Essay: Nine Years Later

Essay: Nine Years Later

A lot happens in nine years. For instance, nine years ago, I was a youthful 27. I was living in Colorado, wasn’t married, and probably thought I never would be. We were deep into a brutish second term of George W. Bush. “Twerking,” as far as I know, wasn’t a word. YouTube had just launched. And, in a small hospital in Peru, Illinois, my grandfather was holding onto life, waiting to say goodbye to his family.

Somewhere around April 26, 2005, my parents and I piled into a car and began a journey to Illinois. My grandfather was dying, and at the time, my only wish in the world was for him to hang on long enough for me to see him one last time. I have always hated myself for this. It was a selfish request. My 93-year-old grandfather had suffered a rip in his stomach. The pain made him pass out in his kitchen; the fall resulted in a neck injury as well. I cannot imagine the amount of pain he was in, yet, I wanted him to suffer through it just so I could say goodbye.

Keith Lowery was a tough ol’ bastard though. He’d led a full life, and usually on his terms. He had long been my hero. I love that man more than I imagined I could love anyone. He loved my grandmother just as deeply. She passed in the mid-nineties after spending a decade in an assisted living facility. Every single day, Grandpa was by her side. Nothing kept him from her. And he didn’t visit out of obligation. It was purely out of love.

In their younger years, my grandparents were the life of most parties. They both loved to dance, and if there was a dance floor, they were on it. It is a shame I didn’t get to see him in those years, but for most of them, I hadn’t even been born yet.

I first met them when I was just weeks old. Of course, save for photographs, I have no memory of this. My first memories are of visiting them in rural Illinois when I was five or so. By this point, my grandfather had lost much of his hair and had taken to wearing a toupee. At that age, I had no idea what a toupee was or that such a thing even existed. (I hadn’t even had my own hair long.) He picked me and my parents up at O’Hare, and when he greeted me, he tipped his toupee to me as someone in the ’30s would have tipped their fedora. “Why, hello,” he said in a slow, drawn out voice, his hair in his hand. Maybe some kids would have been terrified of this, but I thought I must have the coolest grandfather in the world—one with removable parts.

This was the first of many, many great memories with him. Over the next few decades, he would visit us in Colorado, we would visit him in Illinois, or we would meet in New Mexico to visit with him and other family members. Time spent with him always went too fast, and the goodbyes were always difficult. The only part that made it at all acceptable was knowing I would see him again.

When I was 18, I quit the job I was working and needed to get the hell out of town for a while. I bought a first class train ticket to Illinois, to my adoptive home, to hang out with my grandfather for a few weeks. When I arrived at the train station in Princeton, my grandfather and great aunt were there to greet me. For the next couple weeks, my grandfather and I lived a bachelor life together. I slept in the living room on a sleeper-sofa, but only after buying a foam topper for it to add at least a little cushioning to the ancient piece of furniture. We watched movies, stayed up late, slept in, and ate unhealthy food.

With the exception of the two or three nights I stayed with my great aunt, I stayed with Grandpa the entire time—two of the best weeks of my life. Up until that point, Grandpa and I had chatted on the phone often—about once a week—but I’d never gotten to spend a lot of time, one-on-one with him.

It ended all too fast though. Never has two weeks moved so quickly. Before I knew it, my train was pulling into Denver, my mind thinking about the next time I would see him.

A few years later, around Thanksgiving, Grandpa visited me and my parents in Colorado. After a Thanksgiving lunch with my parents, I drug him to dinner with my friends, excited to have my closest friends meet my grandpa. My excitement level was high, like a kid bringing their favorite grandparent to school for some weird type of show and tell. He enjoyed himself though, and as I knew they would, my friends loved him. But once again, it came to an end surprisingly fast and we had to say goodbye yet again.

Over the next few years, we got together in the usual ways. We’d meet him in New Mexico, or I’d visit Illinois. In fact, over the next several years, I would make a number of trips home to Illinois. One of the best trips was with my father. I was living near Denver at the time and Dad and I planned a quick visit to Illinois. Dad met me in Denver and we flew into Midway before renting a car and driving down to the Illinois Valley. As visits with Grandpa always do, the trip went fast, but the trip had been extra special since I got to spend time with my dad as well as my grandfather. My next trip home to see Grandpa was a solo trip in May of 2004. Just six months later, I returned with my parents for another visit. This was perhaps our best trip yet. We stayed for about a week, saw lots of family, and had way too much fun with Grandpa. Most every evening—after a day filled with family—my parents and I would bring Grandpa back to our hotel to play cards in the lobby. Euchre was his game and we played for hours, till 1 a.m. or later.

Once again, it seemed to pass much too quickly and I was forced to say goodbye again. We’d all had had too much fun and we were eager to relive the trip as soon as possible. So, we planned another visit for May, just six months later. We had it all planned out: We’d visit family, eat good food, and play cards with Grandpa till the wee hours of the morning, just like last time.

