There will be no ornaments on the tree this year…


…because I can’t bring myself to make such a merry occasion of a holiday without you here.

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Yes, it was 1988’ish and I was a toddler. I’ve had this picture most of my life, no really – can’t you tell that when I was very little I colored on my Grandpa?

My parents were terribly young, hell- they still are, and I grew up in a multigenerational household with my Grandmother and Grandfather (above) at the helm of it and my grandfather has been my primary father figure, 90% of my life.

I wish I would have said most of this at his funeral, but I was so distraught with grief all I could get out were a few tiny memories about how much it takes to me be the parent of your child’s child and how caring he was despite his exterior.

I got away with, but not limited to, the following (being the youngest of 5 children in their home):

  • Money for Dairy Freeze
  • Money for random garage sales
  • Bringing home stray animals (except a furry dog that ended up living with a friend – dogs were where the line was… but cats and other rodents could come home at any time…
  • Breakfast with grandpa where I got to ask for the same thing as he wanted. Except the coffee, I’m nearly 30, and I drink Starbucks… not any of that nonsense from a tin can like him… Sorry, Grandpa.
  • Bike repairs at no cost.
  • A legit firepit with lighters and kindling so that I could make fake mudpies. (Seriously, I had my own personal fire pit with old pots and pans to make mud “Food” in.
  • Every wooden table, or structure, that Grandpa had the materials to make.
  • Staying out way past the street lights.

You get the point… I got away with a lot – and still I turned out OK.

My grandfather has cheated death since long before I was born; heart attacks, anterior venous malformation, seizures, blocked arteries which lead to two quadruple bypass surgeries, an aneurysm that lead to roughly 8-10 brain surgeries and a quarter pound of platinum coils in his brain, a pituitary tumor… I could go on – but he cheated it all and stayed alive to walk me down the aisle the first time, and see my two children be born and raised to recognizing him, and see me re-marry a second time (smiling affectionately from the crowd even though he was dizzy and tired)… I got a lot of him. I always felt like I had the most of him. My aunts, my mom, and my uncle, were his “kids” — but I always believed I was something special and different from the rest of them. He was one of the first people who told me not to take shit from anyone, and to stand up for myself. So, I did. I do. He told me he was proud of me when I worked hard to make something of my life that I, personally, was proud of…

And on the morning of his death, he patted my son on the head (whose head was on his chest after they yanked some junk out of an artery in hopes it would improve his kidney function) —he said “This is the good stuff, right here.” And he closed his eyes and smiled.

I love(d) my grandfather. He was (is) so important to me, in a way that I cannot express with words. My grandfather molded the full trajectory of my life, and listening to him struggle for air the last few moments of his life, truly broke something inside me that I am absolutely certain cannot ever be repaired.

I have never grieved the loss of someone this close before. Ever. I lost my paternal grandmother twelves years and three days before my grandfather passed and it was not quite the same… I had memories with her and I still miss her- but mostly a longing for a relationship I would have LOVED to build with her as an adult — not so much mourning the desperate loss of  a relationship that I had with someone as an adult. A strange, and emotionally-charged, difference between the two. My husband and I went to see him the Wednesday night before he died, and I am not certain if he knew this was “it” or not… but he sat up searching for the news on the hospital television, instead settling on The Big Bang Theory and drinking coffee. I urged him to eat, and since he never lost his mental capacities, ever, he told me he thought the pot roast was “gummy as shit” and not worth it and he would ask for a proper omelette the AM. I conceded. He asked for a Coca Cola… the nurse told me “No.” — (I should have gotten him one…) That night, he said “You know, Alyssa, if this is it and I don’t go home from here, I’ve lived a full life, nobody thought I’d live this long, I sure as hell didn’t. I’ve lived for 74 years and if this is it, I’m OK with that.”

Who was he convincing? Me? Because he knew losing him would crush me…

Or himself? Because he wasn’t ready to go? There was still more to see.

