I was in 6th grade when my grandpa passed away. I remember the phone ringing had woke us up, then mom and I were the first ones to get to the kitchen of our old house. I looked at the caller ID and told mom it was grandma…She knew what the news was on the other end; there wasn’t another reason to be calling that early on a Sunday.
My grandparents lived just down the road from where I grew up. I spent so much of my time there as a kid–summers, after school, dinner nights, and holidays–their house was the go-to for family gatherings and babysitting needs.
My grandpa was an interesting man, definitely in a badass way. His hobbies included building and racing stock cars, cracking jokes only he thought were funny, fixing everything and anything with his own two hands and WD40, smoking cigars, being a local Grand Haven business man, traveling with grandma and their friends, watching NASCAR, and solving the world’s problems with “the Fruitport mafia.” Grandpa would frequently meet up with his buddies for coffee at an old little shack in Fruitport called Burger Crest, it’s still there today. He would bring me with him and I’d ride along in the bucket seat of his green van that reeked of cigars and dirty garage-like smells, along with dog hair covering everything. Then there we would be, little Allyson and a buncha old guys drinking coffee talking about old guy stuff–some serious bonding time.
He and I did a variety of things together; going with to get coffee is a great memory, but also among the least exciting. As a family, we spent countless weekends at our cottage up in Wallhalla. Grandpa and the veteran neighbor remodeled it themselves, and that place holds many of my favorite memories. He would take me for snowmobile rides on the trails in the winter, jeep rides in the summer with the dogs, grilling out on the deck with the family and Saturday Night Country Gold playing on the radio (which I loathed). Together we’d go fishing off the dock or he’d take me around the lake in the boat to where his best spots were. We would make homemade candles together in his workshop, and he taught me his method to be the best camp fire starter ever, better than anything I ever learned in girl scouts. Being the oldest of the four grand kids, I had the luxury of spending more time with him.
July of 2005 was when the symptoms became noticeable. He began having pains in his stomach, his skin and eyes started to yellow. My mom was out working in the yard when he came out and told her, “There’s something bad, I don’t know what it is, but it’s not right.” After several doctor appointments and scans, he was diagnosed late summer with pancreatic cancer. November of ‘05 was the first surgery, the Whipple Procedure to remove the masses that were on the pancreas and strive towards that very, very low survival rate. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving is when they were able to come home from recovery. Post-surgery is when chemo started with intravenous injections and different oral medications for pain and anxiety. It became a routine of just going through the motions of appointments, medicines, check-ins, etc…
In March of 2006 everyone pushed for a big anniversary party for my grandparent’s 40th wedding anniversary. People questioned, “why have 40th anniversary party? Why not wait for 50 like most do?” They pushed because he wouldn’t be around for a 50th. My parents had just got back from a trip to Mexico that Saturday morning in time for the party, and everyone rallied together that night. That was one of his last “good” days.
The fall of ’06 is when things got bad and chemo had taken its toll on him, obviously so did the cancer. We’re unsure of when the cancer spread to his lungs, but my family says that’s nearly what killed him. The fluid, mucous and damage to his lungs made it impossible to breathe. He was now on an oxygen tube and anxiety ridden because of the spurts of nearly choking to death, and that’s when hospice was brought in. I’m thankful that the majority of my memories with my grandpa didn’t include the cancer, but still, there are scarring memories of him during the most ill state that linger. The one day I walked into their house and he was in his chair just choking and drooling, while my grandma was knelt down at his side trying to assist with whatever you can in that situation. I think I remember this vividly because of the way he looked at me, almost in shame, or defeated, that I was witnessing him in that condition as his little granddaughter. Time has not hindered my recollection of those emotions.
Around Christmas time on December 21st (mom remembered), he sat down beside my mom on the hearth and told her how he wasn’t going to make it another month with his condition. Grandma was calling hospice every night to “bring more medicine, bring more medicine” so he could be comfortable. You’re supposed to do everything you can for someone battling a terminal disease…if there’s more scans available, you get them…if there’s new medicine offered, you get it… you do everything you can just so you aren’t sitting and waiting for death. If something provides even the smallest glimpse of hope that your loved one could hold onto life a little longer, you go for it.
He called it. January 21st, to the day of when he said he wouldn’t make it a month, he passed. The night before he died, his nieces and nephews whom we don’t see often, happened to be on their way home from a ski trip up north and stopped through and were able to say goodbyes. On that same night, my aunt Chris asked him, “are you scared” and he blankly replied, “nope.”
It’s relieving to know that he knew he was ready to go, and that he would embrace death, and that the suffering would finally cease after 14 months. I don’t know what was going through his head as he had that conversation with his own daughter. I’d imagine he was heartbroken that he was leaving us, but ready to be done with that lifestyle the cancer brought him to. My grandpa was tough as hell, and that is what I will always remember him by, but the cancer was stronger.
That morning, I ran ahead of my family and was the first one to the house. I headed down the hall to their bedroom, grandma was sitting on the bedside, and grandpa just lying forever still in the hospital bed. That’s another vivid memory, again because of what I felt from the way grandma looked at me, teary eyes but a faint smile when I walked in. I just sat beside her and held her hand and we cried together.
Death is a natural part of life, but wow, does it suck. Cancer is ugly; it’s not a comfortable topic of conversation for most to have, and people want to avoid the depths of the ugliness and the emotions from the past it provokes. But as my family helped me in writing this story, I am thankful for the conversation. It is still, 10 years later, a part of grieving. Uncovering and resurfacing those emotions together again was frustrating and sad, but also heart–warming to talk about him so openly again and reminisce together.
My grandpa was 67 when he died. He definitely lived a fulfilling life in those years, but I wonder what he would still been doing today if the cancer didn’t get him. It breaks my heart that he was taken so soon, because there is an infinite list of things I wish I could talk to him about. I want to tell him about what I’m doing in school, get advice for when I feel like I don’t have my life together, talk to him about my family, and also tell him about the awesome position I have interning with Purple Community. One of my grandpa’s favorite lines to say was “See ya when you’re older!” whenever we parted. I am much older now, and I cannot wait to see him again.