There were eight of us: Four siblings, two spouses, and me, the lone granddaughter. All gathered at the bedside of Amos Yoder, a 102-year-old man who was bedridden following a stroke.
We thought he was dying, and then he started to improve. We thought we should put him in a nursing home, and then he seemed to deteriorate again. We prayed that God would take him Sunday night, before we had to make the Nursing Home Decision. But the next morning there he was, chest still rising and falling, pulse still beating steadily.
We decided not to put Grandpa in a nursing home after all.
We decided not to buy a ticket home, yet.
“I live here now,” I thought.
On Wednesday, a week and three days after I’d first arrived in Minnesota, I finally got a chance to borrow a vehicle and go all-by-myself to Caribou Coffee and get some work done. This was magnificent. I settled down in a quiet corner by the fireplace, opened my laptop, and prepared to float away into a new brain space for hours and hours.
But first, I checked my phone. Oh! A missed call from Mom. And a text.
Gpa just passed away
What! Grandpa passed away? It felt unreal in my brain.
Silly. Of course he was going to pass away. He was 102. He’d had a terrible stroke 12 days ago. He was miserable. He hadn’t had any food or water since Monday morning.
This had become routine. Getting up at 1 am for my shift. Meeting Mom at the foot of the basement stairs, and knocking on Uncle Fred’s door as we walked past. Peeling the blankets back, and checking Grandpa’s diaper. Carefully rolling him, cleaning him, re-positioning him, apologizing as he winced in pain from his sore arm. Taking the used diaper out to the incinerator.
And the days. Sitting with Grandpa. Asking if he wanted water. Hearing Uncle Fred tell the magnificent stories he collects from people. Eating the massive meals prepared by mysterious fairies and delivered to our doorstep. Reading through Middlemarch. Hitching rides to nearby small towns from whoever happened to be going.
Trying to find places and spaces to get some work done.
Escaping to the canning closet when I needed to be alone.
Or taking long walks down the country roads.
This is my routine now. This is what we do. But I drove back to Marcus and Anna’s house, and as soon as I walked in the door, It was obvious that the routine was no more.
“Did you let so-and-so know?”
“No, I thought so-and-so would.”
Mom, on the phone: “Paul, I don’t know when the funeral will be. We haven’t discussed it yet.”
“Shall I tell the funeral home people to come get him?”
“No, I’m not ready yet. Maybe in a few hours?”
I stood by Grandpa’s bedside, and it was the strangest thing. Almost seeing his chest rise in another breath, like it had so many times before, when he’d stop breathing for 20 seconds or so before starting up again, more laborious than ever.
But laborious breathing was forever in Grandpa’s past, now.
I thought back to Ian’s funeral, last winter. I remembered the way his mother would reach into the casket, smooth his hair, rub his chest. Loving, motherly touches. It had never occurred to me to touch a dead body.
To me, a dead body seemed rather a frightening thing. The gap between the living and the dead seemed vast, and long.
But in this space, having watched Grandpa hover between death and life for so long, the gap didn’t seem so enormous. “Can I touch him?” I asked Aunt Rebecca. “Is that weird? Can I hold his hand?”
“That’s not weird,” she said, pulling back the blanket for me. “Now is a good time, when he’s still warm.”
I grabbed Grandpa’s hand. She was right. It wasn’t weird. And it was warm. Again, the disbelief that this man was actually gone.
“But look,” said Aunt Rebecca. “Look at how his hands are yellowing, already.”
Yes, he was gone. Gone forever from the terrible pain in his arm, the struggle to drink and eat, the annoyance of flies landing on his face, or his pajamas bunching up behind him. I felt a deep relief, but also a melancholy sense of finality.
Now, the family begins to trickle in. Cousin Jason came yesterday. Dad and Amy arrived early this morning, cousin Keith came at noon, and Matt and Phoebe are booking it from the East with cousin Annette and her husband and children. We gather here, here in Minnesota, like we have for so many Christmases and assorted family gatherings.
It’s sad to know that this is The End of the Road. Not only with Grandpa’s life, but also with having a sense of connection to Minnesota as the gathering-place for assorted Yoders. The only relative left here is Uncle Marcus, and his wife Anna. None of my other Aunts and Uncles stayed. None of Marcus’s children stayed.
If my relatives seem to wander the earth, it’s in our blood. Grandpa and Grandma came here from Ohio, and before that, Iowa, even though Grandpa was born in Oklahoma and Grandma in a different part of Ohio.
I don’t have Yoder roots in any particular place, anymore.
But here we are now. In Minnesota together, one last time. Mourning the death of this man who was unlike anyone else we’ve ever met. This man who has shaped our lives in so many ways. This man who wanted to know everything, discover everything, see everything. That’s the legacy he left for all of us.
It must be said that our relationships with him were complicated.
But we loved him.
And we miss him.