Grandpa is slowly declining. Our family sees the loss and it weighs heavily upon us—upon me, in particular, because he’s my father. I feel his infirmities as if they were my own, and I grieve, although I don’t always recognize it as grieving. It may be a sadness that sweeps over me one day, and sheer exhaustion another, or confusion about what medical changes to make and when, but it always adds up to grieving what Grandpa used to be able to do, and what he cannot do anymore.
For the last three years, I have given him a page-a-day scripture calender so he will always know what day it is. By tearing off the previous page and throwing it away every morning, he can keep track of the date all by himself. Sometimes he just tears the pages off and leaves them sitting on his table near the window, and other times he crumples them up and tosses them in his garbage pail under his desk.
It made me sad to see the beautiful pages of scripture thrown away, so a couple of months ago, I began collecting his castoffs and keeping them in a drawer in my writing desk. If he happened to miss the garbage pail, I would pick up the waded piece of paper, uncrumple it and read the day’s verse for myself. Almost always, it would speak to the situation we were going through together, and the life-giving words would lift my spirit as I went about my daily tasks in his room.
But today, I found the calendar, like a harbinger, sitting untouched on top of his books next to his computer. It spoke volumes of how he is losing track of life as he knows it–and as I know him in it. His days with our family have been defined by numbers on calendar pages and Bible verses, on medicine bottles and clock hands. Day after day, hour after hour, numbers are always marching on ahead, always moving him forward. That may be fine when you are young, but when you are almost 95, it can only mean one thing.
I don’t want to let go of the normalcy of Grandpa’s routine. We’ve been doing the same things, the same way for so long, his inactivity makes me feel empty inside. Soon he won’t be able to give me a “thumbs up to God” anymore for the expectation of the new day. Grandpa is famous for his “thumbs up to God” sign, making sure that anyone who comes to visit, whether friends or medical professionals, know that the reason he is still alive is because God hasn’t called him home yet. I’m almost sure I’ve heard his last request to sit at his computer in the afternoon and write on his current children’s book to his heart’s content. His latest is a story about Yeti the Abdominal Snowman (a Christian version, of course), and it’s really very entertaining. Writing has been Grandpa’s creative outlet, and as he would say, his “magnificent obsession.” I don’t think I’ll hear him say, “That was so good!” about a program he listened to from one of his favorite TV evangelists; Joseph Prince, Charles Stanley, and Pastor David Jeremiah are just a few of his favorites. I think we’ve seen our last days of sitting out on the front porch together and waving to the neighbors as they slow down for the curve that wraps it’s way around our house on the pike. Most people wave to you in Kentucky, even if they don’t know you, and I’m sure for some, seeing Grandpa out on the front porch has become just about as normal as seeing a local historical marker.
That’s why I’m having trouble getting used to the new routine. Suddenly, everything has changed. Grandpa has literally come to a screeching halt. It’s not that he’s in pain, it’s just that he isn’t awake very much anymore. As he withdrawals further and further into a cocoon of sleep, I ache for what used to be, I really do. And yet, I am a little ambivalent, too, even hopeful. I’m beginning to feel a sense of freedom I haven’t felt in a long time. I wonder if I am just beginning to wake up myself?
I’ve been living in a geriatric lala land, cocooning myself away, unable to go anywhere because someone always has to be here with Grandpa. I’m only fifty-eight years old, but the last six years have been overshadowed by the physical needs of a parent who is 37 years my senior. While he sings the lyrics, “You make me feel so young,” I sing a different tune, “You make me feel so old, . . . so very old before my time!”
I want to wake up in the morning and not dread the prognosis of the day. I’m tired of thinking about urinary tract infections, pressure ulcers and congestive heart failure. I want to be fully present for my children instead of fully absorbed by Grandpa’s needs. I want to get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom without wondering if he’s still alive or passed onto glory in his sleep. I want to sit out on the front porch, enjoying the beauty of nature without thinking about pain and sorrow and bodies that don’t work anymore. I don’t want to think about loss.
Thank, God, taking care of Grandpa over the years hasn’t been all about loss. It has been rewarding and overwhelmingly crazy at times, and challenged our family like nothing else we have experienced. It has shown us what’s in our hearts—the good, the bad, and the ugly, but more importantly it has shown us the face of God, His never-ending compassion, his mercy, and his unexpected grace. And in exchange for our weakness, he has given us his enduring strength, equipping us over and over again for the God-sized task He called us to.
I guess if there is one thing I regret, it’s how many times the “care” side of caregiving has outweighed the “giving” side, and yet, they are inexplicably one. Love is not merely expressed in words, but authentically shown through sacrificial actions that require true grit and perseverance. At least that is what I have learned from taking care of Grandpa.
This day-to-day life of caregiving has been bittersweet and passed by all too quickly. I really don’t know where the time has gone, but I do know I have embraced each day to the fullest, living outside myself and caring for for a little old man who has lived the last years of his life to the fullest while under my roof.
And what I find so mind boggling and hard to comprehend is how I figure into Grandpa’s longevity. Honestly, he should have been dead long ago. And if all his days are written in the Book of Life, how is it that my caregiving is part of that equation? If I just gave up and quit, it would be all over, but I can do no less than what the Lord enables me to do, and most of the time, that is taking too good care of him.
I don’t know how to say goodbye, but I know I must. I surrender the fight! He’s growing frailer every day. I see him fading and there is nothing I can do to stop the dying process. Dying is a part of life, the crossing over from this life to Life Eternal. Surely he and I both welcome that, but I don’t know how to let go, how to transition.
Can you do it for me Lord? Can you just take him, or do I need to stop helping him live? The doctor says there isn’t one thing I can do to hasten the process or slow it down. And there’s something inside of me that is repulsed by making a final decision to speed death on. I don’t want to be the one who makes it. I want you to have the final say, Lord. And so as Grandpa’s life hangs in the balance, as I give him all the comfort I can in his final weeks and hours, I’m learning a little more about longsuffering and your tender mercies, Jesus.
A few weeks ago, Grandpa asked me, “What would I do without you?”
“I don’t know, Grandpa,” I told him . . . but really, I do. He’d be in heaven by now.
And because he wants to go to heaven so badly, I just answer, “I don’t know, Grandpa.”
But, I wonder as I think about his room at the end of the hall standing empty one day, What will I do without you Grandpa? What will I do without you?