On Friday, I returned home to Iowa from a 4-day trip down to Mississippi to attend the funeral of my grandfather, who died on Saturday, June 28th.
Even when his biopsy results came in about a month ago, determining that he had a cancerous tumor on this pancreas which had metastasized to his liver, I still refused to believe it was real – that my grandfather was not going to be with us much longer. When he visited a well-respected oncologist at the University of Alabama who gave him an optimistic lifespan of 8-12 years, I was very relieved and excited, but to be honest I just felt like that’s what Grandpa deserved. He deserved to be one of the small percentage of people who lived several healthy years after a cancer diagnosis, so in a way I really wasn’t surprised to hear that this was his prognosis.
I canceled my plans to go down and see Grandpa once we heard of his good prognosis – opting to save my vacation time to be sure I could visit over Thanksgiving later this year when I knew the whole family would be there.
My mom decided to keep her plans to go down and visit, so I was comforted in knowing that I could get daily updates from her as Grandpa was set to begin his treatment.
I will spare you the details of what happened next, mostly because my understanding of the situation is vague and I don’t want to risk misspeaking to what happened. Suffice it to say that Grandpa’s health deteriorated suddenly and rapidly.
My dad sent me a text message earlier in the day saying that Grandpa had been moved to intensive care from the hospital room he had been occupying for the last couple days. I sent a frantic text to my mom (who was in the hospital with him) and she did her best to calm my nerves – telling me to try not to worry and that Grandpa had been on a lot of pain medication and the doctors were just trying to stabilize him. Heeding Mom’s advice, I did my best to keep my mind off of it.
A storm had rolled in to my small town in the evening, and I decided to pop a couple sleeping pills and try to get some sleep. At about 9:30, I heard knocking at my back patio door and I pulled open the shade to see my dad standing there in the dark. Now, I live right next door to my parents but it is fairly rare for either of them to actually come to my house. We both have dogs, so we see each other in the back yard several times per day. Seeing my dad at my back door after dark… I knew what he was there for.
“Your grandpa has passed away.”
It would have hurt less if I’d been struck in the stomach with a sledge-hammer. For all that had been going on, I still wasn’t expecting this. Maybe I was in denial, but I was optimistic that this recent visit to the hospital was just a temporary road bump in what would otherwise be a swift recovery. In hindsight, I can’t imagine thinking anything different – this is what the doctors believed to be true as well.
My wife and I notified our employers of the situation, and thankfully we had no problems getting the time off. Come to think of it, I’ve got a couple Thank-You cards to send for that – both of our employers essentially told us to take however much time we needed and just let them know when we’re ready to come back. It really relieved some of the stress of the situation.
By 6pm on Sunday, we were on the road to Mississippi.
I’ve always enjoyed driving at night time when I am taking a long road trip. There’s no traffic, and it makes the whole experience more peaceful and less stressful – for me, anyways. I’m not prone to falling asleep at the wheel, and the other benefit is that I can get to where I’m going early in the morning rather than late in the evening.
I couldn’t get Grandpa off my mind for the entire 11-hour journey. I went back and forth between thinking of all the fond memories with him to trying to rationalize in my head how this could have happened – how the doctors were wrong – how his health deteriorated so quickly and nobody could see it coming.
I’ve never had such a close family member pass away, so honestly I was just in a whirlwind of emotions. What was it going to be like when I got down there? How would it feel when I got out of the car at Grandma and Grandpa’s house and I wasn’t met at the front porch by Grandpa just as I always was?
I pulled into the driveway at Grandma and Grandpa’s house and everyone was sitting on the front porch. This is pretty typical – Grandma and Grandpa always liked to sit out there and watch for us so they could greet us right away. I sat in the car and took a few breaths to collect myself, as I wanted to be strong for Mom and Grandma and Uncle Rusty. There had been enough emotion among them over the last few days – they didn’t need me adding to it right now.
