Friday, February 23, 2007

Remembering Pappaw

Our family is missing its patriarch. A year ago today we said our final goodbyes.

His was a beautiful death, if anything about death can possibly be beautiful.

But let's back up a bit first. Ours was a close-knit family. My grandparents had four children -- their son lived several hours away, but their three daughters all lived nearby. We all went to the same church, and every Sunday afternoon was spent at my grandparents' house, the entire family together. Sunday afternoons are still spent there by all family members who are in town, in fact.

We lived next door to my grandparents. One set of cousins came home from school with us each day until their parents got off work, and the other set only lived about a mile away and were over all the time. Pappaw loved his grandchildren, although he often accused us of raising his blood pressure. :o) And so we all grew up spending probably as much time with Mammaw and Pappaw as we did with our own parents.

Fast forward to the present. Pappaw developed Alzheimer's in the last years of his life. It crept up on him over the years as he struggled more and more to remember, and last December he entered the final stage of the disease. On Christmas Eve just over a year ago, I sat with him for several hours as he picked up the pictures of his children and grandchildren and asked me over and over and over again who they were. At one point, after asking repeatedly about his children and what they were doing, their families, their jobs, etc., he said in amazement, "Three teachers and a nurse? You mean, every one of my kids turned out good?" I said, "Yes," and he replied, "Well that sure is something, because I was one son of a gun!" :o) He then called in to my grandmother and proudly announced, "Guess what! I just got acquainted with... -- what kin did you say you were to me again? -- I just got acquainted with my granddaughter!"

By mid-February, he had deteriorated so much that we knew his time was very short, a matter of days. I came in for the weekend to say goodbye. My grandmother went with me to his bedside when I arrived and said to him, "Look who came to see you! Do you know who this is?" She was always questioning him, trying to help him preserve his memory. I was surprised she was still doing it at this point, as it had been three or four months since he'd remembered any of us other than my grandmother and my little niece that he just adored. But then he responded with a nod, and said my name! "And you remember who she's married to?" my grandmother prompted, and he responded with my husband's name. My grandmother looked at me and smiled, "He got his mind back! He knows all of us. God has given him back to us one last time before He takes him home for good. Now we can tell him goodbye, and he knows us and can tell us goodbye too."

He was very weak. He could only lay in bed, he could barely lift his arm to shake his finger when he talked, something that had always been part of his way of communicating. His speech was a great effort, and came out as barely more than a whisper, and he could only say a couple of words at a time. But his mind was back, and although his hospice workers had given us morphine to administer as needed, he kept assuring us he was in no pain at all, and didn't need it.

Because his last days were so obviously his last days, it gave everyone in the family an opportunity to come see him, and to say goodbye. I'm glad of that; the closure is good. You have your chance to say whatever you feel you need to say, without the regrets that one might have when someone close dies suddenly and you realize all the things you wish you could tell them, but now can't. We had our opportunity to say all those things, knowing the end was very close.

My grandfather and I had several things that were special to our relationship. One was that we saluted each other to say goodbye instead of waving or hugging as others did. I don't know when or how it got started, but I've done it since I was fairly young. Another, and again I have no idea why he started this, was that every time I left, he had to tell me to make sure I watched out for planes, trains, and automobiles. After he'd said it hundreds of times, he stopped saying it and just asked, "What are you supposed to watch for?" and I had to answer before I could leave. When his memory started slipping, my grandmother made sure to keep that a constant -- she always reminded him what he was supposed to say to me before I left. And he called me "The Kid". I had a special rhythm I always used to knock on their door if I went up to visit and found it locked, and without fail, every time I knocked, I immediately heard Pappaw calling to my grandmother, "The Kid's here!"

So of course, when I said my last goodbye to him, he forced out the words, "What... watch for...?" After I answered, I saluted him, as always, and he tried to lift his hand but just couldn't get it up very high. I said, "I know you're saluting me too," and he nodded.

The next day was amazing. I wasn't there, I had to go back home, but my aunts, mother, and grandmother witnessed it all. He was awake all day long (he had been awake only for a few minutes then would sleep for an hour, all day and night for the past week or so), and he saw heaven and had enough energy to tell about it. His eyes were darting all over the place, looking at things that the rest of them couldn't see. Sometimes he would tell them what he was seeing. "Beautiful water!" he would exclaim, eyes shining in delight, and this a man who had been afraid of water his entire life. "A beautiful orchard -- with apple trees!" "Beautiful sky!" Everything was beautiful. And then he began to see the people. His brother. His father-in-law. Other friends and relatives who have gone on before him. "I see God's people," he said then, "They want me to come." He remained in his right mind and still knew who everyone was, where he was, what was happening to him. This was not hallucination. Others may be skeptical, but I know my grandfather, and I know this was real. He'd been holding on because he didn't want to leave us; a glimpse of the place he was going was the impetus he needed to finally let go.

He slipped into a coma not long after this and never awoke again on this earth. His wife and three daughters were at his side when he went home.

This is why I say his death was beautiful. It was definitely a blessing from God in that he got his mind back, he wasn't in any pain, he didn't linger in that terrible state for long, but he did linger long enough that his family members were able to come in to tell him goodbye, and that he was able to glimpse heaven and share those little bits of it with us before going there for good. The most beautiful part of his death was our assurance that he is indeed in a better place and someday we'll be joining him. I just know when I get to heaven, Pappaw will be part of my welcoming committee, and I wouldn't be surprised if the first words out of his mouth were to exclaim, "The Kid's here!"

Until then -- I miss you, Pappaw. See you in heaven.

Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints. Psalm 116:15

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