You spend most of your life not noticing it, but there are moments that burst into being to remind you that your life is made up of people. Not moments. Not memories. People.
Your parents. Your spouse. Your kids.
The people that help you define who you are.
They are the ones who shape your habits or sharpen your edges. They are the ones who call you out when you lie, lift you up when you succeed, and lay beside you when you need the comfort of a loving arm wrapped around your shoulder. We rub against them, dance with them, move ourselves in and out of their lives as seamlessly as a spider spins a web, yet too often we don’t think about them at all. We take them for granted.
That is, until we fear we are about to lose them.
After years of battling cancer in his bladder and prostate, my grandfather – a big, barrel-chested man with an equally large laugh – has become so feeble that even a cold can lay him low. God bless the doctors, who have done everything they can; they have reached a nadir of sorts – they don’t know what else to do, but can’t not do anything. They took an oath, and we’ve become accustomed to their being able to pull one more rabbit from their medical bags. So it’s back to the hospital for another round of tests and observations and medicines and whatever else they can think of.
And if you’ve ever had a loved one who’s chronically ill, you know how draining it can be. If you don’t know, I pray you never do. It’s mentally and physically exhausting, particularly when you’ve reached the stage where my grandfather is at: a hostage in your own body.
But that’s where we find ourselves as a family: on the edge of the unknown. My father is on his way to the hospital right now with my grandfather, and once again we’re wondering whether or not Pop will come back to us or go on to rest. We’ve all begun preparing ourselves for the day when our lives will lose someone who has help define it. It’s like the Statue of Liberty suddenly shedding it’s copper jacket. We know that the edifice can somehow remain, but the glory of it, the beauty of it, is diminished.
It’s in times like this that grief, a cheating son-of-a-gun, tries to get an advance hold on you. You begin to peruse regrets like an expert shopper, fingering each one that comes to mind, looking for the one that’s just right, that fits like a glove and wraps you in the warm sensation of shame and tears. I don’t know what that exact right regret will be for anyone else in my family, but I know what it will be for me.
Years and years ago, when I was in my mid-twenties, Pop called and asked me to go fishing with him at a relative’s house. He said he had the rods and reels, the bait and tackle, even a cooler full of Co-Coler (his way of saying Coca-Cola); all I had to do was agree to meet him there.
I can remember it clearly – there was a sing-song in his voice, a lilt that sounded like freedom, and for whatever stupid reason I said “No.” To this day, I can’t remember why I said it. I just know that it rolled off my lips so effortlessly and with such speed that it had to be a heart-punch to my grandfather. No hesitation? No stammering? No trying to think of a response?
None of that. Just a clear, cold, immature “No” from someone who probably felt too busy at the time.
He didn’t betray any hurt. “Ok,” he said. “We’ll try it another day.”
We never have. I got married and life got busier and now here I sit on a freaking Friday afternoon telling myself that he’s going to be fine, all the while still running my fingers over that mink of regret, wondering when I’ll be able to finally pull it on and own my shame.
Am I being overly dramatic? Probably. But this is part of the process of losing someone, part of realizing that the path doesn’t always lead to Oz and a Wizard who can fix your problems. Growing up means learning that the yellow brick road runs out.
So what do we do? We should be hoarding moments like Ebenezer Scrooge hoarded pre-visitation gold, but we continue to tell ourselves that the people who make up our lives will be there tomorrow because they’ve always been there tomorrow. We’ll convince ourselves we have enough time to make that phone call later, or to drop in and make a visit sometime next week, because we’ve always been able to live at our leisure. That’s the illusion of time as a line – we can’t see the end, but we always assume it’s farther away.
I’m just waiting to get a phone call that tells me I have tomorrow to go by and visit (which you always do after a scare; you immediately go by and visit and promise to do better, but you never really do because you’ve always got tomorrow). I’m praying to God I don’t get a call that tells me tomorrow will not come for me and Pop.
Basically, I’m straining my eyes to see if the yellow brick road will take me just a little bit further. Here’s to hoping.