I went right up and gave Grandma a hug and told her I loved her. It was the only thing I could manage to say at the moment, even though what I really wanted to say was “I’m sorry about Grandpa – I know this is the worst pain you’ve ever felt, and I would do anything to make that pain go away.”
I went through and gave a hug to everyone on the porch – and again for my mother and my uncle, I wished I had more words. I wished I could tell them something that would actually give them some comfort – even if it had a 2% impact on their mood, I’d have said it. I’ve never been eloquent with the spoken word.
That entire day was a blur because I was so exhausted. That’s the downside of driving all night, really. You get to be a zombie all day.
Grandma insisted that Ashley and I sleep in her room, and she’d sleep on the couch. This is typical Grandma – even in a time when she’s got every right to be selfish, she will give you the shirt off her own back to make you comfortable. Usually I would battle with Grandma over this, but I wasn’t about to argue with her right now, and I couldn’t shake the idea that she really would prefer to not sleep in the bed her and Grandpa shared – at least for a few days. That was how I rationalized it, anyway.
I brought my luggage upstairs. The family had gone into town to buy flowers and make a few other arrangements, so Ashley and I had an opportunity to try to catch a nap. I walked into Grandma and Grandpa’s bedroom and I felt a weird sensation. It was one of intense sadness but also a strange closeness. Looking around the room, it felt like Grandpa was just there. His belt and suspenders were sitting on a basket next to the bed, and a bottle of antacid sat on the nightstand which he no doubt relied on as his stomach was in constant pain in his last few months. His classic bottle of Old Spice cologne was sitting on the sink in the bathroom, like it always was. His Head and Shoulders shampoo was in the shower. Again, it felt like he was just there – like I could walk down the stairs and he’d be sitting in his recliner reading a book.
I spent about two sleepless hours laying on Grandpa’s side of the bed. I hadn’t really slept in more than 24 hours and I was exhausted, but there was no way sleep was going to happen at that moment.
The Password Book
Sensing I wasn’t going to get any sleep, I decided to take the dogs downstairs so my wife could get some rest, at least. I sat down in Grandpa’s computer chair and pulled out his password book. Grandpa was really good about keeping all of his passwords and security questions written in a notebook that he kept by the computer desk.
I flipped through the book out of curiosity – also recalling that Grandma was having trouble earlier that morning getting into one of the online accounts to pay a bill. It’s amazing how much information you can glean from looking at this stuff. Grandpa’s favorite restaurant, favorite actor, favorite soft drink. Grandpa wasn’t much of a talker, and he really wasn’t keen on talking about himself. He liked to listen to people, put in his two-cents when he was requested, answer questions when asked, but he was just generally not much of a conversationalist. I found myself fascinated looking at this information, but saddened at the same time. How had I never asked him where he would most like to travel to? How had we not discussed who his favorite actor was? Grandpa would tell you anything you wanted to know – you just had to ask.
My cousin Justin arrived later that day. I only have the one cousin on my mom’s side of the family, but we were always really close as kids. We spent a few entire summers at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. We never lived close to each other, but for those summers we were best friends. We’d bicker and argue like brothers would, but we never got tired of being with each other. To this day, I refer to Justin as my brother because that’s exactly what he is to me. He was the best man at my wedding, and I look up to him today just as a did when we were kids.
Justin’s wife, Courtney, just had her third child maybe a couple weeks ago. It was too cool that she came as well, as I can imagine it’s not easy to travel with such a young baby. She really is the “ying” to Justin’s “yang.” I’m glad they found each other, especially in such an unlikely way – but that story is for another day.
I’ve expressed a lot of interest in our family’s genealogy in the past year, so Grandma had the idea to take me to the cemetery where the slaves were buried back in the 1800’s. I was particularly interested in that part of my family’s genealogy because frankly there was a lot of documentation on it. Last year I had obtained from the Mississippi State University library a whole package of documentation on my family – letters, lists of births and deaths from a family bible, a list of the names of every slave my family ever owned, even a list of cattle my 5th great grandfather owned.
