I watched as my Grandfather’s life declined. My whole life I’ve known this man to be the most gentle, kind and loving person. What I think impacted me more deeply than anything else was watching him adore my grandmother.
I grew up spending many weekends, holidays and Summers with my grandparents. I witnessed the same routine, day in and day out. Within all that time, I was blessed to be able to see my grandparents love for each other. They were truly each other’s best friends along with being “man and wife.” This isn’t a romanticized version of their relationship, if you ask anyone, my grandparents had a beautiful love story that began when they were teenagers.
I remember when my grandfather’s passed his driver’s test, at the ripe young age of 90. He told me through laughter that the DMV renewed his driver’s license. My grandmother sat up and said, “Can you believe that.” She was not happy and refused to let him drive. My grandfather loved his wife so he listened. He was always a very competent person so when his health started to decline, it was hard to see.
My grandfather was always alert, very busy. It was like nothing stopped him and he worked with a smile while whistling his favorite tunes. The first time he snapped at me, I was actually shocked. I’d only seen him angry once and it was over a relative he thought was taking advantage of my grandmother’s kindness. My grandfather never directed a cross word towards me, and definitely not my son who he adored. My grandmother pulled me to the side, told me, “Don’t pay your grandfather no mind” and explained what was happening.
My grandmother wouldn’t say the word dementia, but it was quite clear. So for two years my grandfather would angrily tell us to leave and not return. I’d tell him, “I love you grandpa,” knowing the harsh words were not his normal personality.
Because I did not know how much more time we had left, I continued to visit. Though hesitant, I wanted them both to know I loved them dearly. Just prior to my grandfather’s decline, he looked at my son and me, then said, “You two take care of each other.” I thought that was our last time to see him, but it was not.
On my grandmother’s 91'st birthday, she got the news that her husband was dying. The doctors gave him two weeks to live and immediately arranged hospice at home services. After I got over the anger that they told my grandmother on her birthday her life partner was going die, the dutiful granddaughter stepped in. From that moment on life really did seem like a blur.
Despite Covid, family members showed up masked, to see my grandfather for “one last time.” My grandfather grew more and more thin. I’d go to help and watch with love as he turned into “skin and bones.” Another cousin flew in to stay and support them more full time. I was back and forth, sometimes with my son so he could spend time with the great-grandfather that he shared many war-time discussions with. Most of the time I went on my own to focus and take care-giving shifts. As his “death date” approached, my grandfather held on.
One particular day I told my cousin to take a break, I would support so that she could rest. I started seeing the signs of anxiety within myself, but I pushed them to the side, with the help of an adaptogen blend to calm my nerves. By that time my grandmother decided to just lay in bed with my grandfather and hold his hand. Yes, partly from love, but also to keep him from trying to get out of bed and pull out his catheter. My grandfather had become quite “ornery” and fell a few times.
As my grandfather grew more difficult, caring for him became more of a challenge. My grandmother insisted he stay home in bed. I was trying to find an in-home caregiver to fill in where hospice support would not. Life felt chaotic. I watched as my grandmother grew more tired and upset. She sat up and said “I just can’t take this anymore.”
I looked at my grandfather reach for his catheter and I stood on their bed, sat between them and held my grandfather’s hand. My grandmother started sobbing and as my grandfather struggled, I asked him, “Grandpa, if I let go of your hand to rub grandma’s back would you stay still? Grandma’s crying and I want to comfort her.” Just then my grandfather stopped and I rubbed her back with my left hand as I held is left hand with my right. Peace grew in that brief moment of silence as my grandmother stopped crying. Just as she stopped however, my grandfather reached down to grab his catheter and I caught his hand just in time.
I talked to my grandfather and could see the anger in his eyes grow. I looked at him, smiled and asked, “Grandpa, do you remember when I was 12 and you taught me how to Waltz?” My grandfather stopped struggling, held both of my hands up and moved them around as if we were dancing. He said, “Bom, bom, bom, bom, bom bom, bom bom bom” to the tune of the Waltz. I felt my heart and mouth smile. Tears welled up in my eyes and I asked, “You remember?” That was a peaceful five minutes.
