Category Archives: Family

The Last Day

My girlfriend arrived from Lincoln and we were at the hospice by 11:30 AM. Like the previous days Saturday, August 12th began gloomy and overcast. My mother had visited earlier that day, to pick up my grandmother who spent the night, and as I woke up this morning she was in tears. Friday night was even worse for my grandfather than Thursday night. He had not slept at all. So as we arrived I was nervous.

We entered. My grandfather’s son, a man I despise for the way he treated him, was asleep in the other room. My grandfather’s daughter and her husband were sitting with him. I looked at us, and said “Hi!” to my girlfriend, repeating her name three times. We sat with him for a half an hour. His son-in-law fed him ice: “I could drink a quart,” my grandfather said, “but I couldn’t keep water down.”

As he fell asleep I said we would catch some lunch and be back. We drove to the west side of town and ate comfort food. I bought a copy of The Economist and got her a fashion magazine because I expected to be at the hospice all day. We drove back.

My mother and grandmother had replaced his daughter and step-son. My grandfather was asleep. His son was asleep to in the other room. Not wanting to wake up my grandfather (because my grandpa needed rest) or his son (because my grandpa needed rest), my girlfriend and I walked to near the elevators and sat. We spoke of things.

We came back and sat in front of my sleeping grandfather. Time passed, and we took our grandmother to eat downstairs. She ate chicken noodle soup and spoke of how he was now to weak for soup. She spoke of the fluid filling his lungs, and how he would drown from it. My grandmother, a woman rarely affectionate or kind to her husband, cried. She had been crying for days.

While eating dinner in the hospital cafeteria I saw my mother leave. I ran after her and we talked. “There is a nurse who said, ‘A lot of people are expecting the end sooner than it will come. It will not come while he is still speaking. It will not come while he is eating ice.'” My grandfather was in pain, so much pain that he asked my mother to help him stop living. “We cannot give him a pill for that,” she said. “What about his pacemaker?” I asked. “Can it be shut off?” “If he was in a coma, maybe. Not while he was conscious.” This hurt me so much. I wanted my grandfather to be healthy, not sick and not dead.

My mother departed, and I rejoined my grandmother and my girlfriend. We came back, and my grandfather’s son was awake. I sat down besides him. He spoke into the air about needing to be going, visited with my grandfather for a few moments, and left. After speaking of things we switched rooms, and I saw that my grandfather’s daughter, her husband, and her eldest son were now there. My grandfather was weak and eating ice. He was so thirsty, and as strength gradually left him

These hours blend together. I wish my memory was clearer, and perhaps it can be jogged, but I see my grandfather, sick, curled in pain, weak, slowly eating ice. Hour after hour. I am not sure if the previous few paragraphs happened in the order I presented them, if some actions were repeated, or if I made another mistake. I remember other scenes, talking with my mother in the visiting room, or with my girlfriend in the day room, but they are hard to place in context.

Maybe the day is not worth examining in that detail. It may not be worth the pain of remembering.

While my grandfather sat, and curled, and ate ice, I moved in disorienting mental pain. I sat by him. I fed him ice twice, I think. He talked not so much.

The day grew old and it was my grandfather, my grandmother, their eldest daughter, her husband, their eldest son, my girlfriend, and myself. My grandfather spoke of how his body now sweat so much. His son-in law said “It’s like when we worked in the fields. Remember that?” My grandfather complained of the choking, of not being able to get a full breathe. The day grew dark.

The clock approached 6, and then 7. Slowly it climbed to 8. At 7:45 we began to leave for the night. “We will be back tomorrow morning,” I told my grandfather. “I love you. I will see you tomorrow.” He was too weak to speak but he held my hand with his two strong hands. He held my girlfriend’s hand. He smiled.

We left, took the elevator down, and went to my car.

I turned on my iPod. Amazing Grace played.

Through many dangers, toils and snares… we have already come. T’was Grace that brought us safe thus far… and Grace will lead us home.