On the ride to the cemetery, I expressed some regrets to Grandma. I told her I wished I hadn’t canceled my planned trip a couple weeks ago when Grandpa got his good prognosis from the doctor in Alabama. I told her I wished I would have called to talk to him before his health declined. Grandma assured me that I did nothing wrong, and that hindsight is always clearer than foresight. Finally, I directed the conversation to where I really wanted it to go.
“Grandma, do you know if Grandpa was checking his email over the last couple months?”
On the day Grandpa went in for his biopsy and they told him on-the-spot that they were very confident that it would be cancer, I had written Grandpa an email. As I’ve said before, I am not very eloquent with the spoken word, and I knew what I wanted to say needed to be expressed to him in writing. So I wrote him an email, basically telling him how much I admire him and how important it was to me that he knows how much I love him. I ended the email by saying: “I’ll never be half the man you are, but I am twice the man I would have been if I had never had you in my life.” I meant every word. I did not expect a response from him, as I imagined sitting around on the computer was very low on his list of priorities in his final weeks, but it was eating at me not knowing for sure if he had read it. Since he passed away so suddenly, Grandma was really my only chance of finding this out.
“I really don’t know, honey. He was getting on the computer still before his health got really bad, why?”
“Well, I wrote him an email back in May. I didn’t expect him to respond – there really was no good way for him to respond. I was just trying to figure out if he had read it…”
“You know, I do seem to remember him mentioning to me that he had gotten an email from you.”
Good enough – since it was the only email I had ever sent to Grandpa, I was satisfied that this was a good indication that he had read it. It’s hard to describe the brief joy and comfort I felt in knowing that he saw that email. I’ve always hated the idea that the nicest things that ever get said about you happen at your funeral after you’ve died. When I heard Grandpa might have cancer, I wanted to make sure he knew exactly and purely how I felt about him right away. Knowing that he knew… it just made me feel a lot better.
Fast-forwarding to Tuesday evening, it was time for the visitation. Justin and I had spent some time pressing our suits and getting ready in Grandma and Grandpa’s room. My Grandma finally came in and took over for me, as Ashley sat and giggled at my complete inability to iron my own pants.
“You look really nice, Zachary.” Grandma told me after I had gotten my suit on.
“It’s my best suit. Grandpa deserves to see me in my best suit.”
I had a lot of anxiety in the drive to the funeral home. This would be the first time I’d seen Grandpa since Thanksgiving last year. Boy, what I would have done differently if I had known that would be the last time I would see him.
We pulled up to the funeral home and went inside. Close family members were told to come 30 minutes early to the visitation so we could have some time alone before the rest of the friends and family began to arrive. I don’t have words for what I felt when I saw Grandpa – I spent maybe five seconds looking at him before I broke down crying and had to sit down. I don’t deal with death very well for a multitude of reasons, but this was my Grandpa. He’s the only grandfather I ever knew, and I loved him with every fiber of my being. I didn’t know how I was supposed to act, so I did what came natural to me – I bawled my eyes out over and over in the two and a half hours we spent there. The societal norm is for men not to cry, or to at least try to hide it. I’ve got no qualms with it whatsoever – I just tried not to let Mom or Grandma see it. Again, I just wanted badly to be strong for them.
The Beer Run
After the visitation was over, Justin and I had mutually decided that we needed a drink. Webster County, Mississippi is a “dry county,” which means you can’t buy alcohol of any kind there. There are plenty of these scattered around the south. Silly concept, if you ask me. Just means you’ve got to waste gas driving to the next county to have a drink.
Just as our luck would have it, all the closest gas stations outside of Webster county were closed, for some reason. We ended up driving all the way to Winona to pick up a 12-pack of Bud Light. By the time we got home, everyone was getting ready for bed. With 12 people staying in the house and just two showers, it was going to be an early morning tomorrow so everybody could get showered and ready for Grandpa’s funeral.
