Wednesday, December 13, 2006

What is missing from this picture?

You know, you spend your whole life knowing that people are eventually going to die, and yet when those people you love do die, it’s never at the right time.

In 1996 my grandfather woke up and was unable to walk. If they found out why, no one ever told me. He was taken to the nursing home that was connected with their assisted living complex. In a letter that my grandmother sent that week, she described going to visit him and seeing him sitting at a table in a wheelchair. That is one scene that I still can’t handle, and I never saw it, just envisioned it.

Piedmont Gardens is where he spent his final days. He stopped eating, and regardless of the pleas of the staff, he still refused food. It wasn’t long after that point that he died.

My grandfather was 82 when he died, yet his death came too soon. I met my wife the following year, and he never got to meet her. He would have loved her like a long lost daughter. In the year 2000 my son Matthew Stanley was born, named after my grandfather. He never got to meet his first great-grandson. We never got to take a picture of four generations.

You know, you spend your whole life knowing that people are eventually going to die, and yet when those people you love do die, it’s never at the right time.

My aunt Evelyn was the person who relayed current information on my grandfather’s health to us via this new thing called e-mail. Our relationship changed; whereas at one time I was the kid and she was the aunt, now we were friends. I even got to dispense with the formality of calling her “Aunt Evelyn”; she was now just Evelyn, my aunt, my advisor, my friend.

In April of 2001 I had just got home from work, and my mother called. Evelyn had suffered two heart attacks- did I get the e-mail? I hadn’t had time to check my e-mail yet, so I hung up the phone and went to the computer, only to have a revelation- how would I have gotten an e-mail about this? Evelyn was the one who always sent these kinds of e-mails. Within the hour my mother called me back. Evelyn had been taken off life support. She was dead.

That really sucked.

I hadn’t been able to make it to my grandfather’s memorial service, but there was no way that I was going to miss this one. I flew out to California where my grandmother met me and my sister at the gate. My grandmother had always been a lively woman, a woman who rode in a hot-air balloon when she was eighty, a woman who worked as a church secretary for 60 years; but at that moment she looked every bit of her 84 years. For the first time, she looked old.

We did the traditional MacNair things while we were out there- we looked at pictures, we ate Chinese food, we laughed as well as cried. Throughout it all something didn’t seem right. In my words at the memorial service I gave voice to that feeling- we may have been sitting around the Chinese food table, we may have filled 12 seats, but there were two spots empty. Without my grandfather and Evelyn there it wasn’t the same. It never would be.

I still think about Evelyn at least a couple of times a week. I still have her e-mail address in my contact list- I can’t bring myself to delete it. I still have e-mails from her. She was a special ed teacher, and she would have been a great help in sorting out issues regarding my children’s autism. But worst of all, I’ve lost a best friend, and I don’t have many of those to spare. Her death hit me hard.

You know, you spend your whole life knowing that people are eventually going to die, and yet when those people you love do die, it’s never at the right time.

Three years went by. In 2002 my daughter was born, and we named her Rebecca Evelyn, after my aunt. My grandmother continued as a secretary, continued being the matriarch of the family, but she also displayed her age more and more. She would forget birthdays. She would forget that I had just sent her pictures of the kids. These may seem like small things, but my Grandma Mac just didn’t forget things. In 2004 she had a stroke. In typical Grandma Mac fashion, she worked hard at physical therapy, and after a few weeks she was able to move back into her apartment. Soon after that, she had a second stroke, and she lost the fight. She died in May of 2004.

I flew out to speak at her memorial service. She had the whole plan laid out a long time beforehand, including the music and speakers, and I doubt that I was on her list, but I insisted. A service designed to celebrate her life had to have a member of her family on the bill. Her family was the most important thing in the world to her. There were times that she could be a little overbearing in letting us know that we hadn’t written her in a while, but that wasn’t because she was trying to control us, it was because she wanted to hear from us. Well, she heard from us- my sisters read Scripture, my brother sang, and I was the first speaker.

That week we had the sorrowful task of cleaning out her apartment. I felt like a vulture. We were encouraged to take things of hers, but I didn’t want to. It felt wrong. I ended up taking some pictures, my grandfather’s masters and doctoral theses, and his cap and stole from his doctoral ceremony. I only took one of the two dozen grape sodas she had in the refrigerator, for what reason we will never know. Nor did I take any of the buttons she had carefully sorted in old Band-Aid containers. I did take the birthday card she had set aside for me- for my 50th birthday, which would have taken place long after she had died. We spent the time wrapping plates, looking at pictures, and laughing, telling stories about how she is probably sorting angel feathers now and drawing up a weekly itinerary for Jesus Christ. That was my grandmother- always the organizer, always the writer of letters, always the leader of the family.

You know, you spend your whole life knowing that people are eventually going to die, and yet when those people you love do die, it’s never at the right time.

Things are different now, and Christmas time always serves to remind me of that. There is no big box coming from California now, no advent calendar, no book of meditations from my Uncle Mark (Evelyn’s husband). I don’t make shoo-fly pie every year anymore, and even though we still hand out presents one at a time and open them one at a time before we hand out another round and repeat the process, I wish we would just get on with it.

Death really sucks.

But the memories linger.


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