I don’t remember how old I was when my grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. But I remember that I was fourteen when he died, just a week away from starting high school. I honestly didn’t believe at the time the trip would turn out to be anything like it was. I figured we’d go, visit him and see how much his condition had worsened since the last time, then return home until the next time a problem arose and we would take off for Tennessee. But it didn’t happen that way.
The most vivid memory I have of that time was his smile. As is common with the disease, it had been almost a year since he’d known who I was when he looked at me. But something about that night, when my dad and I were preparing to leave to get some sleep before returning the next morning, something had changed. I went over to say goodbye, and he tilted his head at me just a little, and grinned. He spoke, quietly, nearly inaudibly, asking where my brother was.
He knew that I was his granddaughter.
We left, and were back bright and early the next day. The afternoon was long, and I was bored; the adults were all watching golf on TV. It was four thirty before things changed. None of us could explain it, maybe it was something about the way he was breathing, but we all got up from our seats and moved around the hospice bed.
My aunts stood on the other side of the bed, my uncle and my dad at the foot of the bed, my grandmother at the head. My mom and I held one of his hands. It seemed like hours as we listened to his final breaths, but according to my watch, it had been only a matter of minutes. Then he was gone.
I remember watching my dad and uncle zipping his body in a bright yellow bag, just before it was closed; my dad leaned down and kissed his forehead, saying “Good-bye Tom.” I remember thinking that was the most I could have to show for my life: a family that loved me, and was there for me when I passed on.
I believe the greatest measure of success is the love of our family. I believe it isn’t where we go and what we do that defines us, it’s who is with us, and who we meet along the way. I believe in a soul that transcends death, whether to a heaven or another life on this earth. And I believe that, someday, we will all meet again.
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