Justin, Courtney, Ashley, and I sat in the sun-room at the back of the house for an hour while Justin and I had a couple beers and shared stories with our wives about our summers down there with Grandma and Grandpa. Our wives laughed at us when we said we didn’t want to throw the beer cans in the garbage for fear of Grandma seeing them. We’re all well beyond legal age, of course, but neither of us were comfortable with Grandma possibly seeing our beer cans in her garbage. I guess it is silly. Even still, we found a more discrete way of disposing of them.
6am came all too fast, and I felt sick to my stomach from the second I woke up. This was the day that I was going to see Grandpa for the last time. Most of the family went to the funeral home a bit early while Justin, Courtney, Ashley, and I stayed behind and opted to show up a little closer to the start of the funeral.
Justin and I were designated as pallbearers, so we had to be there half an hour earlier than our wives needed to be there. I got my suit on – the same suit from the visitation – and Justin had put on his service dress blues. We hopped in my car and headed that direction.
I shared with Justin that I wasn’t feeling good this morning. I had no idea what it was, but I suspect it was stress-related. Shortness of breath, light-headedness, and an upset stomach. To make matters worse, the Mississippi heat (my old friend) was especially excruciating that day. The temperature gauge in my car read 93 degrees and it was sunny and muggy. I’m not built for heat anyway, but especially not when I’m wearing a suit and tie.
We got to the funeral home and I downed several cups of water to be sure I wasn’t just dehydrated. I paced around the entire funeral home for the next half hour as I was trying to keep my composure while also maintaining whatever felt like acceptable social interaction for the occasion.
Some good friends of my parents – Scott and Colleen – had surprised us and made the 11-hour drive from Iowa down to Mississippi to attend Grandpa’s funeral. That may very well have been one of the kindest and selfless actions I’ve witnessed in 28 years of life. It spoke volumes not just about how much of an influence Grandpa had on people, but also about what amazing people Scott and Colleen are. I’m still in disbelief over that, and it warms my heart just thinking about it now. They cared so much about my family and Grandpa that they spend 22 hours traveling to and from, and spent the night in what I can only describe as a “roach motel” in Eupora (unfortunately it’s the only hotel/motel within about half an hour of town). Such amazing people.
It had come time to close the casket, so we all were given a chance to lay eyes on Grandpa one final time. I knew I would hate this part, and I did. I walked up to Grandpa and Mom came up next to me.
“Look at his hands. Remember all the things he built for you with those hands.” Mom said.
I had been stifling off my tears up to this point, but I couldn’t hold back anymore. It was painful and I just still didn’t get it. Even at 76 years old, if anyone deserved another decade of life after a cancer diagnosis, it was Grandpa. I was laying eyes on a truly great man for the last time, and it just didn’t seem fair.
Once the casket was closed, we walked over to the chapel and sat down. Pallbearers had to sit in the front two rows, so unfortunately I couldn’t sit with my wife or my parents for this part.
My Aunt Lynn began by singing a few hymns that Grandpa really liked. I had always heard that Aunt Lynn had a great singing voice, but I had never had the occasion to hear it. She sang beautifully – I knew Grandpa was proud of her.
After the preacher got up and said a few words, my Uncle Rusty had volunteered to get up and say a few words about Grandpa. First of all, I have always been amazed at my Uncle’s eloquence with the spoken word. He can stand in front of a crowd of people and speak beautifully. It is a rare gift that he has, and I have always admired it. He spoke first about Grandpa’s love for Grandma. Now, on the surface this kind of thing sounds like a given – that two people married for 56 years would love each other. Grandpa’s love for Grandma was different, though, and I’m not just saying that out of bias. My grandparents always made their love for each other their first priority. They loved their kids, grand-kids, and all their family and friends, but they had a love for one-another on such a higher level. Grandma would later tell me that Grandpa kissed her every morning and told her he loved her right when he woke up – their love was amazing… their love IS amazing.
