I had two family members die when I was growing up. The first was my grandfather. We’d quit going to see him after moving from Virginia Beach to TN. He died from diabetes. No one told me until after the funeral.
My mother and uncle attended the funeral. My uncle said, “I’m glad he’s gone.”
My mother told him he shouldn’t say that. But, my uncle had a right to feel that way. Death is not always tragic, and if someone treated you like shit, what is the point in pretending?
My great-grandfather died in 1997, when I was eleven. He was 68.
His death was more real to me than my grandfather’s. For one thing, I was older. We’d also spent more time together. A child thinks everyone is built to last forever. You’re going to grow up and you’re eager as hell to put on your big boy pants, but it’s all so far away it’s as much a fantasy as the playground games you play with your friends. Your great-grandparents are old, your grandparents are old and even though your mom might not be thirty yet, that’s fine. She’s old too and you’re just hitting puberty.
My great-grandfather stayed in a Catholic hospital in Cape Girardeau, IL. We spent a week in a hotel, commuting from the hotel room to the hospital waiting area where my family chatted and debated on whether to move him while I read Shadows of the Empire, sadly not the straight adaptation of the game I was hoping for. All of us were there: me, my sister, my mother and her husband at the time. My grandmother and her three younger siblings too.
We came home on a Tuesday. Saturday we heard the news: he’d passed. In between, I never saw him in his room. At first we weren’t going to; us kids weren’t supposed to see him like that. Finally, right before we left, my grandmother decided to take us in there. I declined.
But I did see him. I was on my way back from the snack machines. Nurses were rushing a man on a stretcher to the elevator. He needed an operation. I thought, That old man looks really sick.
A lot changed in 1997. I began the year by almost dying, thanks to a misdiagnosis. A doctor looked at the blooming rash on my stomach, ignored the urine test results and told my mom that I had stomach flu. Drink some Gatorade.
I puked stomach bile the next day.
My great-grandfather died in June, 1997. I went to band camp in August, where a friend of mine almost died from heatstroke. My mother took him to the ER. She saved his life.
His parents didn’t care.
Our band teacher didn’t care either.
I started junior high in September, which was a big transition because you were leaving East Robertson Elementary and moving to The High School, grades 7 – 12. They’d ask me, Are you ready to go to The High School? and I never knew how to answer the question. A lot changed there too.
The last time I saw my great-grandfather was on a hospital stretcher, being rushed to surgery. But my last memory of him was our first visit after my own surgery. He had called and talked to me when I was in the hospital, and my last memory of him is hugging him bye, hearing him tell me he’s glad I’m okay and seeing him and my great-grandmother wave to us as we drove away.
It’s my last memory of them.