Sunday, October 28, 2012


After my paternal grandmother passed away, the whole family was a bit worried about grandpa. After all, he was a diabetic, he would be lonely, he would be in this big old house by himself, his sight wasn’t great, etc. There was a list of potential problems. But, he was also in pretty good health, he was mobile, he was lucid, he was good-natured.

Our family (his son) lived less than three blocks away, and we visited often. (Probably not often enough, in retrospect.) Another son lived about six blocks away. A daughter lived about a mile away. The last daughter lived about 7 miles away. Yes. This exercise in distance is important, because you won’t believe what happened.

The family that lived in a neighboring town owned a skinny, single-wide. Grandpa offered them HIS HOUSE if they would just come and live with him for the rest of his days. The house was definitely big enough with a yard and a pasture and two-car garage (which was a big deal in our town back then). They refused. I guess they didn’t want to do this because they lived next door to my uncle’s mother, and they were already taking care of her. Fifteen years later, they have inherited her house, so all is OK.

Anyway, even though we were all so very close, no grown-ups could be bothered to care for him. Everyone was married, so there were eight grown-ups who could have done this, but they didn’t. Yes. I’m bitter. No. I don’t know all of the reasons for the decisions that they made. Yes. I’m probably overreacting and harboring these negative feelings for too long. No. It hasn’t blackened my soul. Yet.

So, the decision that they made was this: two grandkids would live with him and help care for him. The choice was made for those kids (literally, kids) to be me and my cousin. Even though there were kids in their teens, she and I were chosen. I can’t remember exactly how old I was. I want to say 12. If that’s the case, she was 10 as we are separated by exactly two years.

Dear Reader. Could this really be a good idea?

So, I stayed Sunday night through Friday morning, and since she was younger, she stayed Friday night through Sunday morning. This went on for about a year.

I wouldn’t trade that time with him for any amount of money in the world.
He put up with my dramatic tween attitude, and took care of me much more than I managed to help him.

Every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, I would wake up and make breakfast for us before I had to catch the bus to junior high. I would fry up some bacon, and when it was done I would drop some eggs in the grease. Two for him, and one for me. Nothing is better than eggs fried this way. Very few things were as unhealthy, for sure, but tasty! Two pieces of toast and butter for both of us, usually with lots of jam for me. A tall glass of milk washed down the whole breakfast, and I was on the bus by 7am.

We sat on opposite sides of the kitchen table to eat, and we talked and talked and talked. Today, I have no idea what we talked about, but it was nice to have the attention. I come from a family of five kids, one of whom always seemed to be having a friend live with us. My mom was famous for taking in “strays” of the two- and four-legged variety. We were always finding a way to squeeze someone else into a spare bed, a couch, sometimes even the floor. I can still remember many of them: Casey, John, DeAnna, David, and more, I’m sure. I think that I was the only person that didn’t have someone live with us, but my best friend was there almost every day, so it was the same thing. So, anyway, it was nice to have his attention without five or six or seven other kids/teens vying for the same thing.

While we ate our breakfast, he would give himself his insulin injection. Right there at the table, he would un-snap his shirt, expose his tummy, and just pop that thing in. At first, it freaked me out, but it was a non-issue after about a week or so.

On Wednesday, I had piano lessons before school. My oldest brother would pick me up on his way to work. We would leave at like 5:30am so that I could get to lessons by 6am. On those days, grandpa would get up extra early to make ME breakfast. For some reason, his always tasted better than mine.

In the evenings, I would arrive after stopping at home to practice piano. We would watch TV together after dinner. I would go to my room to practice my clarinet. I’ll bet he wished that he was losing his hearing instead of his sight! We always found something to talk about.

I grew so close to him during this time. I’m sure that my cousin felt the same way even though she only spent two days with him instead of five. He missed my grandma, for sure, but I’m glad that SOMEONE could be there for him.

Then, it all ended.

