My mother’s side of the family hasn’t quite been the same since my amazing grandmother, Patsy, passed away in 2002. Things were very different then. My uncle, his wife, and they’re newborn son were living with my grandparents; my parents were still married and my sister lived with them with her one year old; the hubs, our one year old, and I were living in the Houston area; my cousins were still in Shreveport. Then my Mammaw Patsy died of cancer.
My uncle called to tell me I should drop everything and come up if I wanted to see her while she was still coherent. I did. I was able to tell her I loved her and she was able to see Molly. She had only been diagnosed at Christmas. Two nights after I got to Shreveport, she passed in the middle of the night.
My grandparents were the best people I’ve ever known. The first probably 25 years of their marriage was very hard, from what my mother and aunt have said. My grandfather had been a Marine and then a firefighter and was an alcoholic. They fought. When I was three, I remember visiting him in rehab. I gave him something and wanted it back. He jokingly called me an “Indian giver” – don’t call me racist in the comments, it was the 70s and people said that.
My grandfather got better. He changed. Sure, he and my grandmother still argued, but there wasn’t an angry and bitter feeling in their home that even I noticed as a three year old. That was the difference between my mom and her siblings and me – I never had the bad memories of my grandfather. I only got the best. Sometimes that’s the way it is with grandparents. Sometimes it takes a generation to work out the rough stuff.
I spent the night at their house all the time. Every night, around 8pm, my Pappaw would announce he was getting some ice cream and asked if “anyone else” wanted some. That would be me. He’d fill me a cup of ice cream (or a green Melamine bowl) and we’d have our ice cream. On Saturday mornings we’d watch Looney Tunes together. The Roadrunner was his favorite, mine was Foghorn Leghorn. My grandparents introduced me to coffee before I was five (an addiction I will never get over). They put in a pool and my grandfather taught me to swim. I was terrified, he had faith in me.
When I was ten, they moved to west Shreveport and put in another pool. My great grandmother came to live with them every other week (they traded off with my grandfather’s sister). That was the house where so many things were announced. The family came out on Sunday afternoons for lunch or coffee and that was when information was spread. My aunt and uncle were having a baby. I got my first bra and my grandmother and aunt insisted on seeing it. Years and years later I would show off my engagement ring in that house. One of my baby showers was held there. All of our holidays were there. It was the ultimate safe place.
It was the house where Pappaw told me some of the wackiest stuff I’ve ever heard. Once, my grandmother served liver and onions and I turned my nose up at it and he said “Girl, you’d better eat it. When I was your age I ate whatever was put in front of me because I didn’t know if there would be another meal.” I asked once if they moved a lot when he was a kid because I knew he was born in Texas. He said “only every time the rent was due.” When my grandmother would ask what he’d like for dinner I heard him say more than once he’d “be happy with a bean sandwich.” Another thing, he was known in our family for painting everything brown because it looked like wood. The mailbox and pole, patio furniture, outdoor trim, anything. And he always said goodby to me by saying “be good, Girl.”
In the years since my grandmother passed a lot of things changed. My uncle and his new family moved to California. My parents divorced and my mother moved in with my Pappaw. I moved to Canada and had another baby, then to south Louisiana and had another baby, then to Texas (where the baby making factory was shut down for good). Two of my cousins went to LSU – one moved to California, the other to NY. We practically lost track (until Facebook) of another cousin, and her brother got in some trouble, but since has turned his life around. My sister got in trouble, got married, had a baby, more trouble – we stopped speaking. When people post all those “Sisters” memes on Facebook I just scroll past and sigh.
We all thought my Pappaw would live ’til well into old age. His mother lived until 97. In the past couple of years he’d been put on oxygen and looked thinner. When I saw him the November before last, he seemed old to me – and I had never looked at him that way before. He stopped “piddling” as my Mammaw always called it. When his sister died last year and he didn’t visit her in the hospital, I knew something was wrong. It just wasn’t like him. His Christmas card was barely legible. That scared me.
A week or so after Christmas he went to his doctor. They said it wasn’t pneumonia and sent him home. Two days later he was in the hospital and they were trying to figure out what it was. I asked my aunt if I needed to come up. She told me to wait. I got daily updates from my mom. A week later my aunt texted me five words at 8 am: you need to come now. I packed a bag – just throwing random clothes in it. Scott left work and picked up the kids and we drove to Shreveport. When we got to the hospital he wasn’t very coherent, but later could try to talk and knew we were all there. Scott and the kids left. Late that night I told my mom, aunt, and cousin that I would stay the night at the hospital. That afternoon, my grandfather made it clear that he wanted to be taken off all monitors and medications. He was ready to die. He said that to my family and his doctor. He was incoherent again after that. We knew he couldn’t come back from whatever it was he had.
That night, I waited until late to try and sleep. The nurse had just given him moriphine and told me he would sleep. He didn’t. He woke up around midnight and had what the doctors and nurses call a “last rally.” It’s when a dying person has a last bit of life and is aware and seems pretty ok. Pappaw knew who I was and asked me for ice cream! His favorite. I asked the nurse to bring some. I fed him ice cream and we talked about Blue Bell’s comeback. He told me Blye Bell wasn’t his favorite anymore. It was his last very coherent moment and we talked for half an hour about nothing, really. I just wanted to be there for him as he had always been there for so many people.
He held on for four more days. Mostly unresponsive unless he was turned or moved. My aunt, my cousin, and I were there that Sunday for his last breath. I saw him die. He was breathing, then took a quiet breath and that was all. They always say “he died peacefully,” but he only died peacefully because of morophine and Ativan. Before that he struggle to breathe and was miserable. But after that last exhale, it was over.
One of the things about my grandfather I’ll always treasure is that he never gave up. He didn’t give up on us and he didn’t give up on trying to fix things. If you went to his house, you’d notice that he was perpetually trying to fix something. Whether it was their mailbox or the back door or patio gutters or a watch or any random thing. When we evacuated to his house because of Hurricane Katrina, he was trying to fix a wooden ironing board. Wooden. I’d never seen this ironing board in all my years of being in that house. It seemed that he always needed one more piece of something and a little more time to fix whatever it was. I suppose he lived to 91 because just needed a little more time to fix all of us too.