My Grandpa – written 4/1/06

I am sitting in a very uncomfortable fold-a-bed/chair in Kaiser Richmond, listening to my grandpa breathe. Last night I got a call at about 9:30 from a very apologetic Jauntie An (Auntie Jan to some, and Janet to the rest of ‘em). She said, “I’m sorry to call you so late with bad news, but it’s Grandpa. He’s had a stroke. He’s in the hospital.” The dreaded inevitable had come to pass. Grandpa, 1.5 months shy of his 90th birthday had proven himself not completely invincible. No matter how much you are aware of and try to prepare yourself for the simple passing of time, it’s never enough. My heart is breaking. 
Courtland came with me for the 1 hour each way trek to and from the hospital to see my dearly beloved Gramps. He didn’t have to. I’m so glad he did. He sat down in a chair at the foot of the hospital bed, and I positioned myself beside my grandpa. Only Grandpa’s right eye would open, and not for long, so I don’t think he was registering his surroundings. He knew who he was, his age and his location, but the comings and goings of personnel had become something not worth the effort to keep track of, and so he didn’t. Oh, how I cried. The tears swelled like a tsunami into my chest and fight as I may to keep them back, my willpower and my tear ducts were no match for the intense despair that flooded my heart and body. Tears like this are brewed from unique recipes, my key ingredients being sorrow, pain, helplessness, self-anger, regret, remorse, and most of all of love.  
I asked for assistance to lower the side rail that was closest to me so that I wasn’t leaning on the hard plastic, and I took Grandpa’s hand. It immediately closed around mine with surprising strength, and didn’t let go. More tears. I tried so hard to hold them back. The last think I wanted was for Gramps to open his eyes and see me bemoaning the situation. I could imagine the first words he would utter, were he able, would be “Get over it, Shel.” Such is the way of Grandpa. Calls it like he sees it. Sure you’re sad, but it happened. Get over it. Nice try Gramps. I’ll wear that tough face until it cracks, then I’ll reapply the makeup and wear it some more. 
The admitting doctor was nice enough to come over and tell us everything that was going on. I say it was nice because Jauntie An had been there 3 hours prior, and I know he had explained everything to her as well. Grandpa had had a massive stroke. Massive. He kept repeating that word, in case I missed that it was massive.  
Most stroke victims, after 6 hours of the attack, have relatively clean CT scans. Strokes are like bruises and take a while to reveal their entirety. No one knows exactly how long Grandpa was lying on the floor in his bathroom before Jauntie An came looking, but we know it was probably in the 6 hour range because he wasn’t dehydrated when they brought him in. Grandpa’s CT very obviously showed a massive stroke on the right side of his brain, and it wasn’t done spreading.  
Evidently the clotting can continue for the next 24 hours during which time the doctors must observe and assess the actual damage. That means that someone can come in post-stroke, speak their name and answer questions, and a few hours later experience swelling so extreme as to push the brain into the brainstem and induce a coma.  
The doctor wanted to be very clear that in his experience, to survive this episode would be a miracle. Selfishly I hoped Grandpa would be a miracle, but then reality sank in. Surviving this is one thing. The quality of life after a massive stroke is another. Grandpa has always been, and remains to be the most strong-willed, stubborn, do-it-yourself human being in my life. How could I hope he came through this with the knowledge that he would most likely need daily living assistance? I looked at the doctor and said, “Tell it to me straight. In your experience, on a scale of 1-10 (I know doctors like that scale), 10 being we lose him, where do you put him? He looked me back in the eye and said “9. Maybe 8.” Even though Gramps was able to speak, albeit slurred, the doctor had to explain that it most likely wouldn’t be this stroke that kills him. It will be one of many complications (another stroke, aspiration, fluid in his lungs – pneumonia – caused by his own saliva, a blood clot from his leg, arythmia – a heart-fluttering condition he lay in post stroke). In other words: if you were considering getting your hopes up, don’t. 
Funny how we hear doctors but never really listen until whatever it is comes to pass. And so, this afternoon I returned to Grandpa’s side. When I walked into the room, I was not so startled to see my sister there, but I was startled to see what she was doing. She was feeding him. It hurt me so much to see my sister tending to Grandpa as she would her 8 month old son, but at the same time, it tossed the doctor’s warnings right to the back of my mind where things like losing weight and exercising reside. Grandpa was eating! The doctor thought he had lost his gag reflex and the ability to swallow. We were considering a feeding tube, yet here he was, eating! Sure, the doctor’s cautionary words were there, but not in the capacity to make me actively believe them. I also knew this moment was tearing my sister apart. I spoke to her hours later and she confessed to me that she expected Grandpa to decline her efforts to feed him. This was Grandpa, after all. The man who wouldn’t let us do dishes because “It gives me something to do in the morning.” When he didn’t poo-poo her efforts, she died a little inside because she saw that Grandpa knew he needed help, and not only that, knew he had to accept it. 
It’s interesting the thoughts that run through different heads in the event of a tragedy. My sister and I are similar in that we feel our pain, our sorrow, or regret, and we are very quick to point out to ourselves that the situation is not about us. That doesn’t stop the emotions and the tears, but it does stop us from sitting down on our pity pot and getting nothing done but a lot of self-pity. It also, however, seems to hold us back in letting our emotions out in nice cathartic doses. Instead, we choke back, smother, and reprimand our tears until what we haven’t the strength to internalize anymore bursts forth. 

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