I wanted my grandfather to die with dignity. I held onto to that not facing the reality that this strong man who worked his whole life, a World War II Veteran who served the country he loved, this loving husband and father was now bedridden and barely able to talk. Dignity had a different look in those moments.
I went to the grocery store with my son to pick up some necessities, and talked on the phone to my cousin, filling her in on what happened while she was away. She decided to come back that evening. After I brought groceries and some of my grandmother’s favorite colored flowers back to their house, my son and I went home. I talked to my son about dementia, death and dying. Though I was shaking inside, I held up my head and tried to be calm as tears flowed down my face. Being “strong” just wasn’t in my mind in that moment.
A week after he was supposed to pass, my grandfather continued to fight. He was still bedridden and his only movements were to rub my grandmother’s back. He barely ate, only a few spoonfuls of baby food someone bought him. He’d look at my grandmother and she would say, “one more bite,” he’d open his mouth as I held up the spoon to him. I was now feeding the man who fed me as I child. Anxiety and sadness intertwined with a deep sense of love I had for my grandfather.
As my cousin was preparing to fly back home to her husband and children we shared another conversation. I told her, “We both know grandpa is not going to leave grandma. He’s holding on to take care of her.” She agreed. I told her, “I didn’t want to say in front of grandma that it’s okay for him to leave. Someone needs to give him permission to die.” My cousin told me she had done just that earlier in the morning when our grandmother went to the bathroom. My cousin then decided she could not go home, she needed to stay a few days to be with our grandparents. It was a good decision.
My grandfather held on 2–3 weeks after his “death date.” He stopped eating completely. I had gone home to make a final decision on an in-home caregiver. Tensions were rising and in the middle of some unnecessary family drama my grandfather went to sleep and stopped breathing. My cousin who lived there said he was glad he noticed before our grandmother.
On March 16, 2021, one month before my grandparents 75th wedding anniversary, my grandfather passed away next to his loving wife. He was 95 and lived a very long, fruitful life.
On March 31, 2021 we laid him to rest in the most beautiful ceremony that included full military honors. I’m not a fan of war, but I felt proud as I filmed the 21-Gun Salute for our relatives who could not attend in person. We laughed as my cousin folded up the speech he wrote, said how much our grandfather would’ve hated that and spoke from his heart. I cried as they folded the flag and handed it to my sobbing grandmother.
In the months that have followed I’ve gone back and forth to help care for my grandmother. It’s like auto-pilot turns on and I go there and work. The weeds had taken over my grandparent’s front yard, the vibrant green growing so boldly through the white granite rocks that always looked perfect prior to my grandfather’s decline. With determination, it took me three full days over a period of three weeks to pull all the weeds.
One particular day I was pulling and I found myself saying out loud, “Now I know how you stayed busy in your retirement grandpa, you were always pulling weeds.” I laughed and went inside to tell my grandmother. “Yeah dear, he was always outside pulling weeds,” my grandmother laughed. In was in those moments pulling weeds, I realized I felt complete peace. All the anxiety had lifted. I didn’t feel anger, no confusion, only hurt over the struggles just prior to my grandfather’s passing.
I feel a strong sense of peace when I think of my grandfather. I believe that my grieving process began at the visible signs of decline. I watched him become mean, I saw the weight loss, his decreased activity. I got a chance to see the man I knew transition. Now that he’s physically gone, there’s a lightness in the air, like he’s truly at peace.
Other than writing this article, I haven’t cried since my grandfather’s memorial. I hold space for my grandmother’s grief when she cries and talk to her when she feels lonely. This time is all for her. The man she shared over 75 years with is not physically present but his love still surrounds her. Knowing that has helped me to personally release the pain of him passing.
Rest in Peace Grandpa! We love you!
In Honor of William Willard Miller, 1925–2021