The second thing my Uncle talked about was Grandpa’s love of building things, particularly with his woodworking. It’s hard to explain how brilliant Grandpa was, because he wasn’t one to flaunt it. His work was his art, though. It was how he would show you that he loved you. As I’ve said, he wasn’t much of a conversationalist. When he built something for you, though, you could see and feel how much he loved you. That was his outlet – it wasn’t “work” to him. It was just what he enjoyed doing. If he was running out of projects, he would start calling around and asking people what he could build for them. He never asked for anything in return, as my Uncle said.
The service was over and it was time to go to the cemetery for the burial. The staff at the funeral home was going to roll the casket outside, and then the pallbearers would load it into the hearse. There were two Navy soldiers standing outside, sent there to play the bugle and fold Grandpa’s flag. The pallbearers lined up 3-by-3, with Justin and I having arranged to be at the front, across from each other.
When the casket was rolled outside, one of the Navy soldiers called for a salute. Justin stood at salute as the casket was rolled in front of us. I stood a bit in awe of him in that moment. I’m so proud of him, and I know Grandpa was proud of him too. I’d be lying if I said in that moment I didn’t wish I was in service blues right along with him – chips off the old block, we’d be. Following in Grandpa’s footsteps together.
Once we loaded the casket into the hearse, Justin asked if it was all right if he rode with me to the cemetery while our wives drove separately in his truck. Not wanting to sound corny, I said “Sure, that’ll be fine.” What I wanted to say was “It would be an honor.” Again, I’m just so proud of what he’s done and what he’s accomplished. I’ve always felt this way, but pride was literally overflowing from me in that moment. From the harmless troublemaker I knew as a kid, to the stoic Naval Officer I saw before me saluting Grandpa just a moment ago… it’s difficult to describe my love for this guy – my brother.
We got in my car and followed the funeral procession, spinning stories about Grandpa the whole way. Justin talked about how brilliant Grandpa was, and I mused about what I thought Grandpa might have done if he had never joined the Navy. I always figured my Grandpa would be an engineer of some sort. He had a knack for building and fixing things, he understood schematics very well, and I believe he was also very gifted with math. I wouldn’t change for a second the career Grandpa chose in the Navy, but it was fun to imagine what he would have done otherwise.
After about 20 minutes, we arrived at Edwards Springs Cemetery. Edwards is Grandma’s maiden name, and I was so happy that Grandpa was going to be buried there. As we would joke around later – this was Grandpa’s final effort to keep Grandma happy.
We got out of the car, and the sun was beating down. I had felt progressively worse throughout the morning, and felt very sick to my stomach at this point. Justin and I joked that I just need to get Grandpa from the hearse to the burial site, and then I was free to pass out. Thankfully, the hearse was able to back right up to Grandpa’s plot, so it looked like we’d only have to move Grandpa about 10 feet.
Again, Justin and I had arranged to be at the front of Grandpa’s casket where his head was. We felt it was fitting that, after leading and teaching us all our lives, that we would lead him in the short journey to his final resting place. He would have been proud to see us, carrying him like brothers.
The preacher said a few words, and the Navy soldiers did a fantastic job playing the bugle and folding his flag. I teared up when the one soldier dropped to one knee and handed the flag to Grandma, thanking her for loving and supporting him and thanking her for his service to our country.
And that was that. We walked off and had a meal at the church (which I briefly had to excuse myself from as my upset stomach nearly reached a breaking point), and the healing process was set in motion.
Ashley and I went back to Grandma’s house a little early so I could take some Tylenol and lay down. About 20 minutes later, everyone started showing up from the church. One of Grandpa’s sisters, Aunt Margaret, sat down in the living room with Ashley, Grandma, and me. Aunt Margaret talked and talked about the Blackston family, and I just soaked it all in – rarely saying much. It amazes me for how quiet Grandpa was, that Aunt Margaret was just the opposite. She looks like him – she has the same high cheek bones that Grandpa had which also got passed down to me. I hadn’t seen her since I was a little kid since she lives in Georgia, but I loved listening to her talk. If I wasn’t feeling so ill, there are just so many other questions I wanted to ask her. Perhaps I will give her a call sometime, or write to her.
