Wednesday, September 8, 2010


In general, I have a difficult time letting go of nouns.  By nouns I mean people, places, and things.

I don't like to throw things away.  I've mentioned before that I will eat beyond fullness and comfort to avoid wasting food (I got this from my Dad, who has always volunteered to eat my table scraps; maybe that's why he wouldn't let me have a dog).  I'm even worse about non-perishable items.  I even hold on to ticket stubs; I swear I'll do something with them someday even though, really, they are just trash.

I grow attached to places, too.  I'm lucky that my parents never moved out of the house they lived in when I was born.  Ever since starting college, I move every year, but every single residence, I have a difficult time letting go.  I will linger even in the empty apartment, hold my breath, and try to capture it as I say goodbye.

Even if I haven't talked to someone in a long time, if I for some reason remember or see a picture of someone I was close friends with once upon a time, I become nostalgic and sad that we drifted apart.  I thank the 21st century for facebook, where I can watch past friends from afar and reminisce. 

Never before have I known someone who died.

My first and only real encounter with death was with pets. I was a very sad 8-year-old when The Cat with the Crooked Tail (as we call him now because my parents and brother never named the second-hand cat, and by the time I was old enough to find that strange, it was really beyond the point of return) disappeared one Fourth of July, because I was just getting old enough that the cat would want me to pet him instead of running away at the sight of me.  It was slightly more traumatic one year later when my mom informed me that my next cat, Rascal, was hit by a car the night before, and yes by the way that red smear on the corner is all that's left of him.  I bawled my eyes out over not getting to say goodbye.   And he was just a cat.

As I've gotten older, I've become more private about my emotions. Sure, up my BAC and I'll fall apart with the right cues, but for the most part, I will clam up and avoid talking about it.

This may have come from my early school days when my parents would warn me that I'd have "red face" if I cried in the morning, though I think their intention was to avoid a cranky fit over socks than it was a tactic to shut up my emotions.

Last night I realized it may just be an unconscious thing I picked up from my Mom. Anything serious, she discusses with absolute calm.  I'm great at this, too (for the most part, to a point, depending on my audience) -- I can be incredibly calm and matter-of-fact even when I am incredibly sad or angry.  But if I'm holding sadness in and someone happens to ask me what is wrong, I will get about two and a half words out before my voice cracks and I break down into tears.  Last night on the phone, my Mom was very even-toned when she told me that the doctors decided that my Grandpa wasn't going to pull through, and that she was very sorry to have to tell me that.  But when my voice cracked a little bit saying that I was sorry, too, she wavered, "I think I'm going to cry now so I'm going to hang up now."  I am definitely my mother's daughter.

I wonder sometimes if people think I am heartless, because I try to push things down and pretend like they don't bother me, until I am alone.  I'm hoping that my Mom's way of composing herself to deliver the bad news but retreating to go cry about it is clue enough to my family that I might be the same way, because I hardly said anything back to her besides "I'm sorry" and "I love you".  It all comes out when I'm alone, usually in the shower, or possible in the car, but frequently in bed at night, especially when my subconscious catches up with me in my dreams.

I spent several months fearing the sudden death of my Mom as her health declined.  Had I not looked up her disease and been told by Wikipedia that the average life expectancy for what she had was 2 years, I probably would have just reassured myself that she would be fine and avoided thinking about it.  That's what I did prior to coming home for Thanksgiving break to finding her requiring oxygen tubes.  I even held onto that self-assurance a little bit longer until she needed the oxygen all the time, could no longer climb the stairs to her bedroom, needed to take baths instead of showers, and eventually got placed second on an organ donor list (and not for those easy donations like partial livers -- she needed a pair of lungs and a new heart).  I don't think I ever expressed this sadness too much to my parents, because, frankly, what could they do?  And honestly, I saw nothing but strength about the whole situation from either of them, I'm sure they were having a much worse time with it than I was, and I wasn't naive enough to think they could reassure me: my Mom was dying. 

My boyfriend heard my worry and melancholy sneak in from time to time.  I had a few good cries in the shower from time to time and when I would drive to my apartment from their house after dinner, when my Mom couldn't eat hardly anything despite becoming dangerously thin, and very delicately hugging her goodbye with fear of breaking her.  Worse of all were my dreams.  I was haunted with thoughts that I would lose my Mom, that she wouldn't see me walk down the aisle some day or travel to Ireland like she promised, and she wasn't even healthy enough for me to really try to squeeze in lots of living with her. 

When my Mom got *the call* and went in to Stanford for the heart+lung transplant, she shooed me from coming to stay there with her in anticipation and support.  It was almost Valentine's Day and I had a flight to LA to catch to visit my boyfriend for the weekend, and she wouldn't have me canceling it just to sit worrying in a hospital, watching her unconscious and almost-died-looking body.  My close friend gave me the same advice: she had visited her Grandma in the hospital under similar circumstances, and is still haunted by how scary and dead she looked lying there, even though she recovered fine.  So I went to LA to see my boyfriend while my Mom got a new heart (and lungs) for Valentine's Day.

I visited her frequently in the ICU and in her temporary apartment near Stanford following her life-saving surgery.  The surgeons say that her lungs had maybe 3 months left in them when they took them out, and that her new lungs are like "baby's lungs" because they are in such wonderful, clean shape.  She has been recovering wonderfully, and I am afraid of jinxing the fact that more than 6 months later, she still has had no rejection episodes.  She told me just the other day that she is no longer on pain medication!  It feels like a gift from God (and I am not a religious person, though I did pray for her) and like I am selfish for ever complaining for things that are so insignificant in comparison. 