The days passed, procedures happened, gave us hope, and then the hope passed when his kidneys said “No More.” and could not handle the lack of circulation, the infection in his lungs and in his kidneys… They were quite simply too tired. We believed his heart would kill him, or his aneurysm…. but, no, it was his kidneys that came back with a wrath since we had not given them the spotlight of his ailments all of these years.

My family, and I, stayed in the hospital for days. We shared stories. We doted over him, and kept a watchful eye on my grandmother, and tried to comfort one another in the best ways we knew how. We were stiff with pain and anxiety… I think we all knew… but I think we had grown complacent that he would cheat death, yet again.

Saturday, December 12th, everything burst – like a little bubble we had been swirling around inside of for days – a little bubble that had words like “maybe”, “hope”, “dialysis”, “time” flying around in whirlpool fashion above our heads. The critical care doctor made it very clear that his potassium levels were becoming far too high and his heart was not strong enough for dialysis and a dialysis machine would likely end his life in a traumatic cardiac arrest or defibrillator paddles. I recoiled at the words that my mother and I listened to in the hallway shortly after the other family members had gone home to rest. I wasn’t leaving, even if it meant no sleep. Not a minute. I’m an insomniac anyway – why bother with sleep when I keep “watch” so my family could rest. My mother and I don’t speak a lot these days and this exchange felt like it aged me immensely, while forcing me to look at why we don’t speak and how everyone I love will someday die… and is it worth it to be mad over things that we can’t even remember?

Regardless, that night we called everyone back… and after the nurse startled my grandfather in his state of uremia and said “Tom, can you tell your family you love them?” — his eyes popped open, pupils dilated, and an oxygen mask covering his face, “I love my family.”… those were the last words he spoke; this isn’t a Hallmark card or a Lifetime movie. That was the last thing he was coherent enough in his toxic state to say. He had said earlier that morning that he was sore all over from laying in the hospital bed and that his neck hurt. I gave him sips of an A&W root beer, and massaged his arms, and neck… He started wiggling his toes about and I thought that perhaps his legs were bothering him and when I pulled back the sheet, his legs were modeling death, blue and purple and ice cold, stiff, and swirly with veins that were not visible before. The nurse warned us of what this was… a sign of imminent death in patients whose bodies know they are dying.

My grandmother changed his directive to comfort only around dinner time, and the doctor believed it would be “Sometime around sunrise”, I told him when he was still in a state of grunting and moaning to respond to various stimuli, that he was one of my favorite people. He grunted. I don’t know what he meant at that point… and as we sat in the room watching his vitals slowly become smaller (respiration), heart rate (slower) and his responses (non-existent)… we waited in the room we watched him deteriorate in and cry and hug one another and talk about all of the things we would miss.

Just after midnight, I knew enough about his vitals after a few days to know that the end was closer than I wanted… than I was ready for… and I told my mother I could not watch him take his last breath, especially not if he was gasping…it would be unnatural for me to be adjacent to someone I love and not attempt to help them, or run for help, while they gasp — even though I knew he was “going”… I got up next to him, squeezed his hands, cried silently, and left the room…

I sat in the ICU hallway for, roughly, 30 minutes contemplating a world where I could not come back from my honeymoon and show him awesome pictures of a beach (he loved the beach) on a shore he had never seen before (Jamaica)…I had to start coming to grips that was something he and I would not share.

At just after 12:45AM, December 13th,  my mother came around the corner with a red face, soaked with tears, and an aged face that seemed years older than she actually is… and I stood up… “Did it happen?” I sucked my breath back in causing my throat to do a move that seemed like it was suctioning itself inside out…

She shook her head and held out her arms. “Just a moment ago, he took his last breath, it was beautiful and he was OK. He is OK now.” We both cried.

I broke into the loudest, body-shaking, sobs that likely awoke the entire floor of the ICU and reminded them of their own mortality, and what their own families might face… I just kept saying “I can’t…”.

A bit later, my grandmother and my uncle rounded the corner with all of our stuff that had collected in my grandfather’s hospital room over days… and I stood from the chairs. “What??? We’re leaving??? We can’t leave him here alone! We cannot leave him here alone with strangers! We cannot leave him alone!”  I was hysterical, what was I thinking? “He” wasn’t here anymore. “He” could not feel ‘alone’ because “he” was gone.

