This week has been spent in a slow burn. My father-in-law Henry has not been with us in any real sense of the word since Monday, when he was taken to the hospital and Oscar received a distraught call from his sister, after which he made his way over there. We assumed Henry would cross over by the next day, but it didn't happen that way. He was switched over to comfort care and sedation on Tuesday, and on Wednesday got moved to a nursing home near Yoli's house.
Oscar had said his goodbyes before leaving on Tuesday. He had spent the day carrying his dad on a couple of occasions - like a baby, he said - since Henry would get disoriented and want to move around, his frailty however not allowing him to do so. Oscar prayed over his dad, said whatever else he needed to say to him, thanked him once again for raising him. There was no sense - Oscar said - to stick around and watch his dad essentially sleeping, yet really just waiting for his body to die.
I've noticed that I've been quite particular about my choice of euphemism regarding Henry's passing. It's not so much on purpose as it is based on what feels natural. The phrase "crossing over" has stuck with me very strongly. I really see it that way - that upon death, our soul (that which in essence is what we call "I") merely leaves this body behind and continues on in the spiritual realm. The details may not be clear, but the fact is unquestionable in my mind.
Henry's youngest son, Elliott, was able to spend the day with his non-responsive father before he passed. I was glad to hear it, though I'm not sure how big of a consolation it was for Elliott, unable to get a response from his dad anymore. Still, Henry knew he was there, and Elliott can feel reassured by that.
Elliott's wife came by as Oscar was leaving. Oscar's mom didn't want to see her - and who could blame her - but Yoli agreed to let her see Henry. Apparently she had played a part in convincing Henry to let Oscar bring him up to Virginia, where he would spend the last year of his life among his children. That had to count for something.
Last night - Thursday - Elliott called to tell Oscar that the medical personnel were saying the time is soon upon us. Of course, that is a vague and relative term, for we had been waiting in one sense since Monday, and in another sense for a couple of months. Still, Oscar and I decided to make plans to spend the weekend near family, anticipating Henry's imminent passing.
I thought about how strange it was that a nursing home would have visiting hours. After all, this automatically took the choice away from the family and the person preparing to cross over, regarding whether or not he would want to be surrounded by loved ones. So often I hear people regret not being able to make it to the hospital where their loved one passes on before they get there. Here though, the family is left to anticipate a call each morning, should their loved one pass during the night.
I thought about my great-grandmother, the first whose death I somewhat witnessed. I technically missed the actual moment of her crossing over, but I was with her just minutes before and again just minutes later. She crossed over in her own home, with her daughter by her side. There was comfort in that - not just for us, but I imagine for her as well. It seems that everyone should be allowed the privilege of crossing over in their own home, surrounded by loved ones, if at all possible.
We weren't sure if we'd still see Henry alive or not. Either way, Oscar had made his peace and said his goodbyes. As for me, I still regretted that Natalia hadn't been able to show more affection for her Abuelo, but at this point, it didn't really matter much anyway, except maybe to me.
This morning, before the sun was up, I awoke to Natalia sleep nursing on my left, and Oscar kneeling by the bed on my right, whispering that "it's time". I slowly remembered the gravity of the day and fought hard with my sleep idol in order to get out of bed. I assumed Oscar just wanted to get an early start on the day, but after I got up, I realized that Henry was gone. "He's gone. My dad is gone." We hugged quietly, and I remembered the other times we hugged this way. When my dad had his accident and was in an induced coma. When we learned of our severe infertility. When my best friend took her own life.
Oscar pointed out in that moment, that this is why married people live longer, because they have someone to comfort them in times of need. I felt strangely closer to him, closer than I have since Natalia became my primary occupation. And over these past few months and especially the last week, I didn't feel so much as a stranger in my in-law family. I was grieving right along with them. I knew Henry, I liked Henry, and I had so wished for Natalia to grow up knowing him. This last point was probably the loss I'm grieving the most. After my dad’s accident, his brain injury resulted in aphasia, an inability to express himself properly with words. As Natalia began to say her first words, I became self-conscious about how this may make my dad feel. And I thought of her other grandfather, how she would be able to have regular conversations with him. And now, that possibility is gone.
