Good-bye, Grandpa

My grandfather passed away on October 20, 1998 at the ripe old age of 91 years.  He lived a long life, and with the possible exception of the last three years, it was a happy one.  The following is my attempt to tie together a lot of different events into a story.  Once again, as with many of my stories of late, my daughter plays a pivotal role.
Michael J. Marchi
October 26, 1998

My grandfather was never quite the same after his wife, Rose died in 1995.  My grandmother was a saint of a woman, and we all have felt her presence around us in the three years since she left us: 
My father, set with the task of putting his mother's affairs in order was trying to get into their house one day with his arms laden with things.  He managed to get through the outer porch doors without too much difficulty, but upon reaching the inner door, found it locked.  He began trying to shift the load so he could dig into his pockets for the house key, when the door swung open by itself.  Without batting an eye, he said "Thanks, Ma" and walked in to drop off his burden. 
My mother, down in Chicago taking care of some issues while my father made the funeral arrangements up north, felt an enveloping warm presence.  She smiled softly and said, "Thanks mom, but Hank needs you more right now."
Several months after her death, Becky and I were struggling with the concept of getting pregnant.  We had been trying for a couple of months and were starting down the path where the doctors start wondering if there's something wrong with one of the prospective parents.  One night I had a dream about Grandma.  I was very happy to see her - so much so, that all I could do in the dream was hug her and proclaim how much I missed her.  She kept trying to tell me something, but I remember not wanting to listen so much as try to figure out how she could be there and seem so real.  I woke up and turned to Becky.  "You're pregnant." I said. "And it's a girl." Just under nine months later, Christine was born.  We later discovered that the dream occurred on what was probably the night of conception. Privately, I suspected that Christine might be the reincarnation of my Grandmother's spirit.  As I've watched her grow, I've marveled at the wisdom that little girl possesses, and wondered.
At any rate, with Grandma being such a focused presence for all of us, you can imagine how difficult it was for the man who had spent his lifetime married to her.  Even three years later, he mourned her, and wished to join her. 

He grew depressed, and stopped eating regularily.  Then a little over a year ago, after a downturn in his health and mobility following some surgery, we placed him into a Medicare facility.  This wasn't an easy decision for any of us, least of all, Grandpa.  Our hope was the constant care, physical therapy and social interactions within the facility might turn him around.  Unfortunately, he continued to slide further into depression.

My mother called me on Saturday afternoon, telling me that Grandpa was experiencing a variety of complications and we might consider coming up the following weekend to see him.  We agreed.  Grandpa started improving on Sunday afternoon.  He was able to recognize people again, and the morphine was helping keep the pain at bay, so he was comfortable.  My mom was showing him pictures of the family.  He seemed to fixate on the pictures of Christine - declaring her "cute" and wishing he could see her.  My mom let him know that we would be coming (with Christine) that weekend.  This seemed to cheer him up. On Monday he seemed to be holding his own.  He watched as my father paced nervously back and forth in the room, wearing a path from the door to the foot of the bed.  Grandpa looked at him and asked "What are you so worried about?" My father replied, "Dad, if our positions were reversed, you'd be worried too." My mother decided to take the initiative.  She decided it was time for them to go home for the evening, and made my father hug grandpa before they left.  They left the room and my mom turned back toward the bed.  "Dad?" she asked quietly.
He turned and looked at her.
"If Rosie should come for you.  It's okay to go with her."
Grandpa paused.  "You think so?"
"Yeah Dad.  It's okay."
My mom called to tell me about the above exchange.  Once again the thought that Grandma and Christine might be intertwined caused me to wonder if the weekend would be soon enough.  What if somehow, Grandpa suspected the same thing that I did?
Tuesday morning they returned to the home.  Grandpa was slipping in and out of sleep all morning.  He sat in bed, with his hands tucked either in his lap, or under the covers all morning.  His brother, Gil came and sat by the bedside during one of the times he was asleep.  He noticed that Grandpa's breathing was becoming ragged, so he tried to wake him up.  Failing that, he went to get a nurse.  When they returned, Grandpa was gone, but his hand was no longer tucked in his lap.  It was outstretched and upturned, as though he were reaching out to take someone's hand.  We think Grandma came for him after all.

