every once in a while. Grandma and I were very different. One of us had been a moody teenager, writing songs and crying a lot at night (mostly for no reason–my life was pretty good), and one of us had grown up as the youngest of ten kids, wearing her brother’s hand-me-downs and bouncing from sibling to sibling when her father kicked her out. She kept her emotions close and quiet as I strained to control mine.

-

One day earlier, in the middle of responding to emails and managing the shop calendar for that week, I took a call from my mom. Grandpa had been in the hospital for about a week with pneumonia. I had spoken with him on the phone three days earlier. We had talked about work, the weather, plans for Easter. Mom did not ask me about my plans for Easter.

“I think you need to come home as soon as possible.”

Grandpa’s breathing had dramatically worsened over the weekend, and he had been life-flighted from the county hospital in my hometown to one in downtown Columbus near OSU’s campus. Mom was told to gather the family, just in case. I paced on the sidewalk by the screen-printing shop where I worked. In childhood, we become accustomed to our parent’s tones, and even when we can’t see their faces, even if they don’t articulate their feelings over the phone, we can tell when someone is happy or sad or stressed or serious. This was the latter.

Mom hung up and I doubled over. I was supposed to work a full day and then take my younger sister and her college friends to explore downtown. Everything was pulled out of me, as if a giant magnet was stripping me of all my armor and my ornaments; first my responsibilities for the day and my plans for the week, then the luxurious state of normalcy and the security of my knowledge about the state of the world–my world, at least–which had just been proved inaccurate. Bare, numb in my five senses, but bare to the internal sensations of shock and helplessness. I hid my face in my shirt and sobbed.

-

He was awake, but barely. Sedatives would prevent him from trying–and not successfully–to disturb the tube draining his lungs. How do you talk to someone who can barely make sounds? Who coughs and gags on their drainage? He slowly turned his head to face Jay and I, raised his hand and made noises. “Hi grandpa, it’s good to see you.” (I managed to avoid the inane, typical “how are you doing”). More noises. Gagging. “No, dad, don’t try to talk, it’s ok,” my mom said, trying to soothe him. More struggling. I step back into the shadows of the room. The nurse comes in. I turn away as mom and grandma turn towards him to help.

I had no idea what this scene would be like, no reference point for someone being on a ventilator. The well of grief in my life had up to this point felt shallow. The scenes that moved and disturbed me were typically far less consequential. Mom had said he didn’t look good. I was confused–I had talked to him just days before, and he had been as normal and healthy as a geriatric linebacker.

One day later, we were driving back to my parent’s house in the evening, leaving our shift at the hospital. My hometown is west of Columbus, so as we merged onto I-70, we can face to face with the divine variegation of a wide-sky midwestern sunset. It was beautiful, annoyingly, maddeningly beautiful, maybe more so juxtaposed against the picture in my head of my grandpa’s ashy face. And I found myself soliloquizing, trying to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable images of death and beauty, sorrow and goodness:

Take a picture of this

Before it’s too late

My eyes are heavy

And my hands are on the interstate

In a moment, it’s gone

And I won’t understand

All the tensions between what I feel, what I know

And the pressure of your hands

At home, I watched my younger brother hold our less-than-a-year-old niece, the first grandchild in our family. I hadn’t seen her since my wedding the previous summer.

I lay in bed that night and thought about how grandpa had always seemed the same as long as I’d been alive. His head had been grey before I was born; the stoop in his back never made him seem frail, just ill-postured; he never passed up the opportunity for a road trip. I suppose age had restricted him somewhat, but grandpa was anything but feeble and helpless. Things more or less stay the same forever, and then suddenly, one day, they’re different. It’s the gradation; the changes that have been happening all along are camouflaged against the reality of the moment before. Whatever we know to be inevitable–like death–almost doesn’t matter until it happens.

And I had a feeling that you would get to be older

And I don’t know how to deal with that

Of course I knew that my grandparents would lose strength, mobility, maybe even memory, and succumb to old age. But inelegant lyrics aside, I really didn’t know how to deal with that as reality, MY reality. People die. Change happens. And there’s nothing I can do about it. There’s no tether I can hold onto, no prayer I can pray, no anchor to ground me against change.