Throughout the day, the traffic in and out of the house started to thin out, and by the evening it was just the direct family members again. You could already tell there was a sense of peace slowly forming in the house. The wounds were still open, and likely will be for some time, but the healing process had begun. We all did whatever made us feel good for the rest of the day. I played with Justin and Courtney’s kids, ate some more cake (the house had been filled with food by friends and family members throughout the week), and went to bed pretty early.
On Thursday, Justin, Courtney, and my dad had all left. Justin had to be in Boston on Friday for his step-dad’s celebration of life memorial, and my dad opted to head back home to take care of the yard and the animals.
Ashley and I went to Edwards Springs Cemetery to see Grandpa’s grave. Covered in Mississippi clay and flowers, and sitting in the shade of a large oak tree, it sure felt like a great resting place. It made me wonder where I’ll be buried. To be honest, I hope it is right there at Edwards Springs with my family. I feel like I belong there.
We came back to Edwards Springs again later with the whole family. Grandma was already talking about how we’ll probably have to come back sometime and put some more dirt over top of the grave once it settles – even after death, Grandma can only think about taking care of Grandpa.
Ashley and I had planned to leave that evening, so we packed our things and brought them out to the car that afternoon. We somehow found ourselves in the sun-room with Grandma, listening to her for hours talking about Grandpa. I was completely captivated at that moment, with my attention glued to Grandma. She talked about how early in their marriage, she lived with Grandpa’s mother. Grandpa would be on deployment, and he’d send $150 each paycheck back home, which was split between Grandma and his mother. That was also when she told me that Grandpa would lean over and kiss her every morning when he’d wake up, and tell her he loved her. What an amazing way to start each day.
She also talked about the tough times, too, but even most of those stories were cute. She told me about one time when she was angry with him and she told him she was going to leave him.
“Where would you go?” Grandpa would say.
“Well, you’re going to go sleep in that room and I’m going to sleep in this room, because neither one of us has anywhere to go.” Grandma told us, which made us all laugh.
“I guess if you go somewhere, I’d just go with you,” Grandpa said.
“Well you can’t do that! I’d be leaving you!” Grandma said. Again, we all laughed. Honestly I never heard my grandparents arguing with each other. If they did it, they must not have ever done it around me. I’d have liked to have seen that exchange in person, though.
Grandma told Uncle Rusty and Mom that they need to start heading back home and getting back to their lives. She said she’s got four quilts she needs to work on, and it’ll keep her busy for months. And now she won’t have Grandpa coming into her sewing room all the time saying “It’s time to eat, Mom,” or “Time for bed, Mom.” My grandparents called each other “Mom” and “Dad,” ever since I can remember. Grandma said that’s because she used to call him Charles, and when Uncle Rusty was a kid he started calling him Charles too. Since then, it’s been “Dad.”
Ashley and I actually stayed a couple hours later than we planned. I said it was because we didn’t want to drive through Memphis too early, but really it was because I was so captivated by listening to Grandma talk. I didn’t want to miss anything.
The trip home was uneventful, and significantly more upbeat than the trip down was. Ashley and I listened to an audio book for the majority of the drive, which is something I’ve never done before. It was neat, but I guess I’d rather just read the book than listen to it.
Not an hour goes by that I don’t think about Grandpa. I’m going to miss him more than I can describe. I have developed a belief, though, that provides me a lot of comfort. I’ve decided that Grandpa is going to be around forever. His blood flows through my veins, Justin’s, Mom’s, Uncle Rusty’s, as well as Justin’s kids’. There’s a piece of Grandpa inside all of us, and there’s a piece of Grandma within us as well. They’ll be together there for the rest of our lives, and their influence will be there with us forever. Grandpa left his body behind, but he will always be with us.
I’ll end this with a quote. I don’t know who said it, but it is perfect.
“When a great man dies, for years the light he leaves behind him, lies on the paths of men.”
I love you, Grandpa.