“When a person is dying, it is very important that they’re surrounded. Surrounded by the light of life. You don’t go into the place of oblivion alone.” – Isaiah Zagar
It was almost two years ago we surrounded Frank Vetter as he faded out of this world. It happened in a rural hospital in Linton, N.D., where we were surrounded by summer fields of wheat and John Deere green. During breaks from the bedside, there were excursions to graveyards and leaning shacks to hear stories of great great grandmas. There was a farmers market where we found homemade pickled eggs and enough kuchen for us to actually get sick of it. There were dive bars with great greasy feasts and even a beautiful new ethnic restaurant for when we needed more than a sandwich and fries.
My mother remained vigilantly in her father’s room for the whole experience. She checked his temperature and ordered morphine. She swabbed his lips and cheeks to soften the dried skin that eventually peeled off the roof of his mouth. She kept his feet warm and patted his forehead with a damp cool cloth. She entertained his visitors, listened to their stories and graciously thanked them for coming.
Mom didn’t owe grandpa anything. Truth be told, he didn’t do much to earn her presence in his life or in his death. But my mom doesn’t leave the side of the dying; my mom believes no one should die alone.
But I can’t tell her story, I can only tell mine.
My grandpa and I talked a lot his last few years. He was one of the first calls I made about my healthy new son. He told me how he had to travel to the hospital by horse when his son was born. He told me stories of his dad making him learn to speak English by packing his ten brothers and sisters into a truck and going to school in Idaho in the summers. He told me how much he missed my grandma and how he felt about being at the point in life where most of his friends and family were already dead. And he loved taking me to cemeteries to show me where they rest.
My grandpa was famous for being mean, a reputation that was a direct result of his unapologetic habit of judging people and their actions. His grouch-factor kept his neighbors and most of his family at a distance. But I have a secret – I agreed with most of what made him angry. It makes me angry too but I don’t tell people. He and I share a set of values that have led me to a pretty fantastic life, while too many people in my life suffer from what my grandma called the “curse of plenty.” I miss talking with him about what’s wrong with our world over a can of Old Milwaukee. I miss it something terrible.
In his own words, grandpa lived his 88 years “healthy as a horse.” He kept an exercise bike in the house till he was 86 and did all his own yard work and snow removal. He tinkered on his antique tractors, flew kites with his great grandkids and even had a girlfriend for awhile. He told me it was nice to have someone wash his t-shirts. He was tall and strong and wore weathered work boots. He was a farmer.
It took less than two weeks for ‘healthy as a horse’ to slip away to reveal a frail, old man. I entered his hospital room three days after his stroke. Mom had prepped me. “You need to know he doesn’t look good,” she said. “He’s very sick and you need to be prepared.”
He was pale and his trademark butch-cut hair was suddenly wiry and thin. He could barely speak. When he did, he wondered about the weather, the traffic, how fast I drove to get there. I used to pad my departure times en route to his house so he would calculate my speed to be slower than reality. I told him my son was with me and that it was too hot outside. He said “when I get out of here, I’m going to take a long drink straight from the garden hose. There is nothing like cold water straight from the hose on a hot day.”
“When I get out of here…”
That statement made every decision his family had to make gut wrenching and second guessed. The doctors said the stroke had taken 60 percent of his brain and that most likely he wouldn’t leave the nursing home, if he recovered at all. Then there was the fact that grandpa removed his feeding tube; more than once. And when mom told him what would happen if he didn’t use the tube, he said he understood. Two days later he was moved into hospice at the other end of the single hall of patient rooms in the Linton hospital.
From there it was a textbook case of dying. A small blue pamphlet explaining what to expect during the process was dead on, word for word what we experienced with grandpa. Less communication, more sleep, catches in his breathing and cold in his feet. My son entertained visitors with his wobbly first steps and occasionally we would let grandpa rest and gather in the family room for kuchen and coffee.
I reveled in stories from his last living sister, long lost relatives bearing German names I had read for years in his collection of family history clippings. I felt entirely connected to and engrossed in this group of virtual strangers I would never see again. For those days, they were the most important people in my life and they made me a part of something I didn’t know existed.
Mom took one night off and let me spend it with my grandpa. By this time he was opening his eyes only once or twice a day so instead of continuing to try to tell him how much I loved and admired him, I sang every Patsy Cline song I could think of. When I ran out of music, I held his hand and told him of some of my favorite times at his farmhouse in Braddock. I lamented the fact that my son would grow up without chickens and haystacks and corn fields to get lost in.
I didn’t tell him that his family was cleaning out his house to save his possessions from looters. Instead I assured him we were taking good care of the place and watering grandma’s flowers, just as he had done in the five years since she died. He made it one more day.
Just after noon on his last day, as I was eating lunch outside the hospital, with my mom and my son by his side, he opened his eyes one last time, and peacefully died.
The days I spent with him in that hospital are treasured memories that still reduce me to an emotional wreck. I am so proud to have been with him through his journey and know in the core of my soul what drives my mom to take unrelenting care of her dying relatives. No one should die alone and it is the highest human honor to hold a dying person’s hand.