I feel guilty about this, but July 16 passed this year without me remembering it as the anniversary of Grandpa’s death. I think that’s the first time that has ever happened.
I was studying in Bath, England that summer, my senior year at Ohio State. It was the most exciting thing to ever happen to me up to that point. Grandpa had been to London once, and I couldn’t wait to share my experience with him. He was so excited when I got accepted into the program.
The year before, he had a stroke. At least, that’s what we thought at the time. In hindsight, we now believe it was a brain tumor. The stroke diagnosis was the beginning of his decline. He was hospitalized only a few weeks before my scheduled departure date (from a fall, if I remember), and I was apprehensive about going. I didn’t want to miss a once in a lifetime opportunity, but what if something happened while I was gone?
Life is full of risks.
Mom and Grandma urged me to go. My staying wasn’t going to make a difference, and Grandpa wouldn’t want me to give up this chance for his sake. So, off to England I went – the first time I had ever been outside the U.S.
It was the best summer of my life to date. And also the worst.
Despite the day trips, classes, and pub crawls that filled my days, I made frequent calls home. Grandma and Grandpa both seemed in good spirits. Nothing seemed amiss until just a week or so after my arrival in England. That’s when Grandpa was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.
Four days later, he died.
It’s strange, but I don’t remember the conversation that I’m sure I must have had with my mom after his diagnosis. I remember knowing that things were bad, but I held out hope that we had time and I would see him again when I got back. I’m not sure the concept of terminal really registered.
My world came crashing down on a Friday afternoon. I went to the computer lab to check my email and ran out of the room in tears a few minutes later. I remember the message that upset me so much:
“Your grandpa took a turn for the worse and we don’t expect him to make it through the weekend.”
This isn’t news you want to receive in any fashion, let alone in email, but it was a bit difficult for family to reach me by phone.
When something tragic happens, you have these odd moments that stand out in perfect clarity within the fog of grief. I vividly remember a dove flying low in front of me as I ran out of the computer lab. In fact, I had to stop suddenly to avoid colliding with it. Let me be clear that it was a dove, not a pigeon (of which there are plenty in Bath).
My only thought was getting to a phone. Calling overseas with a prepaid calling card was tedious at best under normal circumstances. This time, it was excruciating. But after pressing what felt like a million numbers, my grandparents’ line was ringing.
One of my cousins answered. She told me that just about everyone was at the nursing home, and she gave me her stepdad’s cellphone number because he was with Grandpa. I had to go through the process all over again. But I finally got him on the line and he handed the phone to my mom.
“Sweetie,” she said, “he just passed away about 10 minutes ago.”
At first, I was numb. I announced the news very calmly to the girls who shared my floor in the dorm. They escorted me to our kitchen, where they immediately sat me down at the table and started making tea. (How very British.) Another classmate informed our advisor, who began making phone calls to other faculty.
A lot of details in the immediate aftermath are murky now and were probably so even then with the emotional state I was in. None of what was happening felt real.
Another moment of clarity happened that evening when a few of my classmates insisted that I walk into town with them to Starbucks. The weather was lovely – so out of harmony with my emotions. We grabbed a table outside to sip our drinks. At that moment, church bells began to chime the hour.
“Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings,” one of my classmates said.
The dam finally broke.
In case you’re wondering, I made it back to England after the funeral to finish out the program. Grandpa would have wanted that.