We packed our two dogs, booked a hotel for the weekend, and headed out - earlier than Natalia and I usually wake up for the day. We drove straight to the funeral home, where they were holding Henry's body. Apparently, they were just waiting for us to come by and see him one last time and say goodbye.
He didn't look much different from the last time I saw him, five days earlier. He was on a stretcher, covered to his neck with a dark green blanket, wearing a navy blue knit hat. His eyes and his mouth were closed. In that regard, he actually looked more peaceful and less scary than the last time I saw him sleeping in his hotel room in Virginia Beach. That day, his mouth had been ajar, and it looked like he had exactly every other of his teeth.
I brought Natalia in on my arm, trying to make sense of the situation for a child too young to even remember what's happening. Oscar and Yoli had a few moments of saying goodbye. Natalia and I gave Yoli a hug, then I caught myself saying that Abuelo was asleep and quickly searching for a way to qualify that so that she didn't associate regular sleep with such finality. Luckily at her age, she isn't going to make that leap. But I added that Abuelo went to be with Jesus. Yoli and Oscar exchanged a few words, to which Natalia shushed them, putting her index finger to her lips. "Abuelo sleep" she said. They smiled and Oscar repeated what I had just told her - that Abuelo is now with Jesus.
Strange as it may sound, I swear it appeared that Natalia teared up and started wiping her eyes. It was a quiet kind of crying that a sad adult would do, not the tantrum-style wailing I was used to hearing from her. I did notice an eyelash coming out of her right eye, so perhaps that was the culprit. But the timing was nonetheless ominous.
Natalia and I circled around the large room where Henry lay on his stretcher. She knocked on the door we came in, trying to leave. We went back one final time to see him, and as I held her up, she repeated after me, "bye Abuelo" (waving her left hand). Then, putting both hands to her chest per the ASL sign for love she whispered after me, "I love" (dropping the "you" as is her habit).
A little later, in the car, she recalled the events of the morning. "Abuelo nie placze. Abuelo cama sleep" (Grandpa not crying. Grandpa bed sleep). And she added, "Jesus" (pronounced the Spanish way, with an initial "h" sound and the accent on the "u".)
It's strange to be here. There will be no funeral. Henry requested that he be cremated, and his ashes will be available to the family in about a week. We are planning on taking a trip down to Florida around February/March, so that we can spread his ashes at the park where he and his kids hung out growing up, per his request.
I'm used to there being some official ceremony surrounding death, and perhaps the spreading of his ashes will feel that way to me. But for now, it's as if his death has been a sad but natural part of life. It's strangely comforting, actually, since the last funeral I went to - one of two in my life - was of my best friend, who had taken her own life. Rachel's death was unexpected and tragic and it angered me. I was upset with her for leaving me on purpose, and all the religious speak that I not only bought into but perpetrated by way of my eulogy ignored the fact that if she truly trusted God's plan for her life, she wouldn't have taken matters into her own hands the way she did.
But Henry's death... has been different. We all knew it was coming. He was at peace about it, but he didn't seek it out. He was simply content with the life that was given him, and was happy to be going home to his Maker. I guess it makes no sense to call one death tragic and not another death. All death is tragic. But Henry's death hasn't angered me. Saddened, of course, but not angered. Perhaps others are angry not so much with Henry as with God, but this is a normal human reaction to any death, any event period, that doesn't live up to our expectations. We acknowledge that death is inevitable, but we have an idea of when that inevitability is the most tolerable (at a very old age, in one's sleep) and are quick to blame God for not letting everyone die this kind of death.
Going forward, I hope to see us all, especially Henry's family, rally around God the way they rallied around Henry in these last days and weeks and months of his life. Priorities were rearranged. Pennies were not counted. Grudges were laid aside. Time was spent on what matters most. What a beautiful reminder for every day of our lives! What a privilege it has been, albeit a sad and difficult one to bare, to receive advanced notice of Henry's passing. I've often thought that anticipation is the worst, but really, it just means you can start the grieving process earlier, when you still have a chance to make amends, so that when your loved one crosses over, you don't have regrets and shock piled on top of your grief.
Perhaps this is what it means to be a witness to God's love even in death. Not through some heroic action or profound words of wisdom, but simply by being present, and allowing the will of God to create the circumstances that have the best chance of bringing our loved ones closer to the One we will all meet one day.