I feel incredibly blessed that she has made such an amazing recovery from where she was 1 year ago, and our whole family recognizes how fragile she still is as she continues to wear masks in public and keep a sterile home.  She is so careful, that she decided not to visit my Grandpa while he was in the hospital for a staph infection.  Yet she proceeded to reassure me that everything would be fine and there was no need to visit him in his delicate condition, urging me to cancel my flight reservation to attend his 90th birthday party at the end of August. 

So I canceled my flight and I mailed him a birthday card.  I browsed my calendar and wondered when in the Fall would be a good time to visit the North Bay.  I thought she was right, that he would recover fine in the hospital with the help of antibiotics and that I could visit him when he was ready for more visitors.  And at first he did.  He left the hospital for a nursing home for further care, as his very old body would take longer to recuperate.  Don't worry, I was told, he'll be fine.  Even as he was checked back into the hospital with a new infection and fever, I was reassured that he had seemed more himself, that he seemed fine.

But he wasn't fine.  As the phone call I mentioned earlier indicated, the new infections were more than he could handle.  When I asked for a time-line, I was told maybe a few hours or maybe a few days, though hopefully the former for his sake.  I had a very difficult night's sleep after the melancholy evening spent bumming over that bad news.  I was at lunch today when my Mom called me again to tell me he had passed.  I swallowed air.  What was I even supposed to say?  My Dad was with his siblings and my Grandma at the hospital, so I couldn't talk to him.  I felt tacky as I sent him a short text: "I'm sorry, Dad. I love you."  I teared up a bit at my desk when a song about death came up on my playlist.  But I made it to the handle of my car door in the deserted parking garage before I really cried.

It is very difficult for me to grasp the idea that I will never see him again.  That I will never get to say goodbye.  I regret so much not visiting him in the hospital, despite my Mom's urging not to, to show my support, to see him one more time in a *capture this moment* way, so he could see me one more time and know that I care.

It really makes me feel so insignificant and alone to think about these things.  About how temporary life is.  About how short my almost-23 years of life is compared to his 90. 

At work today, as I milled away the time until I could go home and hide, I glanced over the people there and thought about how they, older than I, probably have experienced death in their own families.  And life goes on.  Even though that person is gone, forever.  The universe doesn't skip a beat.

I feel a lot less silly for my keepsake-hoarding ways as I realize that memories are all we really leave behind. 

I remember my grandparents' big house in Santa Rosa, one I loved to explore as a child, with the eclectic furniture and decor, and the wall clock that sounded a different bird call for every hour of the day, and the refrigerator with the extra hatch in the door to store the milk and other frequent items without opening the big door.

Every time we would visit, my Grandpa would sit on a lawn chair in the open garage waiting for our car to pull into the driveway.

They had a perfectly pruned garden full of so many varieties of flowers, fountains, and a hammock, all because he loved to garden long into old age.

I remembered last night that I learned to ride a two-wheeled bike when visiting them at that house. 

They had an orange cat named Sedgewick; my Grandpa liked cats, too.  I remember the last time we visited them -- no longer at their big house, but at a smaller one in an elderly neighborhood they moved into a few years ago -- my Mom yelled at my Grandpa for making my Grandma live with his new cat, one which destroyed the furniture (I'm talking full-on holes in the side of couches, to the center) and left gashes in her arm...I'm very happy for my Mom that she got to see him a week ago to replace the last memory together.  They ate cake. 

I really hope my brother was with us that last visit to replace the visit before that, when he had a seizure on their couch, my Grandpa holding my brother's shoulders down, and the neighbors all thought the ambulance was there for him, not my brother.

I've often been told the story of when my Grandpa had a stroke and tried to drive himself to the hospital to avoid the cost of an ambulance, and my Grandma (who could no longer drive) could not believe him.  I guess that's from where my Dad gets his frugality. 

When I was a kid, we would go up to their big house for my Grandpa's birthday every summer, and all the California-residing relatives would come and sometimes even the out-of-state relatives, too, and my Grandma would always order a big sheet cake, and instead of getting those number candles, she would stick in as many candles as my Grandpa was old and light them ALL and we'd have to sing really quickly before the first ones she lit completely melted into the frosting.  I was really, really sad his 90th birthday party was canceled.

The last time I visited them, when my Mom was telling her Father-in-Law off, I retreated to the guest room where my Grandma was sorting photographs into boxes.  She had one box per child, as they have 5, the youngest 30 years younger than the eldest.  I had so much fun going through them, snatching favorite pictures of my parents when they were young in the 70's, and laughing at pictures of my youngest aunt dressed up for prom in the 80's.

I'm sad that the only pictures I really have of him are the few blurry digital ones from their youngest daughter's wedding 5 years ago.  I managed to get one from the last time I visited, and even it could use more focus.  I will have to go picture-box diving when I visit my parents next to find some gleeful prints from my childhood.

My Grandpa lived such a long, long life, and I regret not hearing more stories about it, not making the opportunities to ask for stories once I was old enough to care.  I know they lived on a farm in Palo Alto so many years before Silicon Valley sprung up.  They lived through the Great Depression, World War II, and so many interesting decades of history since then.  I hope so dearly that my Dad gathered those stories over the years, and that my remaining grandmothers are still coherent enough to tell me theirs.

You will be missed, Grandpa Adkins. 
Rest in peace, and may angels lead you in to heaven.


1 comment:

  1. Beautiful post. Your Grandpa sounds like a great man. I'm sorry for your loss.