I drove 26th Street eastbound, and thought how this street is still “Sioux Falls.” East 10th and all of 41st have grown beyond my memories, but 26th Street still is as it was. It was part of my city’s past.

We drove into the country. My girlfriend, at about 8:00, looked up at the towers into the sky. Casimir Pulaski Day played.

Oh the glory when He took our place
But He took my shoulders and He shook my face
And He takes and He takes and He takes

We pulled into the house. The phone rang.

Funeral (with Cousins)

Sounds terrible to say you had a great time at the funeral, but I did. Everything about it (well, almost) went well. My grandfather’s minister near Sioux Falls, who worked for him in earlier days, gave the sermon. A terrific speaker with an engaging manner. His grave neighbors my brother’s, and has a view of his parents’ homestead (where he was born), the town pool (where he would take me), and buildings built by his son-in-law and brother-in-law. Lunch was so-so, but got to eat across from a cousin who is a great friend and fellow geek. Also met another cousin who spent some time in Turkey and gave us a summary. In short: “I consider myself a feminist, and for all the shit I’ve said against the United States in recent years, I am never saying anything bad about this country again.” Then off to his old home, which now belongs to yet another cousin and is accurately described as “Custer Game Lodge East.” Spent most of the time playing with three other cousins, and finally hid from out-of-state cousins with still more cousins.

The best part of the service was a line specifically directed against a relative who pained my grandfather. The best health news with that a sickly uncle (who long feuded with my grandfather, but was very much of the same time) has recovered after moving off his farm (as my grandfather did a few years back). The best conversation:

Person 1: If he was here, grandfather would love this.
Person 2: Yeah, but he’d wonder why we’re having his funeral.
Person 3: We’d tell him it was organized by his enemies. He would think it was typical of them.

I expect to right a more somber account of his last day, but the funeral was a very good thing. That and the friendship and strength I have received from friends and family, both those I know physically and electronically, have helped tremendously.

Thank you.

Last Week

What happens next is hard to tell. It is twined with another story that, if not for my grandfather’s death, would have been the most meaningful of the year. But for now I will put aside what happened on Monday morning, and Wednesday morning, and instead speak of my grandfather on August 7th through the 11th.

While writing this I was struck by how many less things there are to say. The previous week saw drama with the hospital, hope for a medium-recovery, and all manner of surprises. But what is surprising about a grandfather not eating and so getting weaker every day? What is dramatic about the effects of starvation and pain, even if one is not hungry and the pain is not the one expected? What is there to do except sit by his bed and say “I love you” at the end of every day?

I returned from Lincoln, Nebraska, and my grandfather was in pain. Both of his hips had been replaced some years ago, and his right hip was giving him problems. He was too weak to sit-up or adjust his his pillows by himself. He was too weak to pull himself up if he slid down a little (which would have been a problem if the hospice bed, like the hospital bed, was somewhat slipper).

The pain was not screaming pain but it hurt me so much. I’m not sure what exactly caused it. To help keep fluid off him he stopped taking his arthritis medicine and throughout his ordeal he never felt arthritis pain. He felt pain in one artificial hip but not the other. I’m not sure what physically went on, why the pain of arthritis can leave but the pain of one hip can contort the body.

During the preceding weekend my girlfriend suggested we bring him bing cherries, as he loved fruit so much these days. We brought him a large bag full and he offered them to all guests: he always loved to give food away. He ate some cherries too. But otherwise he was eating less and still complaining about the nurses bringing him too much — “that stuff was all wrong.” He ate chicken noddle soup. He ate the watermelon they brought him.

On Tuesday, my grandfather developed a craving for V8 juice. I visited with him and told him how I became thirsty for the stuff while flying over the Pacific Ocean. I told him how next time I visit China I would try to rent some oxygen to breathe easier, because I knew being on oxygen bothered him He called me “Old Faithful Dan.” I hugged him. I mentioned that my girlfriend would arrive Saturday morning.

