In Sickness and In Health

January 11, 2012 at 8:44 pm 1 comment

I wrote this essay for a contest.  The topic of the contest: When did you first know what love was?  I pondered this question for days.  Was it when I got married?  When I had children?  Or did it happen sometime long before those life-changing events, in ways I’d never pondered?

In my life, I have been extremely fortunate to come from a strong line of long-lasting marriages.  My parents have been married for 38 years; my paternal grandparents were married 50+ and my maternal grandparents 45-ish.   Don’t get me wrong; their marriages were not and never were perfect, but they had and still have staying power.  Lots and lots of staying power.

Nineteen years ago this month, I said goodbye to my grandfather in a hospital room, not knowing that it was to be the last time I would see him.  As I left the room, I glimpsed a moment between him and my grandmother.  In that moment, I saw that sometimes, love means letting go.

****************

In Sickness and In Health

Grandpa never said much. Not to me, anyway, not to my recollection. I wouldn’t describe him as taciturn – that would imply he was a grumpy old man – but merely an observer. He wouldn’t have been able to get a word in edgewise between the women yakking in the kitchen and the grandkids wreaking havoc in various areas of his house, so why try?

In the summer months he could be found perched on a metal stool in the driveway, legs crossed, John-Deere-green baseball hat flanked by ears of mythic proportions. Colder days drove him inside to the comfort of his La-Z-Boy, feet propped up. Always, always a cigarette in one hand and always, always a smile on his face.

At some historical point he’d said enough to convince the lovely Ella Parker to marry him; what specifically captivated him about her, I’ll never know, but I’m willing to bet it had something to do with her sparkling blue eyes and her appreciation for a good joke.

Somehow, somewhere, they decided to go for it – get hitched, jump the broom, tie the knot. They had no pomp, no circumstance, no white dress and massive bridal party and drunken dancing feast following. There was a depression on, after all, and that’s just not how things were done back then. They did have a nice dress and a nice suit, a brother who happened to be a minister and his wife as a witness. After the ceremony they dined at the minister brother’s home and then honeymooned at the home of another brother. A simple, quiet, laidback affair.

They set about the tasks of marriage and life. At work he built airplanes and at home they built a family. First one child, two, three, then – surprise! – twins to fill up the home. Their kids grew up, moved out, started families of their own. He retired, but they never stopped working. There were still things to do.

They were 60 by the time I was born; to me they always seemed old. By my sixteenth year they were celebrating fifty years of marriage. I don’t know how the topic came up, but I’m sure it was Grandma’s idea and he went along with it because he loved her: they would renew their vows. A church ceremony, the kind they didn’t have the first go-round. Their children would be there, and their friends. I imagine Grandpa wasn’t overly enthusiastic about the plans, which would put him directly in the center of attention.

This time they would have the pomp, the circumstance. Some things were the same. Still no white dress for her: instead, a cobalt blue dress that set off her still-sparkling blue eyes would do. The same minister brother would officiate. This time, though, friends, family, and music would fill the tiny country church they had attended for so many of their years together.

Grandma loved every minute of it. Oh, she fretted about the details and declared her doubts that anyone would bother to come. But the shining blue eyes and beaming smile as she walked down the aisle towards him were those of a woman much younger, joining her groom at the altar for the very first time.

Still, Grandpa didn’t say much. He stood in the front of the church and watched her float down the aisle towards him with a smile on his face. As they turned towards each other, his enormous mitt of a hand engulfed hers as he took it gently.

The minister came to the vows, which they would repeat as a dedication to each other. Grandma followed the appropriate etiquette rules, answering with a quiet I-Do when the minister asked if she would have this man, in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, as long as they both shall live?

He repeated the question, this time to Grandpa. And Grandpa, with a little grin and gazing at his wife, replied decidedly, “You betcha!”

They partied afterwards, old-people style, with food and punch and mints made from molds. There were pictures taken: Grandma and Grandpa, alone, with their kids, with their grandkids, with the entire family.

It would be the last set of pictures with all of us.

We had no way of knowing that Grandma’s vows would be tested so soon. But only a handful of months passed and Grandpa was forgetting names and forgetting details and acting very un-Grandpa-like. His children rushed him to the doctor.

Cancer, they said.

Advanced, they said.

There are some options, they said. The options involved hospital stays and high dosages of chemotherapy. He hated hospitals, had hated them ever since his mother had died in one when he was barely more than a boy. But he gave it a go, probably because he loved her and would do it for her sake.

His family and friends gathered at the hospital with him. His grown sons entertained themselves and him by racing wheelchairs and sending bags of trash on the elevator to mystery floors. His room filled up with flowers and cards and the detritus of being sick: cups, tissues, kidney-shaped pans at the ready by the bed.

She was there, as much as she could be. She listened to the doctors’ opinions and helped him to the bathroom and held his hand as they administered one more round of drugs. And she heard him and understood, when he told her he was tired and scared and didn’t want to do the treatments anymore.

She wasn’t ready to let go, but she would because she loved him.

He went home, for a while, but soon – too soon – his body grew frail – too frail – and he entered the hospital for the last time. The family gathered on a daily basis, the grown children flown in from parts far-flung and the grandchildren gathered as their schedules allowed.

We were there on a random weekday night, visiting him and filling up the tiny hospital room with our aliveness. Grandpa didn’t say much – he couldn’t, by this point – but he watched us all from his bed and soaked the chaos in. Always, always he had a grin on his face. I’m sure he was jonesing for a cigarette.

Finally, it was lights out and time to go. We would wait in the hall as Grandma said her nightly goodbye. I paused in the door and turned to look back at them. His hand was on hers – not so enormous now, it seemed – as she gently kissed him on the forehead.

“See you in the morning?” she said.

“You betcha,” he told her.

Her blue eyes shone again. Less joy and more sorrow, this time.

It would be the last time I saw them together.  The last time I saw him.

He died a few days later, his body beaten by the cancer. Once again the tiny country church filled with people, overflowing with those whose lives he had touched. Once again, there was music, and there were flowers. And there was Grandma at the front of the church, this time surrounded by the children and grandchildren he had given her. Reminders of his love.

I imagine I will see him one day. He will be sitting on a stool, outside because the weather is never cold, blue-and-gold Kiwanis club hat held up by his ears of mythic proportions. Somewhere, Grandma is baking a pie and chatting with the ladies, and Grandpa is merely taking in the scenery, listening to their chatter and laughter and gossip. Always, always with a cigarette in one hand and always, always with a smile on his face.

I will ask him, “Is it everything you imagined it be?”

And he will look at her, with him once again, and he will say, “You betcha.”

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Entry filed under: Life in general.

The Weekly Weigh-In The Weekly Weigh-In: January 13

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Shannon  |  January 12, 2012 at 8:47 pm

    The preciousness of this is something to treasure. Keep it printed in your kids baby books. What a joy in our lives to know one great love…but to see many is heaven!

    Reply

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