My mother drove me home that night because she didn’t trust me driving myself, even though I only lived ten minutes ago. She was probably right.

I sat in her car for an hour and cried while I listened to the Funeral Director talk about “refrigerating” his body over the bluetooth… She told me she loved me no matter what we go through — I agreed – and I figured it needed to be said, because who knows, tomorrow one of us could be gone and we won’t know how much one loves the other – how awful would that be?

I came inside to a quiet house just after 2AM with a wet, swollen, puffy, face and a pit in my chest the size of Texas. I sat at my kitchen island, in my home, where my confused children were sleeping peacefully, and absolute-without-a-doubt ROCK of a supportive and doting husband (who comforted, brought food, brought coffee, hugged, kept kids at bay in a hospital waiting room) slept peacefully, likely, for the first time in a few days. I stood in the bedroom doorway of my sleeping husband and telepathically told him to take care of himself, eat better, exercise, go to the doctor, and do whatever it took so that he didn’t leave me in this most traumatic and painful way. A small part of me begged the Universe to make sure that I go first, because he is stronger than me, and I couldn’t imagine going through this with him.

I quietly closed the bedroom door just after 2:30am – sat down at the kitchen island, in the dark, and poured several good-sized glasses of Jameson and Ginger Ale – while I sobbed uncontrollably. For hours.  I had not eaten many hours so it hit me like a ton of bricks. I, eventually, retreated to the couch so as to not wake up my husband, and when I woke up disoriented, I thought that I would need to get re-dressed and head back to the hospital — and to hell with showering.

But then I came to, and remembered he was gone and that we were supposed to put ornaments on our bare Christmas tree for our family’s first Christmas in our new house…Mine and Drew’s first Christmas married…but quickly wrote that possibility off.

The day of his funeral, I shook, constantly, and when I saw him in the casket, in what appeared an unnatural way to me – I felt like if I just touched his hand and started talking he would open his mouth and say “Alyssa, you’re so full of shit fussing over me. Go back about your life!!!”

But he didn’t, and after just a few short sentences at the podium sharing a couple meaningful memories – I felt the inner shaking returning. I knew my moments before I burst into tears were just moments away as a I rambled unclear thoughts. I put the mic down… and went back to my seat and shook and sobbed until every part of me was numb and tingly.

We followed his casket to the cemetery and it was like the hospital all over again… “I don’t want to leave him here alone.”… so I sat there long after everyone else had gotten up and started to try to put their hearts back together… and instead… I sat there and cried in such a frustrating way that offered no relief that I actually stopped to wonder why I was doing it if it couldn’t fix him, if it couldn’t bring him back, if it couldn’t hit the reset button on the worst week of my life…

Finally, with the help of my husband. I got up, I put my hand on a cold casket, that was the color of his 61′ Corvette, and told him I loved him and I’m sorry that I couldn’t stay…

And now… life has to go on. Christmas will happen, but there are no ornaments on my tree. No Christmas cards went out. No decorations hung around our first home together – and definitely no cute little engraved “The Chapman Family’s First Christmas 2015” ornaments adorning the tree. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I couldn’t bring myself to focus my grief in this manner after watching someone I love die in 7 days – flat – with no real prior warning to deal with it.

So, no, this year won’t be like other Christmases that families have. We will be one less person Christmas day… and there will be no ornaments on our tree.

I turned the marquee lighting on, that my husband brought me after a bad day at work a couple days ago, in the window that says “JOY”… in hopes that will convince me to feel it, and maybe convince others to feel it, too. Joy… I’m trying. I’m working on it. I’m not without epic failure at working on it – but I’m trying…

I’ll leave you with this…

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He is the one just one row back, in both photos, and smiling up at Drew and I exchanging vows, my in-laws in the foreground.

Rest in Peace, Grandpa. I miss you more than I can ever express in words… You’re my favorite.

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5.16.4112.13.15

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