Turn turn turn
There is a season
Turn turn turn
A time for every purpose, under Heaven
A time to be born, a time to die.
Call me a heathen or a heretic, but I think I prefer The Byrds to Ecclesiastes.
It is appropriate that after writing about the joy and beauty of life, I write about the ashes of death.
My step-grandfather, Don, died yesterday.
It’s hard to deal with death (and I’m by no means an expert), and it’s hard to appreciate a man’s life without interjecting your own and making the story revolve around you. It’s even harder to say something worthwhile about death. That being the case, I’m just going to free-associate a little bit.
I’m sad and am allowing myself to grieve/cry, but there’s not much room for self-pity as far as I’m concerned. I’ve been extremely fortunate in my life. Aside from two highschool friends, I’ve never had anyone close to me die, and certainly not a family member. Some of my friends have lost their parents and many never even knew their grandparents. I’m so very, very fortunate. It sounds so cliche (but I’m finding out death is nothing but cliches), but I think we are much better off being grateful for the time we spent with Don (or any loved one) than dwelling their loss. Both The Byrds and Ecclesiastes go on to say there while there is time to weep, there is also a time to laugh.
He’d been in a special nursing home for Alzheimer’s patients for over a year now and he hasn’t known anyone, including my grandma, for at least two years. He really declined quickly.
When we visited him at Christmas, he didn’t say anything. It may sound cold hearted to say, but it’s almost a relief that he’s gone home (that sounds so cliche… gone home). Again, it sounds horrible, but it has been a real strain on my grandma (she’s gone to feed him his meals three times a day for over a year) and we all pretty much said goodbye to him in our hearts when his mind left. It sounds absolutely hackneyed to say it, but at least now he’s in Heaven and he recognizes Jesus. Wow, I’m starting to sound like a bad country western song.
I’m closer to my grandparents than a lot of people. The summers of 2002, ‘03 and ‘04, I lived with them and worked in Oklahoma City. In my down time, I would help Don has he worked on the duplexes they owned. If I’m handy at all, it’s because of him. I learned the theory of “handy-man-nery” from my Dad, but I got to practice it by trial and error (mostly error) with Don. I was always getting hurt or messing something up, but Don was always patient with me (and even let me drive the truck across town when I was just 14!). One time I was cleaning out an attic and fell through the ceiling. Another time, I was painting a garage door, knocked the paint bucket off the ladder and splashed the tenant’s brand new car with semi-gloss eggshell. While cutting siding to size with a circular saw, I cut through the power cord (twice). I stepped on my fair share of rusty nails and on one occasion, was thrown off a steel ladder in the rain after the drill I was using shorted out and gave me a good shock. Don hit his thumb with the hammer a few times too, but we both survived it and had a good time.
That drill/semi-elloctrocution thing happened on his daughter’s farm about an hour outside the city. Almost exactly five years to the day before he died, we were working on the roof of second floor of the barn. Don was lifting a piece of sheet aluminum when a gust of wind caught it like a sail. He fell off the 10-foot ladder and then tumbled down a 16-foot tall flight of stairs before slamming into the pickup parked below. There is still a dent in door where is head hit. I watched him fall in slow motion and stupidly jumped from my ladder straight to the ground. I was in the air before he even hit. It’s a miracle I didn’t break a leg or worse. When I got to him, he wasn’t moving, there was blood all over his face and his teeth (I later figured out they were just his dentures) were shattered. After screaming at him and trying to find a pulse, I tried CPR, but nothing happened. It seemed like hours went by, but I sure it was only seconds until he started breathing on his own. It was raspy and he was moaning, but he was alive! He was no doubt paralyzed and would never walk again, but at least I didn’t have to tell my grandmother I saw him die.
I called 911 on my cell phone, but couldn’t tell them where the farm was (nobody was home on the farm). It was just one of those places where you knew how to get there but there was no way I could give directions. I ended up having to tell them to meet me at a restaurant about five miles away, the nearest landmark we both knew the location of. I said a prayer, and begged the delirious Don to stay still and that I’d be right back. Then I got in my Camaro and floored it through the rough, bumpy field (I don’t recommend going 65 in a grassy field). I finally made it to the blacktop highway and after a few minutes saw the ambulance coming. I flashed my lights and honked my horn and literally did a skidding 180 like they do in the movies and led them back to the farm. We finally made it back to Don. He was still moaning, but the two farm dogs my step-aunt kept were licking his face. For some reason, it struck me as funny and I started laughing.
He had horrible arthritis and couldn’t even stand to sleep on his back because of the pain, and that was on a good day. Now, he was very confused and fought the paramedics as they tried to wrestle him onto the backboard. Despite his moaning and fighting, they eventually got him to the ambulance. Then they asked me which hospital to take him to. “I don’t care!” I shouted, “You’re the experts! Which ever is closer and has the best food I guess.” The paramedic said they were about the same. Before I could get really angry, Don, who hadn’t said anything coherent yet, and wouldn’t say anything coherent after this for a day or so, suddenly piped up and wheezed, “Take me to the one with the prettiest nurses.” It was totally out of character for him, but at least I knew he was alive and would probably survive.
I don’t know if you’ve ever ridden in an ambulance, but when this baby got on the Interstate, it flew. We made the hour plus trip in less than half the normal time. Their big, boxy ambulance out ran my Camaro.
To make a long story, well, long, he somehow survived with not much more than a broken set of dentures. Since he couldn’t tell the doctors what happened, I had to follow him into the ER exam to tell the doctors what happened. They didn’t believe me because none of his 76-year-old old, arthritic and brittle bones were broken. He didn’t even have major bruises. Except for a bump on the noggin, some cuts on his arms and his broken dentures and glasses, he was fine. If it wasn’t for the paramedics having seen the blood on the stairs and the bloody dent on the truck door, they still wouldn’t have believed me. I’m convinced that nobody, not even Don or my grandmother, knows how horrible his fall was except for me. He was in the hospital for just one day. Even though he wasn’t severely injured and he had shown some early signs of Alzheimer’s before then, everyone in our family agrees he started going down hill slowly from there.
All that to say I feel like I saw him die once, and everything from that day on, even if he didn’t know who we were, was a blessing. I still have brief flashes where I see him falling and I hear the sickening thuds at he rolls down the staircase. It’s definitely my worst memory. I don’t want to imagine how messed up I’d be if I hadn’t been able to find the ambulance or if he had died. If ever I need therapy, that’ll probably be one of the first topics the therapist and I hash out.
Like I said, I feel like I saw him die five years ago and so now that it’s real, it doesn’t feel near as sad. It’s like I’ve already dealt with it. Does that make any sense at all? Even though I’ll definitely cry this weekend and at his funeral on Monday, and even though it will break my heart to see my grandmother crying at Don’s casket, my season of mourning and sorrow has more or less passed, and I think I’ll be better able to understand it when the preacher says another cliche, that we should celebrate Don’s life. Hopefully, I will be able to help my grandmother see that God has a season of laughter in store for her and that Don is now in an eternal season of peace and joy.
Don was a good, kind, clever, handy, patient, Godly man. I’m sorry I only knew him for 17 years.
Maybe the Ecclesiastes version isn’t so bad, even though you can’t hum to it:
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under heaven:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.