I went to Detroit a couple summers back with my church youth group on a mission trip. One afternoon, I was hanging out with some other girls in our shared sleeping area and doing henna tattoos. We ended up deciding to tattoo “shit” on the bottom of our feet as a joke and each of us got different punctuation. Mine had a period: “shit.”
On our last night in Detroit, we went to a Tigers’ game. The sky turned a sickly green hue in the middle of the game and it seemed like something that could have heralded the end of the world. It didn’t, of course, but my world was distinctly changed by that green sky.
It turns out that sometimes violent storms can change the color of the sky of places close by. Close by being a relative term because across the state, in Grand Rapids, nearly two hundred miles away and my hometown, there was a magnificent storm. Trees downed, power outages for thousands, and tons of property damage. It lightly rained in Detroit.
In the morning, while I was eating breakfast with my sister and some friends, our youth pastor called me and my sister into another room. He told us our grandpa was in the hospital and prayed with us. My grandpa was old, eighty-eight in fact; he probably broke a hip I rationalized. I didn’t believe things could be bad.
Deep down, I felt explicitly sure my grandpa would never be the same. I shoved those feelings back deep down.
People offered to drive my sister and me back to Grand Rapids ahead of the rest of the group. But that wasn’t really possible as we only had three vans and I turned them down anyway. I wanted everything to remain the same as long as it could. Ignorance is bliss.
As soon as I saw my mom at the church, I knew. I knew it was bad. We gathered our stuff and my mom drove us home to change and pack bags to take to the hospital. She told us that during the storm, my grandpa had gotten up out of bed; we think to check on the tree in their front yard which had fallen in the storm. He fell on the stairs and hit his head. The paramedics took him away unconscious. The tree had fallen maybe two yards away from my grandparents’ house and if it had fallen on their house, it would have fallen onto their bedroom.
Those days at the hospital are jumbled up as each long day felt exactly the same as the one before. Certain moments stick out with stark clarity while the rest just feels like a blur.
The first day in the hospital was mostly sitting around and staring out the windows of the ICU waiting room. It was eavesdropping on other families waiting and staring at my phone wondering who I should tell, what I should say. It was taking out the Dutch braids that had been in my hair for two days and pretending it looked pretty and not greasy. It was taking turns to go see my grandpa.
Walking down the hallway to see my grandpa for the first time was awful. The windowless hallway stretched forever; the chemically clean smell mixed with the stench of urine and sickness. My grandpa looked so small and pale in the hospital bed. His head was bandaged and bruised. His hands lay on top of the blankets with his palms flat against the bed.
In my high school Mandarin Chinese class, there was this guy who was like 6’6”. Some big guys are described as bricks, but this guy was a straight-up wall. When we would watch movies in class, he would lay down on the floor and inevitably fall asleep. He would twitch in his sleep; the whole room would shake like we were experiencing an earthquake. Watching my grandpa’s hand twitch against his hospital bed was nothing like that. It was more like watching a leaf fall on a tower of cards and thinking the whole thing might tumble apart.
Before that week in the hospital, I had never thought my grandpa would die. It was a naive dream. But he never seemed really old though he was eighty-eight, only twelve years short of a century. He was the last grandparent I expect to say good-bye too. He was the healthiest of all my grandparents. He was still playing sudoku in black pen and mowing his lawn and coming to all my sister’s and dad’s ball games. I had reconciled myself to the loss of one of my other grandparents in the way you do when someone has health problems that turn them into a completely different person. Listening to relatives who were in the medical field, it didn’t take long to realize I was about to lose my grandpa completely whether or not his body kept on living.
In ICU waiting rooms, especially when you are there every day, you get a brief look into other people’s lives during their most vulnerable moments and people get a peek into yours. My family is not a quiet one. Even in the hospital, where things are usually a little more subdued, I remember us being kind of loud. But one moment of quiet within my family sticks out to me. We had ordered pizza and had somehow wrangled up enough tables and chairs and set them up like a long dining room table. My grandpa usually prayed before family meals. Somehow my cousin Chris got nominated to pray. I don’t remember his exact words, but I can tell you it was one of the most beautiful prayers I have ever heard. Nothing in the ICU waiting room is private; this prayer wasn’t either. A silence fell over the waiting room as my cousin prayed and a fragile peace too. It was an intersection of my family and the other families anxiously waiting. I would call this the one of the many instances of overwhelming love I felt during that week at the hospital.
While there were moments of feeling incredibly loved, I also felt periods of failure. Every time I walked down the hallway to see my grandpa, the “shit.” tattoo burned. My grandpa was a conservative, Christian man. He swore, yes. But I felt quite confident he would have been horrified knowing his good, Christian granddaughter had the word “shit” tattooed on her body, even if it was temporary. “Shit.” was how I felt about the whole situation though.
It was a constant battle between feeling loved and feeling like I failed. A family friend came and dropped off a bag of goodies: love. Visiting my grandpa and not knowing what to say: failure. Wandering around the hospital with my sisters and aunt: love. Being away from the hospital: failure.
The feeling of failure was closely tied to feeling helpless.
I remember sitting in on my family’s discussion of what we should do about my grandpa. He wasn’t even breathing on his own. His twitching hands weren’t in response to any stimulation, but something I still don’t understand about the brain sending signals out. He was unresponsive and even if he woke up, it was clear he would have to relearn many skills needed to function as an independent person. There is something all the aunts and uncles and my parents agreed on.
My grandpa wouldn’t want to live like this.
I think it was the next day when we all took turns saying goodbye to my grandpa. The man laying in the hospital bed never looked like my grandpa. I never knew what to say to him. I actually don’t know what I did say to him. I know what I was wearing: a black and white plaid button down, jean shorts, gold hoop earrings, a gold bracelet that said “have courage and be kind” on it, and a gray leather backpack.
That’s where I felt the most failure. I don’t know if I told my grandpa that I loved him in the hours before he died. I know I said it to him in my heart and my head. But there is something about saying “I love you” out loud, even to someone who can’t hear or understand. Especially because I kept hearing again and again how much my grandpa loved all of us, his grandchildren. But I couldn’t even speak at his funeral, just piled up used tissues on the ground. I couldn’t even speak to him in the hospital. His love seemed to speak from beyond the grave, but mine lived only in my head.
“Shit.” I couldn’t do anything for my grandpa other than be present.
“Shit.” I couldn’t tell him how much he meant to me.
Shit. Shit. Shit.
All I could think about was me. How loved I felt. How my world changed. How self-centered I felt. How I felt like a failure.
Funerals and burials do bring a sense of closure. It brought me out of myself. We got to celebrate who my grandpa was; how much he loved black licorice and dutch peppermints and going to Culver’s and getting plain cheese burgers. How he raised my dad and uncles and how creative he was with woodwork and welding and masonry. How he built the house my dad grew up in and bunk beds for my dolls.
At the burial, we got to take a flower from the bouquet on top of the casket. The funeral man told us we could throw the flower down into the grave, but that just felt wrong. Instead, my dad threw in a roll of Wilhelmina peppermints: Dutch like my grandpa. I’ll never forget the sound of the roll of peppermints hitting the casket. I took home my white rose and I still have it dried in a vase in my room.
It aches that I don’t remember if I told my grandpa if I loved him or not, but I love him every moment I eat a peppermint and all this summer long when I worked for the company he started with his brother. I love him every time I see my grandma and tell her I love her.
I love you. I love you. I love you.
I love you, Grandpa.