Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Lessons Learned: Tales from Midwest Memories

A current collection-in-progress - Lessons Learned: Tales from Midwest Memories is a collection of personal essays tracing the long, often humorous, occasionally angry, and sometimes emotional journey of my life growing up in the rural Midwest.

Today's offering is a decidedly emotional essay from this collection. 

How I Learned Moments Matter

Humanity measures the progress of life through a series of signposts. Graduations, marriages, births, moves, jobs, and deaths pave the pathways we each travel during our time on this plane of existence. These milestones, although important, are not what truly shape us into the people we will become. That honor is reserved for less consequential incidents. Seemingly insignificant experiences profoundly influence our interaction with the world around us, but only after time and reflection reveal their fundamental importance.

Tuesday, July 13, 1999 began with an argument. My grandpa was in the hospital for a minor cardiac event – the most recent health issue in a long line of difficulties that stretched back nearly six years. This episode only landed him on his back for three days, which was no more than a hiccup compared to some of his previous illnesses. Although he was due to be released the next day, my husband kept insisting we go visit him. I was twenty-five years old, four and a half months pregnant with my second child, and in no mood to be told what to do. I argued vehemently against making the forty-five minute trip to the hospital.

My protests stemmed from a combination of practicality, experience, and all-day morning sickness. I spent the entirety of my twenties traveling back and forth to my grandparent’s home to help care for them during my grandpa’s many infirmities. I kept house, ran errands, set meds, and prodded Grandpa through his various therapies. It became a quietly running routine. I knew what to expect and what was expected from me. “They’re releasing him tomorrow, and I’m going out on Friday to spend the weekend. Make sure he’s all settled in and that he and Grandma have everything they need. I feel like crap today. I was just there yesterday and spoke to his doctor. He doesn’t even have any physical therapy orders this time. Of course, I’ll stay longer if they need me.” Today, I was wasting my breath.

My husband ignored both my objections and explanations. He would not take “no” for an answer. He headed to the car, declaring that we were going, and I followed reluctantly. I pouted the entire trip and continued to mutter my arguments while staring out the passenger side window.

When we arrived at the hospital, Grandpa was in good spirits. He smiled broadly at me, reached out, and grabbed my hand tightly, “They’re springin’ me first thing in the morning, Sis.”

We sat, holding hands, and visited for nearly two hours. We talked about my son, the light of his life, and the pending arrival of his great-granddaughter. When I told him about the never-ending ‘morning’ sickness, he laughed and commented, “Yep, that’s a girl for ya.” We reminisced about my childhood, discussed his current medical condition, commiserated over the inedibility of hospital food, and negotiated my upcoming visit. At 2:30, we said our good-byes. I leaned over, kissed his cheek, and received my kiss in return. I told him I loved him and would see him Friday. He was smiling as I waved from the door.

The doctor released him from the hospital the next morning as planned. He and Grandma headed off to bed about 10:30 p.m., as usual. Sometime between midnight and 3 a.m. on July 15th, Grandpa went to the kitchen to get a drink of water. An aneurism burst in his brain. Grandma rushed to him when she heard him fall, but it was too late. He was already gone. He died on the kitchen floor in the home he built for his family with his own two hands with his wife of fifty-one years by his side. After all the heart attacks and strokes, this hidden weakness took him from us. None of us saw it coming.

On July 13, 1999, I spoke to my grandpa for the last time. Of course, at the time I did not know it would be our final visit, and it almost did not happen at all. If not for my husband, I would have missed the opportunity to sit and talk with him. I would have lost the chance to hold his hand and kiss him good-bye one last time. I would have regretted the decision not to go see him for the rest of my life. Instead, I learned a valuable lesson that has influenced how I live and love the people in my life. I discovered every single moment we have with our loved ones matters because life guarantees nothing more than the present.

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