(Not) understanding death

I don’t know how to write this post. I’ve started it and erased it and started it over at least four times, now. It seems that even though words have always been the one thing I’m good at, this time, they’re failing me. And I don’t really know what to do about it, other than to continue trying to string them together.

On Sunday night (Monday morning, really), at around midnight, I received a Facebook message from my grandmother stating, “please call — important.” That was all it said. I’d just crawled into bed after hours of not being able to sleep. I had to be up at 5 a.m. to go to work and I was already dreading how exhausted I’d be after so little rest. So I sent a message back saying that I’d just gotten into bed and asked, “what’s up?”

I didn’t get a response, but then I started thinking about it, and I got a funny feeling. So I got up, got the phone, and called.

The thing about death is that we talk about it all the time, but we never really see it coming. Understanding that everyone is going to die and understanding that people you love are going to die, that you are going to die, are very different things to understand. The concepts are theoretically the same, but not really. So when you experience the death of a loved one, everything you’ve ever come to understand about death and the grieving process and how death works sort of flies out the window. All you feel is that grief. And it’s incredibly difficult to cope.

When I called my grandmother, she told me my grandfather had passed away on Sunday afternoon. And it was like the entire world came to a screeching halt.

I haven’t been back to my hometown since Christmas of 2010. The last time I spoke to my grandfather on the phone was last month on his birthday, and I promised to send him recent pictures of myself that I then forgot to send. He’s been sick for almost my whole life — he’s had almost every “old person problem” in the books. And according to what my grandma said when I called again on Tuesday to talk to her about everything, he’s been suffering quite a bit for at least the last year.

She said he went to the E.R. on Saturday night but was let go after just a few hours with a stronger pain medication than what he usually took. He seemed fine. And on Sunday when she left for work, he still seemed fine. He was sat in his favorite chair and he was talking and everything was okay. He also seemed fine when my uncle came over later that afternoon to take the dog for a walk.

By the time my grandma got home from work (late, because it’s summer and tourism season in my hometown is a nightmare), Grandpa was asleep. He’s slept in that chair for as long as I can remember because it’s the only way he can sleep without his back making it impossible to get up. And he slept on and off all day, every day. My grandma and uncle didn’t worry about making enough dinner for him, because he was sleeping. Everything was normal.

But then he didn’t wake up. And that still didn’t seem that strange, because sometimes he fell asleep hard and stayed asleep for hours — even throughout the night, some days. But as it got later and my uncle wanted to go home, they wanted to make sure my grandpa was okay. And after searching for signs of life and not finding any, something clicked and my grandma called 911.

All indications say that it was peaceful. He simply went to sleep and didn’t wake up again. And that’s — that’s good, because he had a lot of pain in his lifetime. Everyone’s said that we should count our blessings that he didn’t suffer. And I know that. I’m glad he didn’t suffer. I’m really, really glad. But that doesn’t make it any easier to accept that he’s gone, or to understand it. He was old and he was sick, and my grandma thinks he just got tired of being old and sick. And she’s probably right.

I can’t afford to fly across the country. Even if I could, I’d be there for literally a day before I’d have to come back. There are no official services. He’s being cremated, as per his wishes, and I’m hoping that maybe I can fly out to see my family for longer than a day sometime in the spring (not just to grieve, but to check in, to spend time, to make sure everyone is doing okay). So for now, I have some time off from work to grieve, and I’m spending it with people I love, eating rich desserts and watching movies and trying not to think about it too much. But it’s hard. I think about everything too much, all the time, always.

He used to call me his little nugget — as in gold nugget. I remember when I was a kid, he went to Virginia City with my grandma (for some occasion — I don’t know what) and he went “panning for gold” in the river. The activity apparently wasn’t meant to produce actual gold for people to keep. But my grandpa caught some flakes and demanded that he be allowed to keep them. They’ve sat in a tiny vial on one of his shelves for years. He told me that he had to have them because they were for his little nugget.

That nickname embarrassed the hell out of me for years, but now all I can hear in my head is him calling me that and telling me he’s proud of me.

My grandmother said I could have that vial, “of course”, and I’m trying to figure out how else I can remember him. Put that vial on a necklace? Get “nugget” tattooed in white somewhere on my person? I just. I don’t know. But I miss my grandpa. And I wish that all the guides about grief and all the philosophical conversations about death were actually helpful when you’re forced to deal with it in real life. Because they’re not. And I’m sad and I’m angry and I’m full of regret and I just.

I love you, Grandpa. I’ll take care of myself, I promise. And I know how proud of me you were. I hope I can keep making you proud. I miss you, and I’ll miss you every day. I promise not to lose sight of myself — I know you were always worried about that. Rest in peace, okay? You deserve it.

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