As a child, I remember thinking about my grandpa with a mix of admiration, respect, and unconditional love. Born and raised in Helsinki, Finland, his stoic personality was very typically Finnish. Reserved, soft-spoken, and smart as a whip, he was a man of few words; when he did speak, though, you felt compelled to listen, and to absorb. A pillar of strength and knowledge, he also had a soft spot for "his girls". His wife, my mother and her sisters, and us female grandchildren--we were collectively known as "his girls", and he loved us dearly. And, in return, he was loved more than I think he ever knew.
My experience and memories of my grandfather are drastically different than those of my mom; as his middle, and most rebellious, daughter, she was often on the receiving end of a lecture from him. As a father he was a strict, but consistent, man; rules were made to be followed, and breaking those rules would result in punishment. But for me, Grandpa was sweet, and kind. There weren't many rules for me to follow, except to stay out of his garden and to never walk on the front lawn because that is what the sidewalk is for. He was the man that would take me to stores where we would sometimes buy candy, and name every flower that we saw along the way. He would play me whichever new band he had found, although the only one that sticks out in my mind is a band made up of twelve incredible talented Japanese girls. We would sit in the garden, and drink iced tea, while I relayed to him schoolyard stories, or what I had done at summer camp.
Everything changed when he entered long-term care. I didn't visit as often as I should have because of the anxiety that being on his floor would give me. There were plenty of other people that were grandmas and grandpas, siblings, parents, and friends, in the ward; all were in varying stages of death. Some moaned in pain constantly, some were spending the rest of their days mostly comatose in their beds. And my sweet, loving grandfather was there with him.
After his first strokes, his language skills started to slip away. It would frustrate him to no end to struggle with his words; a man once deliberate with his speech was relegated to miming his thoughts, with a mixed jumble of words to sort out in your head. It was heartbreaking for me in a way I can hardly describe. I would sit with him, and tell him about Audrey's newest obsession and about my day-to-day life. When it was time to leave, I would sit in my car in the parking lot, tears streaming down my cheeks, for upwards of an hour before pulling myself together for the ride home. Every visit was as taxing as it was rewarding; seeing him regain his speech and some of his mobility was truly a blessing, while the emotional toll of the visit would leave me in a cloud of sadness and frustration for days.
The very best days were sunny and warm, when we could roll him in his swanky wheelchair outside into the little garden that the hospital tried its best to maintain. On these days, he would be my grandpa again. Laughing, smiling, and enjoying the outdoors--those were the best days. I lived for those days.
Slowly, the best days turned to average, and my visits became less frequent. As his health started to take a downturn, so did my own personal life. As more and more was added to my own whirlwind, I became even more withdrawn from him. I refused to burden him with any of my problems, even though he was the best listener I have ever met. And I certainly couldn't handle the additional emotions that came with visiting, so I chose to stay away.
Then one day, as is the way of life, he entered the final stage of his life. He was in immense pain; so much so that the nurses began giving him very high doses of pain medication. This resulted in him sleeping a lot, which was peaceful for him. I loved to sit beside him during his naps; I would read, and he would finally be resting beside me. And so I spent many evenings quietly sitting with him, sometimes holding his hand, or telling him about my day. It was easier for me, and it felt better seeing him like this.
Unfortunately the pain meds changed him when he was awake; he was grumpy and sullen, and his hallucinations were a gruesome combination of wartime flashbacks and otherworldly monsters. I found it incredibly difficult, as you can imagine, to sit with him during these episodes. Perhaps these days were when he needed a comforting presence most, but I spent more time crying in the hall than I did trying to comfort him. Over and over again, he would tell me he was ready to go home; he just wanted peace, and I cannot count how many times he asked us to help him end his life.
In his true final days, I elected not to visit him. I knew his mind was gone, that he was no longer the grandpa I was trying so hard to hold onto in my memories. I was afraid that if I had to say goodbye to him, to THAT him, rather than the him that I loved so dearly, I would lose grasp of those memories forever.
So I didn't go. I didn't say goodbye to him until his funeral service, and the selfishness of my choices to not visit him didn't hit me until his urn was placed in his little cubby overlooking the garden at the funeral home. As his wife, and children, and some grandchildren, each placed an item of his that were as special to them as they were to him into the space, it hit me.
I didn't have anything to put in there.