-

Days that week were all car rides to and from the hospital, almost a dozen of us switching out between home, the waiting room, and the ICU room. A few other friends and family members joined us at different times. PJ and Danny sat with us at the hospital when they weren’t working. I had known them since I could remember knowing anybody. In the summer, we would ride bikes back and forth across town to each other’s houses, enjoying grill outs, stops at the ice cream stand, baseball and whiffle ball games. We were so far from those summers now. PJ had a stint in the Marines and now had a beard. I had graduated college and was married. My older brother and his wife had a kid. We didn’t ride bikes anymore, we ate ice cream with complex flavors like blueberry and goat cheese, and we all achieved varying degrees of distance from our hometown. My heart wants to hold onto the belief that I could still fit on my pink-and-purple five speed with the flower bag on the handlebars and that I can get a vanilla cake cone with rainbow sprinkles any time I want. But the tires would quickly deflate under my grown-up body, and the experiences that bonded us in childhood have moved from trophy shelves to cardboard boxes in our hearts. In those cardboard boxes are empty photo albums, ones I thought would have pictures of grandpa holding my own children one day, or revivals of blissful summer memories.

And I had a feeling that I would get to be older

And I thought that you’d be along for that

You want to load up your pockets with every good thing and carry it with you all your life. You want to hold every hand you’ve ever held as you walk down life’s path. You want to pile all the good stuff on your plate, and keep piling. But you can’t. I couldn’t.

-

We had to go back to Tennessee. I had taken a week off of work and couldn’t stay in Ohio indefinitely. Everything was unsure–the prognosis vacillated like a pickup wobbling down the highway with a busted tire. Maybe we would be back shortly for a funeral; maybe we would be back a few months later to celebrate all the June birthdays: dad, Aaron, Clara, and grandpa.

None of the doctor-talk details made much sense to me, as much and as patiently as mom communicated them over the phone or in our family group texts. And that Sunday when she called and told me they were moving him to hospice, I didn’t understand what that meant either. But as she explained it to me, I began to realize that hospice just meant that grandpa was queuing up for the end. The church crowd slowly streamed past me as I stood just outside the door, sobbing in front of God and everybody. Truth and fact had been teetering on a precipice with knowing and hoping and thinking and wishing pulling back and forth, and now, they had decidedly plunged in one direction. I guess grandma was probably the only one who thought he might still recover. I held my breath.

-

On Wednesday, I breathed out. It was peaceful, dad said. I was at work again, pacing outside. The edged expectancy in my chest slowly relaxed as the last bit of hope was exhaled and the last questions were silenced. On the day my mom called and told me to come home, I left work a little early and drove to one of the riverfront recreation areas to sit on top of a picnic table and look out on the Tennessee River, trying to wrap my head around it all. On the day grandpa died, I went to Panera. There was nothing left to wrestle with. The conclusion of change is its permanence, not our acceptance of it. That which comes on gradually, the change you fight and rage against, finishes its strange metamorphosis into whatever it was becoming, and as it flies out of your hand, flies away, and you find all your raging and struggling to keep it buried in its shell was all for naught, and you take a deep breath because the struggle is over. And then, and only then, after Change has bowed out and the lights have been turned on again, you begin the journey of acceptance.

That evening was a moment of clarity between the hospital room and the funeral, like the self-examination that happens after a fight with your spouse and before you make up. I didn’t feel crazy and out of control, even though life had just proven to me in the most penultimate way that I wasn’t in control at all. My family landscape had shifted right under me. The most-ringed tree had been uprooted, leaving crumbling ground to fill in infrastructures of roots. But the permanence, good or bad, was something to rest on for the moment.

Take a picture of this

While the light is still good

While I can still see clearly

And recognize the things that are good

And there were many good things. Good memories from twenty-three years with grandpa. Good time spent with my spread-out family during the days at the hospital. Good chance that grandpa was in a better place. My pockets were full of good things, and I will carry them as long and as far as I can.



 

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