I have this vivid memory of my grandpa getting down on the floor with me to color when I was about five or six. We were at my parents’ house and I was in front of the fireplace watching TV. I was going to town on my coloring book, just scribbling on some pages. I didn’t really have the eye for detail that I do now so my pictures were–to put it mildly–worthless pieces of crap.
(I have always had a way with words though. THANK YOU VERY MUCH.)
As I was coloring, my grandpa got down on the floor with me to color. While we colored, he gave me tips on how to make my pictures look better. He showed me how to color in one direction to make it look neater. He showed me how to trace around the lines as a guide so I could try to control the mess a little bit.
Sometimes we talked and sometimes we just colored.
It’s been about thirty years, and I still remember his giant hand holding my small crayon, telling me how to take my coloring game to the next level.
Today there are a lot of things I can attribute to my grandpa besides my superior coloring skills. My freakishly long toes, for example. Or my love of slightly inappropriate jokes; the eye that gets a little lazy when I am really tired; my appreciation for a well-timed fart.
Many of my greatest character traits are from my grandpa.
So when I got a call early one morning in July that I needed to get to the hospital quickly if I wanted to say goodbye, it seemed unreal and dream-like. I didn’t actually take it serious, and as my sister and I drove to the hospital on a Sunday morning when the world was still asleep, we talked about our kids, school, and life. This wasn’t really happening. Grandpa was strong and healthy. We just knew we’d arrive, he’d make some comment about my bedhead, we’d all laugh, and then head back home.
But when we got there, it was very apparent this was the end.
Where do you even start when you’re suddenly thrust into your last moments with someone you love? When you were sure there would be another Christmas together, another dinner at the drive-in, another kid birthday party?
I know it sounds silly to say no one was ready because you think when people get old you should be ready. But you never are. You’re never ready, and it’s never the right time.
So where do you start when it’s the last moments with someone you can’t fathom losing? For us–for the Keaton family–we started with baseball. We talked about the Cubs. We talked about how this might really be their year. We sang hymns. We kissed Grandpa’s cheeks. We rubbed his hands. We covered him in blankets because as his body shut down, he couldn’t stop shaking. We told ourselves he could hear us even if we didn’t really know. We told him we loved him. We laughed. We cried. We made fun of him a little because he would have wanted us to. Someone turned on some hymns and played them loudly from a phone, but we soon realized that Grandpa probably hated that and we didn’t want him to pass being annoyed with us so we cut that off fast. We passed around tissues. We hugged each other. We prayed. We stood silent from shock.
Then we’d start the whole thing over again: laughing, crying, hugging, praying, kissing, singing, breathing deep.
After a while, the ER decided he needed to be moved upstairs to a room because it could still be a long time, we were all crammed in a tiny ER triage room, and it would be more comfortable in an actual space. We quickly gathered our piles of tissues, coffee cups, and bags and headed to the third floor as my grandma and a nurse took a separate elevator up to the room with my grandpa.
We didn’t say goodbye in that moment because we had been saying goodbye since we got there. We didn’t say goodbye in that moment because we were just going up a few floors to resume our goodbyes.
My grandpa passed away in the few moments between leaving the ER and arriving on the third floor.
My grandpa passed away in a tiny, silent elevator with just my grandma and a nurse in attendance.
I realize there is something poetic about him dying in that moment away from the rest of us. His life–his real, adult life–finally started the day he married my grandma and that his life ended with just her present seems fitting. Poetically fitting.
When we resumed our goodbyes on the third floor, Grandpa was already gone. Already in the presence of a God he followed faithfully; already receiving his reward for a life well lived. We were cramming in one last moment with his earthly body as our minds tried to comprehend a world where he no longer resided.
As Christians, we get to celebrate him going home and find comfort in seeing him again.
But as humans, we also get to be sad and selfish and wish he were still with us.
My mom always said that when she was growing up, her father was harsh and demanding. She knew he loved her, but he showed it in different ways. As age and grandkids came, he mellowed, became kinder, softer. He retired early and had plenty of time to come to softball games, basketball tourneys, and birthday parties. When I moved out into my first apartment at eighteen, my grandparents were one of my first visitors. It makes me laugh to think of them making the long trek into the city to visit my slightly unsafe, slightly ghetto apartment just because they loved me and wanted to support me. I’m sure they went home and prayed lots of big prayers for my safety and decision-making skills.
When I did something dumb (which was often), my grandpa threatened to slap me upside the head. Sometimes he followed through with this and other times he did not. He was quick to tell you when you were an idiot and even quicker to tell you when he was proud of you. I like to live my life halfway between idiot and making-my-family-proud so it worked out well for both of us.
All those years ago on the floor coloring with my grandpa, he taught me how to make a pretty picture. He showed me how to follow the outline of what I was coloring, and he showed me how to color in one direction, but his best advice–the best tip he gave me–was to have sharp crayons. He said nobody can make a beautiful picture without sharp tools.
I couldn’t agree more.
Grandpa: thank you for sharpening me. For being ornery and kind and grouchy and silly and encouraging and generous. Thank you for teaching me how to disagree with someone but still love them unconditionally. Thank you for sharpening my sense of humor, my creativity, my understanding. You, sir, made a beautiful picture; you made a beautiful life, and I am proud to be forever known as your granddaughter.