Tuesday night was hard for him. Fruit became too hard to chew, and applesauce was too hard to swallow. On Wednesday he could still drink V8 juice but that was a challenge. Coca-Cola at dinner made him wretch, ruining his appetite for supper. At about six he asked for a beer. I said I would get him one. My mother said she would check with his doctor and went outside. My grandfather told her not to bother, because the doctor would just say no. I told my grandfather I would get him one anyway. Fortunately his doctor was a kind man — a doctor who helped me out, years ago — and gave his go-ahead. I drove a few blocks to a liquor store and got a large Coors Light, a brand he requested. I poured a small glass with a straw half-full with Coors Light and gave it to him. I repeated two more times. Together he, and my cousin, and I drank together. He asked when my girlfriend would arrive. I told him Saturday morning. He slept well Wednesday night.

Thursday I was called in to the hospital mid-afternoon. My grandfather had not ate or drank anything all day, but wanted another beer. My grandfather didn’t oppose alcohol and would occasionally by some as a gift for my father, but he was not a drinking man. I can’t remember him drinking two days in a row before. But I drove down, got him a 24 oz of Coors Light, and we split it. He drank about 8 ounces, I drank the other 16. He said he wanted regular Coors the next day. He said he would want some to drink at night too. My uncle asked if it helped relax him, and he said he would need a six-pack to relax. He asked if my girlfriend would arrive Friday night or Saturday morning. I told him Saturday morning. He slept poorly.

On Friday I brought up a six-pack of Coors. We split one bottle. It was the only thing he ate all day. My grandmother, who had not spent a night in the hospice for medical reasons, announced she would spend Friday night in a chair by his side. This worried everyone, as the nurses expected him to live for several days yet and a change in my grandmother’s routine would cause her to miss some medications. Yet of all the people I have known my grandmother has the quickest tongue — she made it impossible to argue with her. We stored a few bottles in the hospice refrigerator and kept the others in a small closet. He asked if my girlfriend would arrive that night or Saturday morning. I told him Saturday morning.

The next day in this story, August 12th, he would die. The next day in this world, August 15th, he will be buried.

Dying

My grandfather died yesterday

On Sunday, July 30th, I was preparing to return to South Dakota from my girlfriend’s apartment in Lincoln, Nebraska. She had picked me up two days before in Omaha. My things were all packed as I called home — and was told that because of the heat on the highways it was better to leave early the next morning. I knew from the sound of the voice of the parents that something was wrong, and i guessed it was because of my grandfather’s toe surgery.

My grandfather had a growing sore on a toe for a number of months. A doctor during a checkup immediately before I left on vacation had said it had a “90% chance” of being infected — the skin was gone and the tendon was visible. The choice was between removing the toe and chancing an infection that would require the amputation of my grandfather’s lower leg. Amputation of any sort is scary, but my uncle had previously lost one to diabetes, so my grandfather was not too worried.

As I expected, the news was not good. My grandfather had nearly died Saturday night, his heart unable to take the ordeal of rehab. My quick-thinking uncle, knowing he needed a doctor and that the on-staff nurse was out of her element, called an ambulance. The ambulance brought my grandfather to the ER, and he was quickly checked into the hospital. The doctor who saw my grandfather Saturday evening gave him two days to two weeks to live.

On Monday morning the doctor suggested hospice, which was in another part of the Avera McKennan complex from his room. He was better than I thought he would be — sitting up, reading the newspaper — and we were relatively optimistic. Indeed, he was better than anyone thought, and the surprise of the nurses would come back to bite us. Hospice care is not recommended for patients with more than six months to live, but August 1st plus 6 months — he might make it to Christmas, to New Years, to my next birthday, maybe. My mother worried if my grandfather would be well enough to visit for weekend meals, and maybe holidays. How many hours could he be away hospice care a day, and would he have the stamina to do so? (Could he play pinochle again?) He drank tea, and juices, and ate all manner of fruit.