By by late April, it was clear our plans had changed. We received news from Illinois of my grandfather’s fall and stomach issues. He needed surgery for both. The doctors felt that, at his age, he might survive one surgery, but it was unlikely he’d make it through both.

On April 26—my birthday—we began making arrangements to leave for Illinois sooner than planned. But, as we planned, we got encouraging news from optimistic relatives. Maybe he’d pull through and we could visit at our planed time. Maybe we’d even be playing cards with him all night again.

Bullshit. Optimism can be an enemy. I will never understand how anyone thought he’d be back on his feet soon, but that’s old history now. I will always be angry for listening to those voices instead of planting my ass on a flight to Chicago.

So, a few days after my birthday, my parents and I hopped in the car and headed east. I watched out the window as every barren city in eastern Colorado passed by. Just hang on, I thought. Then we passed the cornfields of Nebraska where we stopped for the night. C’mon, just hang on, Grandpa.

I was unable to sleep. I ended up spending all night in the hotel lobby, writing and making temporary friends. Friends like the night clerk. The raver guy who stumbled in at 3 a.m. after a night of partying. And the business traveler whose email account I fixed. All night long, I wrote and forged temporary bonds. Then, finally, my parents were awake. We could now hit the road. In only a few hours, I’d be at his side, if he could just hang on.

He held on. I was unprepared to see him in his condition though. So many tubes and wires, so frail and defeated. He was awake when we arrived, though he was unable to speak. He seemed to be trying, but the words wouldn’t come out and tears formed in his eyes. It was sad to see him struggling to speak, but the tears at least gave me some confirmation he knew we were there.

This was the last I really saw of him, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say it’s the last he saw of me. He never regained consciousness, and for the next two days, I sat at his bedside. My cousin Celeste flanked him on the other side. For the remainder of his life, we sat with him. My mom took to calling us “the bookends.”

Celeste and I talked to Grandpa. We chatted with each other. We got him dabs of water when we noticed his mouth was dry. And, we slept when we could, hunched over, our heads resting on the mattress close to our grandfather, soothed to sleep by the rhythm of his breaths.

But in the early morning hours of Saturday, something changed. His breathing became shallow and strained. Something about the change in his breathing woke me, somewhere around four in the morning. Moments after I awoke, Celeste woke up as well. We looked at each other from opposite sides of our grandfather’s bed but said nothing. We both knew what was happening.

Eventually, I went down the hallway to the waiting room where my dad was asleep. I woke him, telling him we didn’t have much time. He didn’t say anything. He simply wiped the sleep from his eyes and followed me back to Grandpa’s room. Dad took up a position at the foot of the bed and I returned to my spot, opposite my fellow bookend. The three of us watched helplessly. We recounted happy stories and memories, and we repeatedly told Grandpa how much we loved him. By this point, his breathing was visible. His chest would rise with each inhale, and sink with each exhale. Then, we watched him inhale one last time. We waited, and we waited, but he never exhaled that breath.

I remember glancing up at the clock on the wall—one of those basic white-faced clocks with black numbers—it was 5 a.m. on the spot. Very weird.

I don’t remember a lot of what happened next. I called my mom to let her know he’d passed, and at some point, I wandered outside. I was at the entrance to the ER. Celeste was already there, making phone calls as well. The morning was still. The sky was a beautiful mix of dark blue and orange. Birds were chirping loudly. So many of them singing the song of the morning. I remember this best.

Once she finished her calls, my cousin and I sat on a bench together trading our favorite memories of Grandpa. Reminiscing about his humor, his love, and his life, which was lived well and to the absolute fullest.

Eventually, after a memorial service and more visits with family, my parents went back to Colorado. I stayed behind. For over a month, I visited with family, visited sites dear to Grandpa and to me, and held onto Illinois as much as possible. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye, and leaving Illinois this time meant I would never again be back to visit him. Eventually, I had to let go. I bought a first class train ticket to Denver and headed back.

Now, nine years later, I miss him as much as I did that still morning in Illinois. Maybe even more. But every year, for nine years now, I am awake at 5 a.m. central time to salute my best friend. Sometimes I take a walk into the woods. Sometimes I raise a whiskey toast. Other times I have a quiet moment alone from the comfort of my bed. For one of the most memorable years, I was in Wales, driving along a curvy mountain road on my way to Cardiff. At 5 a.m. Illinois time, I stopped along the road—near a beautiful valley filled with ponds—and commemorated my grandfather. But no matter where I am, every April 30th at 5 a.m. central time, I pause to remember my grandfather, and for a few short minutes every year, I feel like he’s near me once again.

 

RML
April 30, 2014
Albuquerque, NM