On Christmas day, I sat with my family in a hospital waiting room.
Earlier that day, as I was coming downstairs to watch the boys open presents, my phone rang. A picture of my mother laughing with her two sisters appeared on the screen, indicating the caller was my mother’s cell phone.
I laughed to myself, thinking how she was calling to see if the boys liked their presents from Santa, and how disappointed she would be to learn we had all just woken up.
But it was my father’s voice on the line when I picked up. And I immediately knew something was wrong.
My grandfather – my mom’s beloved father – had been rushed to the hospital that morning. He’d had a heart attack and had stopped breathing. My cousin Danny, who lives just down the street, performed CPR on my grandfather until the ambulance arrived. He was now in the ICU. But he was gone for about 30 minutes before they were able to bring him back. So I knew – unless a miracle happened – that we had lost him.
“We’re on our way up there now,” my father said. “But there is no need for you to come. Just try to enjoy your Christmas.”
I tried to keep it together as the boys opened their gifts from Santa. I tried to get the image of Danny giving my grandfather CPR out of my head. I ached for my cousin and the emotion that must have surged within him at that moment – and surely must still be coursing through his veins.
I sat in a fog as the boys tore open the wrapping paper and clung to their gifts. The joy I couldn’t wait to see on their faces was numbing at the moment. I managed to smile as my oldest son opened his new video game, clutched the game to his chest and closed his eyes, blissfully happy at that moment.
After presents were opened, and wrapping paper was splayed across the living room floor, I jumped up to call my brother. He was already on his way to my house.
My brother and I talked and laughed and cried together on our three hour drive to the hospital. My husband stayed home with the kids. It was hard to leave them on Christmas day, but I didn’t think I could stay home. I knew there was nothing I could do. But I wanted to say goodbye to my grandfather. Give him one more kiss. Tell him one more time how amazing he was. And hold my mother when she cried.
I’m pretty familiar with the hospitals in and around Waco, Texas. I’ve sat in the waiting room as various family members – two aunts, an uncle, my grandmother and grandfather (this wasn’t his first brush with death) – fought for their lives in the ICU.
The family all meets – driving from Dallas or Austin, or just around the Waco area. We sit. We talk. We tell jokes. We avoid talking about the person we are all worried about in the hospital bed behind the doors we aren’t allowed to go in except two at a time for two hours twice a day.
When it was my turn to see him, I didn’t actually say the word “goodbye.” My grandfather’s girlfriend went in with me, and she was still holding out hope that he would wake up and drink a cup of coffee with her. And I didn’t want to dim that outlook.
So I told him it was me. I patted his white hair – the hair that earned him his nickname as a child. “That boy’s hair is light as cotton,” the man had said. And he would forever be known as Cotton. I also had that hair as a child – so blonde it was almost white. One of the many things I would get from him. I touched his hair, now matted to his head, and I told him I loved him. And I told him my three-year-old still talks about seeing his chickens last time we were at his house. And then I said something lame like, “see you later”.
And I hope he knew that by saying all that, I meant goodbye.
And I hope he’d be proud of how I reacted when the doctor came out to tell us he was gone. We were all standing in the hallway just outside the ICU doors. We chatted and joked lightly, our eyes darting to each other’s as we heard the bustling noises start on the other side of the door, the ominous beeping noises that weren’t there a moment before. We watched as the nurse with the crash cart came out of the ICU doors. Our eyes trailed her as she walked through us, her head down. We continued our meaningless conversation, pretending nothing was wrong.
The doctor came out then, a short man wearing sweatpants under his white coat. I tried to convince myself that was okay, given it was so cold outside. But it bothered me anyway. I don’t know why.
The doctor asked if we were all assembled. He asked where “the eldest sister” was. Then he asked where “the girlfriend” was. Whatever he was about to tell us, I surmised, it couldn’t be good.
I cut through some relatives so I could stand behind my mother. I thought it possible she might fall when the little sweatpants man said what he had to say, and I wanted to be there if that happened. He said some big words like “cardio-malefactory-something-or-other” and then he said, very quickly, “and he’s gone now”.
Screams rang out, echoing off the white walls and florescent lights. My aunt – my mom’s younger sister – collapsed. My mother grabbed her. I grabbed my mother. My grandfather’s girlfriend leaned into her cane and her son held onto her to keep her from falling. There was a numb throbbing in my ears.
I’d known it all day. But to hear the words in that final way from this little man who was wholly under-dressed for the occasion – it sent little spikes of ache through my body. In my head, I scolded the little man – who stood in the middle of the commotion with a worried look on his face – for not telling us to all sit down before he gave us this information. He pulled a chair from the waiting room out to the hallway so my aunt could sit down. I could hear my cousin yelling at his mother as she mumbled in a trance-like state, “my daddy, my daddy,” over and over.
“Mom,” my cousin Jeremy said. “Don’t do this to us.”
My father took my mother and, in the safety of his arms, she allowed herself to cry. I stood there, looking at everyone as they held each other, and I searched for my brother.
Then I saw him coming down the hallway. He had gone to take a nap in an empty waiting room down the hall. He had worked all night before driving the hour to my house that morning. And our father – at our mother’s urging – had insisted my brother find someplace to lie down and sleep.
But he’d just laid his head down when he heard the screaming.
I met him halfway down the hallway. We were both crying before we embraced.
We met up with our mother and held her each in turn. I pulled a chair out to the hallway so she could sit next to her sister. Then I made the excuse of getting them some water and fled down the hallway toward the empty cafeteria so I could mourn in peace.
I really loved that man, I thought, as I poured cups of water from the fountain machine.
Such a good man. Strong and animated and caring. Such a good storyteller. He really loved people; really saw them. And now the world is robbed of him.
“Did you call Johnny?” my brother said when I got back. Another ache shot through me. My cousin, earlier that day, had given me his cell phone number.
“Call me if anything changes,” he’d said. Then he took his wife and son home. I had agreed but – like an idiot – it never occurred to me that I would have to call and tell him Grandpa was gone.
I heard Johnny’s voice break as he said, “we’re on our way.”
We all sat in the waiting room for another hour or so, holding each other. I don’t think any of us really wanted to leave. If we left, we’d have to move on. It would have to be over. Funeral plans would have to begin. Estate matters would have to be dealt with.
Life would have to move on without him.
And I haven’t been able to write anything since.
I’ve tried working on my novel. I’ve tried polishing a blog post about characterization I started before Christmas day. This very post I began initially to tell you about a great gift my cousin Jeremy and his wife Lara gave me that day in the hospital – a gift any writer would appreciate.
But this post went in another direction entirely. I guess I couldn’t say anything else until this story was written.
At my Grandpa’s funeral, I talked about his love for storytelling – a love that touched so many people, as obvious by the postings on the Facebook page my cousin Michelle created in his honor. I talked about the lessons he’d taught me throughout the years.
But today, it seems he’s taught me yet another valuable lesson. Today’s teaching: the story you WANT to tell isn’t always the story that flows out onto the page.
Okay, Grandpa, I get it. Thanks for that.