you don’t get to choose the expiration dates: a post about life, death, and family…

There are few things more sobering in life than knowing that someone you love is dying.

I don’t say this to depress you, Reader; I say it because it’s true for me. This morning, at 4 AM local time, my little sister called and woke me up–nearly hysterical–and informed me that our paternal grandfather was seven hours into an eight-hour emergency surgery for a ruptured aneurysm in his abdomen. Now, I don’t know exactly what that means, but it sounds bad. (Also, I was half asleep and, truth be told, I was initially annoyed that she would dare call me at such an hour. I quickly changed my attitude once I understood what was going on. [I’m not completely heartless.])

KSD (we’ll call her this to protect her privacy) was crying quite a lot.

One of the first things that came out of her mouth was, “I’m not ready!”… To which my response was, “Well, we’re never really ‘ready’ for someone to go.”

And that’s the truth, isn’t it? Our “Grampa” has been in declining health for several years now; and at the risk of sounding morbid and insensitive, I honestly expected that he would be the first to leave us. It’s not that I’m trying to be an indecent human being, I’m just trying to be sensible, here. When you’re old and you’re sick, you can’t expect to be eternal. Nor should we–the bystanders in these stories–expect immortality from those we love who are the ones getting older.

I ended my short conversation with KSD by saying, “You are stronger than you think. You are one tough little bitch, and so is ‘Gramma.’ That woman is a rock. She’s been through a lot, and she’s going to get through this. We have to be strong with her.” KSD nodded (I could hear the sniffle-nodding through the phone; you know that “sound”) and she said, “Okay.” And what I need her and you, Reader, to understand, is that I meant every word of what I said.

My grandmother is probably the coolest old lady I’ve ever met. It’s difficult to explain… She just cares so much. She has thirteen grandchildren and (I think) 6 great-grandchildren. And she knows details about all of us. For being in her mid-eighties, she’s still pretty sharp. She is religious, but open-minded, and prays for each of us kids every day. (That’s dedication.) And she has cared for my ailing grandfather in their century-old Iowa farmhouse for several years with help from my uncles and aunt. She lost two children – one from an infection when he was just 12 years old, and my father, to cancer at age 40. She literally seems eternal to me. I can hardly imagine my world without her, though I only see her about once a year now, if that. Having a relationship with her as an adult has been priceless to me. I love this woman with a violence in my heart.  It literally hurts me to know that she is is hurting right now.

I have all these wonderful things to say and these precious memories of “Gramma,” but have fewer of my grandfather. He was often working on the farm when we were young, but he taught us that hard work paid off. I remember him taking us to pick our own corn from the stalks and then “shucking” it clean. You only were allowed to eat as much corn as you cleaned, and a count was kept! I remember riding around the farm in his pickup trucks and the old golf cart. I remember getting spanked when I lied about breaking a yard stick. And I remember being lovingly harassed for the amount of sugar I added to my Rice Krispies at breakfast on summer mornings. This man, who I feel like I hardly know, is leaving us.

Perhaps the hardest part about all of this is feeling so “closed out” of what happens on this side of my family. You might have caught a few paragraphs earlier that my father died from cancer when he was 40. And let me tell you, his death was not like this. His passing was completely unexpected. He wasn’t old. He was fairly healthy. He was diagnosed and getting treatment; and then he was gone only nine weeks after we found out he was even sick. It was a total shock. Just a few years later, my mother remarried and we moved a few more times (I moved every two or three years during my childhood, on average). And through nobody’s deliberate actions, KSD and I have slowly felt separated out from our Driver clan over the last eighteen years.

Maybe I created some of this distance myself. For a few years, I wasn’t ready to go back to Iowa and see my family. I dealt with my dad’s death differently than KSD did. I was older, had more memories of our father, and just knowing that he was buried there, in that small farming community; that he had been in that house and grew up there; that he had worked on that farm; all those things were painful to me. I just couldn’t bring myself to go. I think perhaps my cousins saw this as a “shunning, ” which was never my intent.

After my dad’s death, we never went back to Iowa for a family gathering during a holiday. Even before my mother remarried, we never went back to Iowa as a family of three. KSD and I went for our annual summers, but after just a couple of years immediately following daddy’s passing, I started refusing to go. I think perhaps my aunts and uncles saw this as “deliberate separation.” And then, after my mom remarried, she didn’t go back for years. I think at some point, maybe she felt guilty for these lacks of occasional appearances. I certainly do.

As a kid, how do you process all this? When you’re an emotional wreck and are in and out of therapy; and you hate your step-parent and are dealing with having new half-siblings being born, how do you know where to pledge your allegiance?  Who drew the imaginary line that we now all stand along? KSD and I are usually the last to hear about anything momentous, especially if it’s bad news. We both try to keep in touch with our grandparents, but we rarely communicate with cousins or aunts and uncles. Who made this choice for us?

Because even though we all went through a really difficult time together, I think we forgot that we’re still family. I know nothing of my cousin’s personal lives, aside from what Gramma tells me on the phone. I have no details about the lives of my aunts and uncles. And really, this is all by community choice, isn’t it? We are all still family. I am still a Driver, and I still love these people. I feel guilty that I have been absent, both physically and  emotionally, from these people that I love so much and I hardly know.

Death, in its arrogance and stealth, has the ability to turn emotions long forgotten into powerful realizations. I know that my Grampa Driver won’t be here much longer. I know that because I am halfway around the world and make hardly any money, that I will not be able to be there should he leave us this week. It’s this that makes me feel most guilty. I also realize that I have a desire to know more about my family than what I know now. The link that binds family is not easily broken; perhaps ours is merely strained.

So, dear Reader, don’t take the people you love for granted. Tell them you love them. Ask your grandparents about their lives when they were young. Look at old photos. Write these stories down. There will come a day when you won’t have these opportunities anymore. Maybe you’ll have some time, like me this go around, to come to peace with a loved one’s passing. But maybe, like with my father, you won’t. Love intentionally and passionately.

Call someone in your family and tell them you love them today. You won’t regret it.


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