Today I did something that I have been avoiding. I visited the place where my grandpa died. To everyone else it’s just a Panera.
The sad thing is when I chose Panera for lunch I wasn’t even thinking about it. My Mom sent me a quick text invitation out of the blue last night to go to lunch with her and my sister. She threw out a few choices, and I picked the one that sounded the quickest and healthiest. You see, I had to be back at work by a set time because I had someone coming in to interview. I figured seeing the two of them would be a great way to break up the stress of a long day.
Then this morning I remembered. We were meeting at THE Panera.
The one that I was called to that night in July.
I remember it was a pretty normal night except that my husband was going in for surgery on his deviated septum in the morning. He and I were watching TV. While we were fast-forwarding through the commercials (gotta love a DVR), I heard my phone chime from the other room. It was my missed call/ voicemail sound. I walked into the kitchen, flipped open my phone (yes, I still have a flip phone), and saw several missed calls. From my Mom and my Grandma. There were multiple calls from each of them. I could instantly feel dread and worry hit the pit of my stomach.
I called my Mom first. She sounded a little anxious, which she almost never does. She told me that Pa had fallen down in the parking lot of Panera. The ambulance had taken him away. My grandma (Ma) was still there in the parking lot. When she couldn’t reach me, my Mom called my sister who lives next door. She was on her way to meet Ma at Panera. They had taken Pa to the hospital downtown instead of the one that was closer because it was such a serious head injury. Ma didn’t trust herself to drive there, she was panicking, and my Mom was on her way to take her but couldn’t get there for another 15 or so minutes. She asked me to drive up there and do my best to reassure and calm her down. My sister is amazingly kind, a sweet and gentle person but she was probably just as emotional as my grandma.
I was in shock. And I felt guilty because I hadn’t answered their calls earlier. This was an emergency. A potential full-blown crisis. And I didn’t answer because of TV! It still makes me feel sick.
I threw on flip flops, grabbed my car keys, and told my husband to get in the car NOW. On the way I listened to the voicemails. My grandma had called me immediately. And her subsequent messages were sounding more and more distressed. Thankfully we live less than a mile from this Panera. The 2 lights we had to sit through on the way felt excruciatingly, unbelievably long.
When I pulled up there was no trace of the ambulance. People were already just going about their evening, unaware that part of my world was crumbling. I found Ma by her car. My sister was with her. She was taking care of their dog, Pokey, who is a Pekingese. Pokey was in one of those head cones to keep from messing with a rash or some such thing. Ma and Pa were just coming back from the vet. They had picked up Pokey and decided to stop for dinner. And on the way out Pa fell stepping off of the curb.
A quick back story: Pa was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer in February of 2011. It had spread to his liver, lungs, lymph nodes, and colon. He had been having regular chemo treatments for a few months by then. They had reduced a strong, vibrant 83-year-old into a shell of himself. He had lost so, so much weight. And he had been falling. A lot. In the shower, in the driveway, walking the dog. In fact, we had made a joke of it at his last birthday and given him a few orange cones and a helmet. He had a cane and a walker. He was supposed to use at least one of them, but he was too proud and stubborn most of the time.
He was like that. A fighter. Independent. Hard-headed. He would take the shortest route to the car, even if it meant walking down the curb instead of going around to the handicap ramp. And this time when he fell it was serious. Very, very serious.
When I got to Panera I didn’t know how bad it was. My grandma was shaking and crying. I had never seen her so distraught. I gave her a hug and could feel her small, birdlike bones through her shirt. She felt so fragile. And she was sobbing. In that moment I realized just how defenseless we all are in a situation like this.
My “fixer” took over. Like Arizona Robbins on Grey’s Anatomy I am “a good man in a storm.” I held Ma’s hand as she told me the story. After he fell a girl inside called 911. She was a nurse, so she did what she could while they waited. There was a lot of blood. Pa wasn’t conscious. When the ambulance came they cut him out of his clothes right there in the parking lot. In front of my grandma. They immediately said that the head injury was severe and that they needed to take him to the hospital downtown, which is the best in the entire area for that kind of injury. They loaded him up and whisked him away. Just like that.
By the time I had arrived a Panera employee had already used a hose to wash away most of the blood. Pa’s cut up, bloody clothes were in a bag in the back of my grandma’s car. I quietly asked my husband to gather them up and take them away. I asked Ma to go through the instructions for Pokey to keep her mind occupied on something she could control. I made sure my sister understood. I told Ma we would find some pumpkin filling for him to eat since that is what the vet suggested (easier said than done in July, I found out later). I got her breathing calmed down and her sobs turned into sniffles. I let her know that my Mom was on the way. I went over the plan to drive her car to my house so that it would be safe for the night. I reassured her that this was the best hospital and they would do everything they could.
My Mom arrived pretty quickly. Everything else from there feels like how I imagine trying to walk on the bottom of the ocean would be – slow going, murky, and muffled. I got a call a few hours later that Pa’s head injury was critical, but they got him stabilized. The real difficulty would come in the next few hours and overnight as his brain continued to swell and bleed from the trauma. His cancer and heart medication complicated things because at least one of them contained blood thinners. He never regained consciousness. Machines were keeping him alive. And the next day everyone in the family gathered around to say goodbye.
It was the most emotional 24 hours of my life.
He was (and still is) the best man I have ever known. His life is inspiring. I can’t even begin to describe all of his accomplishments. He was in the Air Force before it even was the Air Force. He fought in the war. He worked for the railroad. He was an airplane pilot. He was a boat captain and fisherman in his free time. He had a horse farm for many years. He was the Wing Commander for the Eastern Division of the Civil Air Patrol. And he was part of that organization for over 50 years. He has touched more lives than I can count.
More than any of those things he was the best grandfather that anyone could ever have. He loved all of his grandchildren so much. And there were a lot of us. We all knew that we were special to him, though. He played games with us when we were little, encouraged us as we grew up, attended every function we ever had, and supported us even when we made really stupid decisions. He was proud of us. No matter what we did. He had little nicknames for all of us. He was full of stories and adventures. He was amazing. Here’s a picture of us together on his farm with one of the foals who would later become mine. It is how I remember him still.
I miss him so much.
It was really hard to be back at the spot where he died today. It affected me more than I thought it would. Not so much because he is gone. He probably would have been by now anyway, as my Mom pointed out at lunch. It’s just one of the only times recently when I’ve allowed myself to really feel his loss. Actually, my loss. He is not in pain anymore, but I’m here wishing I could have one more hug. Wanting to hear one more story. Wishing my Pa was here to make me feel better through all of this mess.
He’s not here anymore, though. He did leave me parts of him behind, however. I’m a strong, stubborn, well-educated woman with a hard head who loves her family. Just like he taught me to be.
I heard this song today coming home and it brought all of my thoughts full circle. I wouldn’t be who I am today if not for him.
- no longer traumatic. (kaylashipman.wordpress.com)
- On Death (karaschatter.com)
- The Funeral Home (juwannadoright.wordpress.com)
- “I Did Nothing Special. I’m just an Ordinary Person.” (athomewithcheri.wordpress.com)