I visited him Tuesday and he was weaker. My grandfather was tired, laying in bed. The hospice wing was full, but a nurse told us that hospice care could be provided in another room. Then a doctor told my grandfather he had to leave. Then another nurse came by, and said he didn’t. Then another stopped, and said he did, because hospice care was not available outside of the hospice wing. My grandfather had faith in his daughters, my mother and my aunt: “My girls told me I do not have to leave, so I do not have to.” He was fully there mentally, and he knew those he could trust. My mother and aunt jumped the hoops, and we were assured he could stay in his room until a hospice room opened up — or at least, the weekend.

He looked better on Wednesday, not sitting up, but not just laying down. 20 minutes work had installed a sort of handle bar lengthwise over his bed, so he could pull himself part-way up with his arms. The “girls” (my mother and aunt) learned about the hospice waiting list, and determined the best way to proceed. If he was in a nursing home he would be at the bottom of the priority list for hospice, but he if was being given around-the-clock care at his apartment he would be at the top. The solution was obvious. Against very strong recommendations from the Avera McKennan nursing staff they announced that my grandfather would check at during the weekend. A hospital bed would be delivered Sunday or Monday, so I and my cousin had to be on hand to dismantle my grandparents’ queen, and bring in a twin for my grandmother, at the time. (Also on Wednesday my girlfriend’s card, bearing a scene from our recent pinochle tournament, arrived. The card showed her looking at her cards and sweating, me looking at my cards and pondering, and my grandfather breezily confident. It was true to life.)

Of course it worked. I visited Thursday morning, and his health was worse than Wednesday’s but better than Tuesday’s. He would move into hospice later that afternoon. I visited again after the move and was impressed by his surroundings. The ugliest part of a hospital room was gone — no bright light around his head, no sterile wall (instead a nice, fake wood trim), much more sitting room including two rocking chairs in his bedroom, and an adjoined living room with a sofa-sleeper, three plush chairs, and an accessible lazy boy. The nursing staff was nice and the atmosphere allowed more people to stay more comfortable for longer stretches of time. I left confident in the future.

I arrived Friday morning anxious to see him. It is too painful to describe. For the first time I can remember my grandfather was confused. He talked about my trip to China in the future tense — do they arrest young guys there? — and a second trip to China (which hasn’t happened) in the past tense. He asked if the bulletin board of cards in front of him were a bush, attempted to get up to walk, worried about the sick people who apparently were nearby, and made a few pointed comments about the value of work (some guys working harder than others?). He picked at his hands, swollen with fluid, and asked if I got the same itch from the fields yesterday as he did. Yet he clearly remembered one thing: my girlfriend. He talked about her brother coming to study in America, and her grandmother who was ill. And her aunt who was ill, as well. Of all the people he knew, my grandfather was thinking clearly only of my girlfriend. I assumed the worst and in too-many frantic hours my girlfriend was retrieved from Lincoln and we were at his bedside.

He was better, While at Avera my grandfather had begun taking anti-anxiety medication, and slowness in waking from dreams was a known side-effect. He mentioned his earlier confusion and tried to laugh it off while apologizing for it. A different brand was chosen without the side-effect. I learned that my grandfather had a dream about his cattle getting into corn stakes and contracting nitrate sickness — and that he alone was protecting them.

The weekend turned and things did not change. The hospice nurses were nicer beyond comparison to those had previously had — his only annoyance is that they brought him too much food every meal. He ate chicken noddle soup and said the important thing was that he wasn’t in pain. From believing he would live half a year as I had earlier in the week — to just a few hours as I feared on Friday — grandpa looked settled for a moderate decline. Another month, maybe two, perhaps. I left to bring my girlfriend back to Lincoln on Sunday. I returned on Monday, August 7th. He lay on his side. He was in pain.

My grandfather died today.

I was the last person to say “I love you” to him.
I was the last person to drink a beer with him.

My girlfriend and I were the last to play cards with him — a three-game round of pinochle ending in a 1-1-1 draw.
My girlfriend and I were the last to hold his hands.

I love him so much.
This feels like a bad dream.