My family opted for a short visitation period, followed immediately by the funeral mass.  This all occurred in the church my grandparents attended in Michigan.  Visitation began at around 10:30am, and ended when mass began around 1:00pm.  There were not many people present, the few brothers and sisters who survived him, his children and some of the cousins.  What few friends still lived came by to express their condolences.  I entered the church with Becky and Christine.  I hung back toward the rear of the church, using Christine as an excuse to avoid going right up to the front by introducing her to the family members who had not seen her, yet.  Becky is not good with funerals, so was struggling the entire time to keep from crying and remembering her own grandfather's death from her childhood.  At last, I approached the front of the church, holding my daughter in my arms and trying not to look directly at the casket yet.  As relieved as I was that his suffering was over, I knew there were unshed tears waiting in the wings.  I did what I could to hold them at bay.  My mother, father and uncle stood at the head of the church, the strain behind my mother's eyes evidence that the smile on her face was forced.  Christine called out a happy "Grandma!" and I put her down so she could give my mom a much needed hug.  Mom scooped her up and held her close.  Satisfied that Christine was taken care of, I glanced at Becky.  She didn't look like she wanted to approach the casket just yet, so I put my hand on her arm and told her it was okay to hang back.  I started to approach the casket alone, but didn't stay that way long.  "'stine too." my daughter said.  Then "Grandma. Down." My mother obliged her and I turned back to see Christine following along behind me. 
"Mom, I don't think..."
"It's okay.  Let her come.", she replied.
We approached the casket together, Christine stepping out slightly ahead, stood up on the kneeler and leaned against the railing.  I watched her carefully for any sign of fear - there was none - just a quiet curiosity. I turned and looked at my grandfather's body.  He looked peaceful...but not quite like himself (I have yet to see any undertaker do justice to the person in the casket).
"'sat?", Christine asked.
"He's sleeping." I replied, then felt my eyes begin to burn as the tears tried to force their way through.  There was a small pillow of densely packed flowers next to his head, bearing a tag marked "Grandpa".  This was supposedly from myself, my brother and my uncle's two sons.  The other flower in the casket was a red rose framed in babies breath and greens. This rested atop his crossed hands, and bore a ribbon that said "Great Grandpa" - Christine's gift. I crouched down, pulling close to Christine so I could speak quietly into her ear.  "You see that?" I said pointing to the red flower. "That flower is from you."
I felt something brush against my elbow, and looked up to find Becky standing next to me.  She looked into my eyes, trying to figure out if I was okay or not.  I put my arm around her waist and squeezed, then returned the scrutiny.  She looked okay.  Becky took Christine by the hand and led her away, giving me room to kneel and have a quiet moment.

When the service finally began, the casket was closed and we were all asked to sit down.  As we started to settle in, and quiet Christine down, the funeral director came to us and presented Christine with the rose from the casket.  I guess they don't get to keep the flowers.  Christine was quite taken with the gift...much to our chagrin.  75% of her (quite) vocal commentary during the 45 minute service had the word flower in it.  Keeping her quiet was not an option.  Her favorite trick was poking us in the face with the stem, and ordering us to "Smell flower." If nothing else it kept our minds off the service, and our gazes away from the draped casket which sat next to us.

After communion, my mother (knowing that the actual funeral rights were about to begin) came back and took Christine with her, up into the balcony overlooking the church.  She still spoke in excited tones that reverberated through the church, but they were a little more distant.  At last the prayers ended, and the pall-bearers began to push the casket down the aisle, following the priest.  At about the halfway point, we were all turned backwards, watching the progress when from on high up in the balcony, Christine's voice rang out, "Good-bye Grandpa." More than half of the attendees, were moved to tears by those two little words, including Becky who lost the battle to regain control over her own memories.

The innocence of children is a welcome thing at funerals.  Certainly, Christine's closing comment helped release some of the stress that many of us were fighting to keep bottled up.  It also gave us something to talk about at the luncheon following the service.  I'm glad she was there.

On a final note, the order of events and evidence we've seen has caused me to rethink my position on Christine's origin.  Becky and I now feel that Grandma brought Christine to us - her final gift.  As for the presence we have felt over the years, I don't have a clue.  My uncle reports that he senses no trace of either of his parents in their house.  He suggests that they are off on their second honeymoon together.  I find that thought very comforting.

 "Good-bye, Grandpa", Copyright © 1998 by Michael J. Marchi
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