Ninety-five year old Bernie died on a Monday morning around 6:00am. He called out to his ninety-two year old wife before slumping down over his walker and was gone.
“What a way to go…” My grandmother sighed a few hours later, as we sat together on the bench at the foot of their bed. She smoothed her hands over her teal velour pants while I rubbed her back gently, “We didn’t even get a chance to have a conversation.” I gave her shoulder a squeeze, “I know it happened really fast and it seems like there’s never enough time…” I said, “But grandma, really? After 72 years of such a loving marriage, what could have possibly been left to say?” She turned to me, nodding, and returned my weak smile with one of her own.
At nearly 40 years old, I have spent a huge part of my life surrounded by the unconditional love and support of my grandparents. Perhaps much of my experience with them is the typical sweetness between grandparent and grandchild. Still, there was so much more.
I was four years old when my mother divorced my biological father. My relationship with him was far from healthy and his absence from my life became permanent when he relinquished his parental rights several years later. There was deep shame and a sense of bewilderment in my contorted belief that my Daddy had left me because I was somehow displeasing as a daughter.
Grandpa, however, was always there.
My sister and I spent frequent weekends in the care of my grandparents while my mother tried to navigate the psychological wreckage of her former marriage. In their care, I was offered, not only a rare glimpse of complete safety but one in which I was undeniably cherished beyond measure. While holding grandpa’s hand, I saw myself through his eyes; smart, talented, capable, kind, adorable, worthy of great pride and truly treasured. It was in he and my grandmother’s love that my resiliency formed, sustaining me through many more years fraught with complications.
Bernie lived his life until the day he died, just as he intended. While the last few months found him rapidly declining physically, his immense warmth and clever wit never left his side. The day before his passing, Bernie laid in bed until well into the afternoon. When his physical therapist arrived she wandered into the bedroom and asked, “What do you think, Mr. Rice? Want to do a few exercises?” My grandfather smiled but nodded his head, ‘No.’ “I don’t think so.” He had said, “Not today…but here, I’ll scoot over and you can lie down.”
When I told my two children of Pop’s death, they asked many insightful questions. They then scrambled to collect several pictures of themselves that they wished to be buried in Pop’s casket alongside him.
While combing through photos of my own, I found two of myself during my most vulnerable years. Both depicted my seven to nine year old self in a short hair cut with bangs trimmed above my eyebrows. My eyes looked huge behind plastic framed glasses; my forced smile hiding a well of sorrow, insecurity and uncertainty. I pressed the photos to my chest, tears falling into my lap. “I’ve picked a couple photos of my own to put with Pop,” I said as the kids rummaged through the pile, “They will be safe with him.”
How incredibly grateful I am to have been Pop’s little girl. How deeply I will miss looking into his face and seeing my own preciousness reflected back to me.