I was ten, playing with my friend across the street from Grandma and Grandpa’s bungalow. I was so grown-up now. I got to ride the bus ALL ALONE to visit, and it was a 3-hour trip! We were on the porch, and I looked up to see Grandma crashing out the back door, running toward the backyard.
Without thinking, I hopped up, crossed the street yelling, “Grandma, what’s wrong?” I found Grandma kneeling over Grandpa, who had been in a very tall tree trimming the branches. I didn’t think much about Grandma going back in the house as I kneeled by Grandpa and began a conversation? “Grandpa, what happened? Is your head hurting. It is bleeding? Please talk to me. Open your eyes. We will call a doctor.”
I sat on the ground by him; he needed my company.
Later, I was in the house as people started arriving and everyone was hugging and crying. The doorbell kept shrilling and bodies crowded the living room. Grandpa was dead. I went into my own private bedroom and sat on the mattress.
He was just talking to me this morning at breakfast. He said my doll was pretty but it needed a name like “Penelope.” Grandma said she didn’t like that name and neither did I, but I didn’t tell Grandpa that because he was smiling as he suggested it! He loved me. He always told me with his eyes that I was a pretty special granddaughter to him. And wow, did he love to smile!
My mom talked to me on the phone and said they would be down very soon and she was crying so hard she couldn’t talk very plain. That scared me. Parents don’t usually cry louder than they talk. Next thing I know I am sleeping at my 2nd cousins next door. I lay in the strange bed and watched the nightlight burn in the hallway all night. It seemed odd to not be able to fall to sleep. That light blazed.
So I began my life without Grandpa. I grew up without him, and today, I am the exact age as he was when he died, 62. I miss him.
What I did discover as life went on without him, is that this trauma was never hidden from me. I watched Mom for a very long time sob her eyes out. She would lean over on her desk, head in her arms and cry very loudly. I couldn’t go in there and touch her, but I would sit on the floor right outside her door on alert, in case she needed me. I knew it was okay to be sad because your Dad died. I tried to get my five-year-old sister to go give Mom a hug while she was crying, but she wouldn’t go in either. It was like you cannot touch a parent when they are not their strong, role model selves.
I noticed my dad quietly standing or sitting near Mom, lips closed and eyes closed. He always liked to nap but these moments weren’t naps. I knew he was awake because he shuffled his body a lot and there was a sadness in the air around him. His grief seemed wordless, calm and sad.
He loved my Grandpa. My dad’s father died when he was 14, and I think he discovered an male adult that loved him. Dad coached high school basketball, and Grandpa cheered very, very loudly, especially considering his quiet nature. He never missed a game, traveling 160 miles every Friday during the season. He was a vigorous force of support and love.
I saw Mom’s best friends drive 3 hours to attend Grandpa’s funeral; I witnessed funny stories about Grandpa and his service station that he owned, and I saw my Grandma wander around like she didn’t know what was going on. Grandma was always organized and smart-as-a-whip. Now, however, she was lost. So, I learned early death causes changes galore and new behavior in your loved ones.
Yes, this was a trauma, but I never felt traumatized. As our family faced life without this patient, endearing gentle man, I was part of the ongoing process of adaptation.
Christmases became way more serious without Grandpa joking around; my summer visits were focused on Grandma only now, and Mom was gloomy when we talked about him. Grandpa wasn’t there now to attend every basketball game my dad’s high school team played, and his service station was sold so we could only drive by it, not drive in to say “Hi” to Grandpa on the way to his house.
Yet, this was a gift of honest grief. It hurts, it goes on and on, and we can only readjust our lives while we live with the hole in our hearts. I believe Grandpa’s eyes still shower me with love.
Karen O. Johnson 2011