One night, he got up in the middle of the night to get a drink of water or take some medications or something. I don’t even know. He fell in the kitchen, and he couldn’t get up. He hollered for me several times before I woke up. (Have you ever tried to wake a teenager?) But, I DID wake up. I got into the kitchen, and couldn’t help him up. I was too small, and he was too big. He wasn’t fat, to be sure. In fact, he was a rail. But, I was just 12, and scared. I think that had something to do with it.

So, I called my parents, and they called the other sister. Everyone converged at the same time, and it was all chaos.

And, I felt like I had failed him. In a way, I did. But, really? I was 12.

So, I can’t remember if they called the ambulance or not. I think so. But, it was all precautionary. Nothing was broken. His hips and legs were fine. He was probably just bruised a bit.

My cousin and I were no longer responsible to stay with him. His own children and their spouses took turns for a week or two.

Then, against his wishes – very much against his wishes – he was put into a nursing home. Oh, it was a nice place. Very nice. But, it was an hour away from all of us. For a bunch of people who didn’t visit enough to begin with, this was the end of visiting. (In the time that he was in the home – four months? - we visited once.) He begged and pleaded and cried. My grandpa cried! And, still, he was still shipped off to die.

And he did.

I believe that he died of a broken heart. I know that’s dramatic and a bit ridiculous, but I think that it’s true. I am 42. It has taken me 30 years to get to the point where I almost forgive myself for not hearing him yell for me after his fall. But, it is still hard to not feel like I failed him.

When he died, I was away at 4-H camp. I was canoeing with three friends. My mom, one of the advisors, called me in off of the lake and told me. I treated it with the nonchalance of a snotty girl who had just turned 13 and returned to the canoe with my friends. But, inside, I was devastated.

I realize that this is epically a first-world problem. I realize that I’m yammering on and on about something that other kids in developing countries face to this day, 30 years later. But, why put such a young person in a position of such great responsibility?

At the time, I didn’t really think through it (because I was 12) to realize that I could wake up one morning to find him dead. Truth be told, I didn’t think about that until just this moment while writing this post! What the hell would I have done if he had died in his sleep? Or had a stroke? Or had broken something (think: hip) when he fell so that every move I tried to make or help him with would have resulted in agonizing pain and certain tears from both parties? I was desperately unprepared for any of those things. I didn’t even know the emergency phone number (our rural area didn’t have 911 service at the time).

But, on the flip side, if I was qualified to care for him before his fall, why wasn’t I given a second chance? That, too, was demoralizing. I already felt like I had failed him, but the fact that I truly wasn’t good enough, ready enough, old enough, strong enough really drove the point home. The 12-year old inside of me still says “I will do a better job next time.”

I sound like I’m angry that I “had” to do this. I’m not. I never was. It didn’t matter that it meant lots of nights where I couldn’t hang out with friends, but that
never mattered. It still doesn’t. I’m grateful that I got to spend that time with him. Now that I’m older, I realize how special the time was, and I’m almost sad that I didn’t get that same time with my other grandparents.

I am, however, still a bit ticked that he was shipped off to die – that nobody else (a bit older/wiser/stronger/better) stepped up to help him – that we couldn’t afford to hire someone to help him – that he had to beg his own children, and they wouldn’t/couldn’t accommodate him.

I’ve never asked them about any of this, so this is an extremely one-sided story. I don’t know if I ever will ask them about it – partly because I don’t want to know.

And, why are children – in any place or culture – being asked to provide this kind of care? 12-year olds should be worried about their first junior high dance, the cute boy/girl in the next desk, clothes, books, movies, magazines, mowing the lawn, making the bed. Kids shouldn’t be changing soiled grandparents, caring for babies, picking up cans for recycling in order to buy milk, family members who are meth-heads, making their own dinner every night. As a country, we have the resources so that no kid should be put in this position, but we squander those resources on a million meaningless things or unjustified wars. What about other countries where the resources are less abundant? UG! It’s just so much and it frustrates me to no end!

At the end of the day, I was lucky. Despite how irritated, angry, and woeful I might sound, my time with him was a blessing. I still think of him almost every day.

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