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The False Weight of the Final Goodbye

January 21, 2013

Our daughter came to me sobbing yesterday.  She had just gotten off the phone with my wife who is in New Mexico after having traveled there on an emergency basis upon learning that her father, my father-in-law and our daughter’s grandfather, was on his death bed.  The phone had been put up to Papa Julio’s ear so our daughter could tell him she loved him and say goodbye.  My wife says that Papa Julio, otherwise unresponsive, opened his eyes during the emotional farewell.  I consoled my baby girl as best I could, assuring her that Papa Julio knew she loved him and noting that his suffering and confusion resulting from his battle with Alzheimer’s would soon come to an end and he would be released to a better place.

My wife suffers deeply as she watches over her beloved father’s final passing.  The 27-hour trek from Bolivia to New Mexico was filled with anguish as she received scary updates from her sister and worried that she wouldn’t make it in time.  As she checked in via phone from the various airports on her way, I offered what consolation I could through her distraught laments: I should have gone earlier.  Why didn’t I go see him last month?  What if he dies before I get there?

In the end, Papa Julio has held on long enough that seven of eight siblings have been able to arrive and crowd into the small house in Rio Rancho to accompany him in his last hours.  The nurse explains that Papa Julio’s body is slowly shutting down and suggests he could go at any moment.  My dear wife is terrified of the coming event, but gets some solace from the knowledge she has held her daddy’s hand, hugged and kissed him, and whispered her love to him before he goes.

I’m reminded of my own goodbye with my Grandma Z some years ago.  While I knew she had recently moved in with my dad and stepmom so they could provide her needed care and vigilance, I had last seen Grandma on her own and feisty as ever in her little Salt Lake City apartment a year or so before.  Working in Mexico City at the time, I was dependent on brief phone updates on “everybody’s lives” and, being a shitty communicator in general, my understanding of folks’ situations was pretty cursory.

Dad had told me Grandma had fractured her hip in a fall and then subsequently gotten a respiratory infection that was keeping her in the hospital, but as I called the bedside phone that day to pass Grandma my sincere “get well soon,” I had no idea she was about to pass on.  I was completely surprised when Aunt Nancy answered the phone and, assuming I was up to date, told me I needed to tell Grandma goodbye and let her know it was alright “for her to let go.”  Before I could even grasp what was happening, let alone prepare the right last words to my beloved grandmother and friend, the phone was at her ear and I was mumbling something about loving her and approving of her decision not to suffer any more.  Grandma struggled to speak, but only labored, indiscernible grunts came through the line.  Aunt Nancy got back on, said Grandma had understood and was “going to go now,” and just like that my final farewell with my cherished grandmother was over.

I’ve thought about that phone call often in the intervening years, to include worrying whether I said the right things.  What was she really trying to say to me?  Was it ok to tell her I supported a decision to just let go?  Was she telling me she loved me too or was she frantically denying any desire to give up the ghost?  Why didn’t I tell her how much she’d meant to me in life rather than trying to escort her into the light?  What the hell happened??  In the end, I guess I cannot know outside simply having confidence in my aunt’s on-site judgment of the moment and trusting in Grandma’s understanding of what I meant beyond the meager words I coughed up.

Now, as I hug my precious daughter, fail in my efforts to make it all better for my beautiful wife, and miss my dear Grandma Z, I gird myself with the following realization (the truth of which I simultaneously decree and yearn for):  It’s not the actual farewell that matters but rather that which has inspired our desire to offer the richest possible goodbye.  A few seconds of tearjerker perfection don’t define the story; it’s instead expressed through the 17, 36, or 50 years of love, companionship, shared experience, and personal connection that precede the final moment.  The goodbye is fleeting regardless of its beauty, emotion, or clumsiness.  It is in all that comes beforehand that our real unions and memories are made.

  

Rest in Peace, Papa Julio  –  January 21, 2013

From → Family, Ideas

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