The Things We Leave Unsaid

“My father was a deeply sentimental man. And like all sentimental men, he was also very cruel.”

-Ernest Hemingway

            My family and I all gathered together at St. Vincent’s hospital on October 1st, 2013, to watch my grandfather die. Three weeks before he had been in excellent health. He was still ambulatory then and was routinely working in his gardening and reading daily. This is all the more surprising when you consider that he was ninety years old when he died. A long lived life to be sure, but somehow it’s never enough is it? It certainly wasn’t for him; he chose death in the end, but only because it was the only way to preserve his own autonomy.

            In the previous few weeks, he had become less and less able to walk, requiring visits to the ER and admittance to the hospital. It began one morning when he was unable to stand up from bed. I was called to assess the situation and see if an ambulance was warranted. It was. I rode in the ambulance with him to the hospital where we were told that he had blood clots in his lungs. The blood clots were restricting his ability to take in oxygen and thus his ability to walk. It may have not been that serious if the blood clots were not compounded by his chronic obstruction pulmonary disease. This disease was a result of all the years he had spent smoking, far after everyone knew the health risks, but the smoking itself was caused by his military service during World War 2.

            He served more than two full tours of duty flying bombers during that war, over ninety missions in total. He volunteered when the war broke out and continued to sign up for more until the war ended; a fact that haunted him to the day he died. He had been shot at, seen buddies killed, had flack tear apart his engines, and made a few emergency landings. He experienced all of this and signed up to do it again and again until the war was through.

            Still, he never really talked about the war and what happened. I heard bits and pieces throughout knowing him that allowed me to piece together a disjointed narrative, but what always struck me was how his experiences continued to plague him. He flew missions in his sleep until the day he died. Once when I had returned home from the beach, he remarked that he hated the beach because of Africa. A remark I knew alluded to his time spent during the African Campaign. He would always make allusions like that; simple words that spoke volumes for the emotion and meaning contained within, often with a haunting quality that lingered in my mind long after he had gone.

            There is not a day that goes by that I do not think of my grandfather, yet when I was young he terrified me to the point of tears at the mere thought of a visit from him. I was a precociously rambunctious child and he was a gruff stern man. I remember one event in particular; we were visiting his home in Kansas where my father grew up and I was playing some game that existed only in my mind behind a chair. He yelled at me to get out from behind the chair, but he did so in such a rough manner that I cowered in fear; robbed of my childhood volition. He got up and yanked my arms with manly force I had hitherto been unaware of, adding strong words of reproach. Needless to say, I ran away crying. As a child, I could never understand what I had done wrong to elicit such a reaction. Now, I think I understand him better, but I only came to this realization after I had studied American History. He had survived a war by being particular about the way everything should be done. There was no reason for a child to play mindlessly behind a couch and so it must stop. He had my best interests in mind. Although he could be fastidious and taciturn, it was always due to his deep sentimentality for others.

            After the war, he worked as a rural letter carrier delivering mail to his community. He would often go to people’s houses even without mail, just to check up on them. He would deliver meals from his wife to people who were sick or work fixing a roof or tractor and stay awhile to chat and make sure they were all right. This continued on after he retired as well. On the weekends he would call all across the country to people he knew and offer emotional support to those who needed it. When I was in Korea, he sent me a letter every month without fail. They were always filled with little things that were happening in his life and asking me how I was getting on with mine. I always wondered what made him send me those letters, especially because we were not remotely close then. I think that it was an act of love, perhaps trying to make up for the event that so wounded me as a child, but I cannot be sure because we never spoke of it. I wish that we had. Death has a way of making things clear, even though many of those things are simply what we should have done.

            On the day he died, my family gathered around him in his hospital bed. We all knew that he was going to die soon. Moments before, the doctor had come in and asked him if he would like to go back to the ICU and have a PICC line inserted to prolong his life. He responded no, and when the doctor asked him if he knew what that meant, he responded yes. He chose to die because he could not live with being a burden to anyone. He would live with his autonomy or not at all. We asked if there was anything he wanted before he died. There was; he wanted a beer. He soon passed away after having a few sips of that beer. My family and I then cried, held his hand, and passed the beer around amongst ourselves, each having a sip. It seemed all together fitting and proper that we should do this, ritualistic though it was. Afterwards, we were given the opportunity to pick a death quilt provided by the hospital. An opportunity that was such a meaningless empty thing, but somehow, in that moment, it meant everything to my family. Rituals at death have a strange way of providing solace for those who are left behind. Where this solace comes from is difficult to determine, but we see rituals at death in every culture that has ever existed. It is innately human to mourn the dead in this way.

            Even now, I am filled with thoughts of how careless and reckless it was that I had foregone a relationship with this man until so late in his life. I regret not asking him a question about World War 2 or his childhood or his opinion on a subject. There is a myriad of things that I will never be privy to because I did not take the time to repair the damage in our relationship sooner. It is so difficult to move past these thoughts and memories. They stand in my mind with enticing allure, but I have my own life to live and my own memories to create. If nothing else, death has taught me to appreciate that I am alive and I should enjoy it. Otherwise, there is no reason to have lived at all.

            Each of my family members dealt with my grandfather’s death differently. Most of us are atheists and so there was little talk of him being in heaven or “a better place.” Instead we sit and talk about his life and our relationship with him or a certain story that we had heard from a friend or relative. We harbor no illusions that anyone can defy or escape death and so we continue on with our lives, reminding ourselves that we will soon die, while remembering those that we have lost and trying to learn from our regrets. We often fail at this, but there is virtue in trying.

These days my family and I get together more frequently, often for dinner or some other meal. This is perhaps the best gift that death has given us, the realization that death is ever present and we would do better to spend time together while we can. It is sad and tragic that it took a death to teach us something that we should all already know, but such is human nature it seems.

            In the weeks following my grandfather’s death, I thought about how terrified of him I used to be and how that slowly changed into love and respect. When he was sick there was no one’s opinion that he valued more than mine, no one else that he would listen to more. I walked with him and talked with him in a way that I never could have dreamed of as a child. He would often refuse to move or get up and exercise for other people in my family, saying he would wait until I arrived. During that first hospital visit, he had gripped my hand so tightly that it was white once he let go. This from the man that had filled me with dread just fifteen years prior, how did this happen? I still have not found a good answer to this. I can only say that I grew to love my grandfather and I now realize that he always loved me, even if he never said it out loud.