I know it’s been a while since I posted anything here. It’s been a tough few weeks. For the past week, I’ve been in Florida at my Abuelo’s bedside (Abuelo is Spanish for grandfather). After a long and incredibly painful battle with Alzheimers, Abuelo was moved to a Hospice last week. He was suffering from pneumonia and a blood infection and the decision was made not to treat it. Abuelo had been incredibly depressed the past few years. He had lost just about everything that made him who he was — most of his sight, most of his hearing, his independence, his memories, etc. First he and my Abuela had to leave their home and their independent life in the wilds of the Catskills to live in a senior living community in South Florida near my parents (for anyone who lives happily in the middle of nowhere, South Florida is probably one of the most abhorrent places you could imagine living). As he got worse, it became more and more difficult for my Abuela to care for him. She’s 90 for goodness sake and it’s amazing that she can still take care of herself, much less a man who was wandering off and getting increasingly paranoid.
Finally, in late Spring of this year, my mother finally made the decision to have Abuelo put in an Alzheimers assisted living facility, which was absolutely necessary and was fine as those places go. In fact, it was pretty nice. But taking a person with Alzheimers away from the last familiar things is often unbearable. He was deeply depressed and kept asking to go home. His symptoms kept getting worse and worse though not bad enough for him to be unaware of what was happening to him. It would have been easier for him if he was totally unaware of his surroundings. It was unbearable for us also. Every time I would visit him, I would feel so sad, because I knew he didn’t want to live like this. None of us wanted to see him in pain anymore.
Abuelo died on Friday afternoon. This week I have really gotten to see how different my head and my heart are. Intellectually, I am happy he is at peace and I didn’t want him to be so miserable anymore. But in my heart, I am devastated that I will never see him again. It just doesn’t seem possible. I love him so much.
Most of the time that I was in Florida, Abuelo was in a semi-comatose state. He couldn’t communicate with us and was mostly unresponsive. On Tuesday morning, I came extra early to see Abuelo… long before my parents and Abuela were planning on visiting. I had expected him to still be in a coma state, but instead, his eyes were wide open and he seemed aware of his surroundings. I had the opportunity to tell him I love him and he told me the same. We talked a bit, but it was very difficult for him to communicate (not having had any fluids in days) and within an hour and a half, he was losing his grip on consciousness. I feel so grateful to have had the chance to talk to him one last time and that he knew how much he meant to me.
Abuelo was a wonderful man who led an amazing life in his 89 years. He was born in Plencia, a seaside town in the Spanish Basque country. Even after years of suffering from Alzheimers, he still frequently spoke of growing up in the little house just a couple of meters from the sea. He left home at 14 to join the merchant marines and travelled all around the world. Abuelo then fought in the Spanish Civil War against Franco and escaped being thrown into a concentration camp like so many other Basques who fought on the side of the Republic (only 10% of the Basques sent to the concentration camps survived). He ended up living in New Orleans and served in the Merchant Marines (Coast Guard) in World War II, ferrying troops from England to continental Europe. His ship was torpedoed by the Germans and he and only a few others survived for days on a raft in the Atlantic Ocean. Ironically, it took until the late 1980s for World War II veterans in that branch of the military to even be recognized as veterans (and to get any benefits).
Aubleo met Manuela (my Abuela, who is also from Spain) in the United States after the War. She was a real hottie back then — I think she looked like Sophia Loren. She had refused to dance with his friends and he bet them that he could get her to dance with him. When she said no to him as well, he started limping away and said “I understand… no one wants to dance with me and my wooden leg.” Needless to say, after that she danced with him, and I guess she managed to forgive him for his little white lie. They fell in love, got married and moved to New Jersey. They adopted my mother while on a trip to Spain after her mother had died, leaving her husband (my Abuela’s brother) with six kids to raise in a very poor and rural section of Galicia. They gave my mother opportunities she would never have had in rural Spain, like going to college. Abuelo worked a number of jobs, mostly doing mechanical things. He actually built a tractor himself from parts. He made lots of things with wood and metal. He was incredibly smart and talented and could do anything with his hands.
Abuelo had a long and happy retirement in the Catskills — fishing, hunting, taking care of his land, and spending time with his grandkids. I’m so grateful that he had more than 25 wonderful years there.
Abuelo was the kind of grandfather every kid wishes they had. I know for some people, grandparents are the people they see once a year who buy them good or totally lame gifts, but Abuela and Abuelo were such an important part of my life growing up. Abuelo and abuela spent a great deal of time with my brother and me while we were growing up and we had so much fun together. Abuelo taught me to drive a tractor when I was five, attaching a block of wood to the break so that I could reach the pedal. He taught me to fish. He taught me to drive a car when I was 14, and learning on scary mountain roads made me much more confident when I had to practice in flat Florida. We used to take long walks in the woods, finding all sorts of animals. We’d go feed the ducks at the pond in town. He helped me to play practical jokes on my Abuela and my mom (like the time I put a frog in a box and wrapped it up like it was a present). He was always joking around. He’d always sneak extra cookies to me and my brother under the dinner table. He taught us Spanish card games and told me a lot about Basque culture. He told us amazing stories about his experiences in the wars and what it was like to grow up in Plencia.
Visiting Abuelo and Abuela in the Catskills was always something I looked forward to. My parents fought a lot when I was a kid, and being with Abuela and Abuelo was always so calming. They had the best marriage — they were true partners in life and got along so well. In college, when I was having problems with depression, their home was a refuge for me. I spent an entire summer there and frequently drove up to see them from Connecticut. I’d specifically schedule my classes so that I’d have three-day weekends and could see them more often. He and Abuela always made me feel smart, and special and beautiful, like I could accomplish anything. I feel like the luckiest person in the world to have had the best grandparents ever, but the unluckiest person in the world because love inevitably leads to loss (though, of course, it’s well worth it). There is never enough time with the people we love. All we can do is remember what is important and spend more time with the people we love than we spend worrying about things that aren’t important in the grand scheme of things.
As I face a few months with a lot of upcoming presentations and other work-related stress, I will remember what is really important and keep my heart and my mind on the people I love.