No one tells you how lose someone you loved. There’s no how-to guide after waking up screaming and crying at odd hours of the night. There’s no way to talk yourself out of the crippling sadness that washes over you without notice when you have time to yourself and the room is too silent. You feel lost, confused and, most of all, irrevocably damaged.
This is how I felt after my grandfather passed away in February.
I’ve spent little time writing about this because I end up a drippy mess by the third sentence. It’s been four months, and I am done crying alone.
He died of a perfectly terrible combination of things. Sickness lead to a surgery which lead to infection which led to another round of hospital care. When all seemed to be clear and fine, a massive amount of weight loss due — a side effect of his medication — lead to an out-of-character fall that broke such a particular vertebrae in his neck that you almost believe in fate again.
I was in the middle of a Beowulf seminar when my brother called me twice. We didn’t speak often enough for this to be normal, so I quietly excused myself to take the call. He then told me that my grandfather — a man who had never once asked for assistance form anyone in his life and was the kind of man to refuse painkillers before surgeries — was in the hospital again, and that it was bad this time. A fall had caused a broken vertebrae, and it was assumed that he would be paralyzed from the waist down at best.
This was a man who fixed pipes on the ceiling well into his seventies. He fought in Tito’s Army. He grew up with one pair of shoes between eight siblings. He single-handedly moved his family of four to Flushing, Queens, from Croatia before the rebellions that shattered Yugoslavia into tons of tiny pieces. This man didn’t fall. This man didn’t need a wheelchair.
I had always dreamed of dancing with my grandfather at my wedding. We were incredibly close. It was a poorly hidden secret that I was his favorite of the five grandchildren. Growing up, I spent endless weekends at his house. We played with Play-Doh and watched the Corduroy movie countless times. We fed ducks together until the pond was frozen over or until the police would kick us out. As I got older and our time together grew seldom, we would sit together in my father’s restaurant together — he there to fix things, I to be a hostess — eating the toasted sesame bagels with cream cheese that I always supplied. We would talk about life and about love and what it meant to grow up. He told me to always think of others and to always support my mother. He shared with me stories of his youth and of his hardships, and of all the things that made him a man. We talked about dancing at my wedding, about him meeting the man I was going to marry.
Him being in a wheelchair was never part of the story.
I cried for a long time in the hallway of the English department. After the hour and a half was done, I apologized to my teacher and took my things and left. I told one person, a boy in the year younger than me that I had grown close to. He hugged me for a while and let me cry. He was the first person I saw.
I went to church for the first time in a decade that day. I cried in the silent chapel. Crying in public wasn’t something I was ashamed of, but it felt good to be alone in my sadness. After I left, a girl in my sorority — who I later learned had skipped her class — sat on the church steps and cried with me. The support I felt was immense.
The next phone call came a few days later. My brother explained to me that things were getting worse. In the passing days grandfather’s body had deteriorated. He no longer could breathe on his own.
The next day my mother told me to come home. I called my boyfriend in hysterics. He agreed to fly home with me to say goodbye. I wanted my grandfather to meet him.
We landed in New York forty-eight hours later. I told only my roommates where I was going so they wouldn’t worry. I figured everyone would find out. We landed as the sun was coming up, and got to my house before eight in the morning, where my mother told us to go to the hospital. Nene’s heartbeat had slowed while we’d been on the plane. This, my mother said, was probably the last time I would see him.
We sat in silence in the uber. The four of us — my brother, my sister, my boyfriend, and I —were all smushed in the back seat. It was here that I began to think that praying was for the weak. God couldn’t control heart rates.
“Dad, she’s here. Julia’s here.” My mom was speaking to him in Croatian, something she hadn’t done in years. I approachd the side of the bed and tried to withhold tears. He opened his eyes and, for the first time in forever, smiled at me. I introduced him to my boyfriend and they shook hands. It was all I ever needed.
He died three days later.
No one tells you how to lose someone you love. But, lots of people help you through it. There are no words to explain both the immense solitude and the immense community I felt. From the women in my sorority to my friends from home, thank you.
The last four months have been a learning curve. I’ve spent so much time in tears that I think there will be none left for happy times. I still have nightmares. I still cling to someone that isn’t there.
I could write a novel about the minutia of loss. There is so much to be felt in the emptiness that someone leaves behind.
We will not dance at my wedding. He will not see me there at my most beautiful. He will not see my children. But, he lives through them. We too will watch Corduroy. We too will feed the ducks.