I somehow managed to sleep through the night as soundly as any one person can in a hospital. An endless parade of cleaning carts, intercom announcements and other busy noises fluttered through my dreams, evidence that while our family's life was teetering on the verge of collapse the rest of the world was continuing with their own routines. It was oddly annoying and comforting – hope that maybe our world too would sometime come back to a routine.
We awoke with the weariness that only the illness of a loved one can bring. Doctors and nurses came in periodically to give news of nothing new. If anything it seemed that with each hour the news worsened. More brain swelling. Less brain activity. Difficulty breathing on his own. And then mid-morning on the second day of our tiny vigil, a small miracle occurred. One of the cousins accompanied by a young nurse entered the waiting area. Their faces were so smiley, so hopeful that we all peered at them with eyes hungry for good news. No one breathed. The nurse spoke to us with carefully chosen but optimistic words. "Hi. Y'all are the Wyatt Family? Well, listen. Don't get your hopes up too much but we did get Mr. Wyatt to respond a little just now." She didn't need to say another word. We all jumped up from our chairs. We screamed! We were elated! Oh! To hear good news! My heart could have burst with relief. We embraced one another with tears of relief and joy welling up in a dozen thankful eyes.
"Okay. Okay. Listen now," the nurse was smiling but gently cautioning us. "We are not out of the woods yet everybody. Sometimes comatose patients have this response and it appears they are making a recovery when it's really just a reflex. We're gonna keep workin' on him and watching his brain activity and we'll let you all know if there's any changes." It didn't matter. What she said did not matter. What did she know? Grandpa was on the road to recovery. I could already feel his embrace and hear his voice. I could imagine myself back in his arms, wrapped in his smell, gazing up at the only face who had ever really loved me.
Later that afternoon the family decided Buddy and I had had enough. They knew we were tired and no one was sure how long grandpa would be in the hospital anyway, so we were sent home with Uncle M.S. As soon as we pulled up in the driveway the air at home felt… different. It was as though someone had removed the life from that little farm. Even the earth, the trees, the birds, could tell something was not right and they were already grieving too.
The night went on like normal. The next day was the same. Time passed slowly and we were cautious and scared, but we still had the hope of recovery. After all, modern medicine can do anything, right? Then later that night, Uncle M.S. answered our home phone. I buckled at the sound of the ringing and held my breath as I willed that phone call to be good news. But it wasn't. Grandpa had died.
I don't even think that I had fully explored the depth of my feelings for my grandfather until writing these posts about him – my love for his life, my sorrow for his death. All of my adult life I have poured out my heart in counselors' offices, cried with my husband, read self-help books, listened to self-help tapes, and otherwise just tried to get over this giant mess. With all of the neglect, abuse, and mistreatment that went on, why was this man's death the catalyst to send me reeling? Certainly I should have been accustomed to loss and grief, but maybe some losses just take time for your brain and your heart to sort through. Maybe even a lifetime.
I walked like a miniature brunette zombie through the planning of the funeral. I marched with the family as we paraded in groups of two and three down the aisle of the church as my grandfather lay quietly in an opened gray casket. I didn't go see him. I just couldn't bear it. I wanted to remember him the way he was, not in an ill-fitting church suit with a shaved and bandaged head. As I sat on that front row pew staring at the casket, I thought to myself, Maybe this is all a dream. Maybe it's not real. Maybe it's even candid camera or something. Any moment now grandpa will pop up out of the casket and say, "Just kiddin'. Wow, I really fooled y'all." But of course, it was real. It was very real. And one of the saddest days of my life was standing by a hollowed pit as funeral workers prepared to lower my grandfather's sweet body into the earth.
Shortly after grandpa died, the family sold the birds. His truck was totaled in the accident and taken to a junk yard. The family divided his belongings – wedding ring, tobacco pipes, guns, hats – and bit by bit, possession by possession, evidence of the life that touched me was removed from my world like a gentle kiss on my cheek that slowly faded from feeling, or a candle that burned brightly until snuffed out and all that remained was a puff of smoke. And I was left wondering, "Did I imagine it all?" No UPS trucks rumbling by. No Coke bottles in the fridge. No sweet smelling tobacco. No birds chirping in the day. The honest to goodnes one part of my life that was good and consistent was gone. He was gone.
Every few days I tip-toed down the hallway of my grandparents small farm house and wishfully place my hand on the door knob to grandpa's bedroom to pretend for just a moment that when I opened the door grandpa would be sitting in his room, smiling and ready to scoop me up in his arms. I would close my eyes and open the door. Empty. The room was empty and lifeless, but on the air was the familiar and sweet smell of tobacco and Old Spice. A little puff of smoke to say, "Yes, I was here. You didn't imagine me. I was real." But as grandma's health continued to decline, an aunt and uncle moved in to take care of her. They moved into grandpa's bedroom. They rearranged his furniture. They washed the sheets. They removed the last traces of him I had until one day I walked in grandpa's bedroom and his smell was gone. No more puff of smoke. No more gentle kiss. It's the loneliest I've ever felt.
Grandpa Roby was an anchor for me. There was peace for me in his routine. Comfort in his touch. Solace in his embrace. Humor in his voice. Kindness in his teaching. Love in his presence. At the risk of sounding like Gandalf, grandpa was a light for me in dark places when all others went out. And even though the world around me was mostly dark and terrifying, horrific and abusive, he was my north star. What do you do when you lose your north star? Everyone cries at the loss of a loved one but I didn't just shed tears for the loss of my grandfather. I wept for the loss of my childhood. I wept for the loss of my innocence. I wept for the loss of my mother. I wept for a man the world knew as a simple bird farmer and I knew as a hero. I wept for what was and for what (I thought) would never be. I cried because I somehow believed that with Grandpa Roby's death that any slim chance that remained for me to escape the nightmare had died too. I was the tiny lifeless bird grandpa held in his hands, but who would be there now to breathe any life in me? Who would look at me with love and give peace to my soul? Who would hold my hand and lead me out of dark places? I didn't have answers to any of these questions. I was twelve -years-old, lost, and in need of something to fill the hole that was growing in my heart day by day so I took my dysfunctions and fears and went looking for comfort.