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You Can Go Now - A Short Story About the Night My Grandfather Died

Updated on June 30, 2014
Me & Papa at my wedding. 14 March 1992
Me & Papa at my wedding. 14 March 1992 | Source

Saying Good-Bye

On October 03, 1998, in a hospital room in Torrance, California, I bent my head close to his, and in a conspiratorial whisper reminiscent of childhood dreams and confidences, I murmured to him softly, “It’s okay Papa, I am here now. You have been the very best grandfather, and I have been the luckiest girl to have always had you. I will take care of everything here now. I will be alright, don’t you worry about me, if you are ready to go now, then I promise, I will be ready too.”

I don't know how long I stayed there like that, ignoring the whiny protest of muscles that were bent and twisted into odd and unusual angles, chattering on and on in the particular way he had always known to be my tell when things in my world were not right or when I had a secret to hide. I don't know how long I stayed there, hunched awkwardly over the bed railing as I tried not to disturb that wires and tubes that monitored and hydrated him, my cheek pressed to his, prattling nervously on about mustard dogs and fishing on Mondays, chicken pox and penny poker, and waltzing around the living room on the shiny tops of his Florsheims. It may have been minutes or it may have been hours, I don't know because upon entering the room I had lost all sense of time, had there been pendulum and chime to mark the hour, I doubt that I would have noticed. I was no longer conscious of time that was marked by day or night. I was only aware of time as it was shared by the two lives in that room, marked by shared memories and now punctuated by the rise and fall of his every breath. No, it was not the familiar ticking of the Greenwich Clock that was keeping time that evening, but the rhythm of the syllables of words that I needed to say while I knew that he could still hear me. It was the roaring rush of the memories that spilled forth from my heart, it was the pounding fear of words forgotten or left unsaid that marked these precious moments, and so I stayed there for as long as it took.

When I look back now, I sometimes think that maybe I just finally ran out of words, but I know in my heart that it is far more likely that I stayed there like that until being with him, finally, at long last, chased away my fear of letting him go.

We had always been close. For as long as I could remember, and even before that, he had been my buddy, my partner in crime, and a fellow adventurer. Throughout my childhood years, and most especially during my adolescence and rocky teenage years, he had been a patient listener, a sage advice giver, and when the need arose, he had almost always, with very few exceptions, been on my side.

My mother, who herself had been a life-long daddy's girl, would sometimes feign an air of motherly shock and surprise at our shenanigans, exclaiming in mock seriousness while still trying to suppress a smile, that she just didn't know what she would do with the two of us, "a mutual admiration society", she would tease, "that is what the two of you are!"

I only knew that I adored him, and that no matter what aspiration I might be pursuing this week, he was always my biggest fan. If I looked out into the crowd during a speech, or recital, if I looked up into the stands during a game, I would find him there, front row center, ready to cheer me on;

“That’s the way Snicklefritz!” he would call out to me, as I dropped the bat and ran for first. "Don't worry about it Fraulein, you'll get it next time!" I heard across the field as I over threw the third baseman allowing the tying run to score; and always, in the end, no matter what, win or lose, he would be there to greet me. “There’s my Indian!” he would say in that gruff growly voice, as he hugged me close and kissed the top of my head.

More than that, since my grandmother's passing the year before, he had been my last link to a world that had been slipping slowly from my grasp, and to a mother that sometimes I could barely remember.

“It’s okay Papa,” I finally told him, “You can go on now." I said with a forced gaiety, "I know that Nana and Mama are waiting for you on the other side and you know how impatient they can be,. I swear I can almost hear them calling you now, so don't you keep them waiting, you know that they just hate to be kept waiting. You go on, and you give them each a big hug and big kiss from me." Then, through the tears that I could no longer hold back, I pressed my lips to his bald head and whispered, "higher than the mountain, deeper than the sea, how much I love my Papa, how much my papa loves me."

For the first time in thirty-one years, I heard only the echo of my own voice in response.

Suddenly, in what was a surreal twist that seemed to come straight from the script of some really sappy B movie or an afterschool special, I felt something. A movement, a gently applied pressure, the slight curl of his fingers around mine, a movement so slight in fact, that at first I wasn't even sure if I had felt any thing at all; But I had felt it! From somewhere inside the recesses of his stroke induced coma, my grandfather had managed to squeezed my fingertips! It wasn't a very hard squeezed, and it only lasted for a fraction of a moment, but in that singular moment, it was as though he had reached out and griped my heart with the same firm grasp of his handshake, and so it was that in that moment I knew with absolute assuredness, that he had heard every single syllable that I had spoken.

In that moment too, it was almost as though my heart could hear his thoughts just as clearly as my ears would have, had he been able to speak. In that moment I heard him say, "Yes dear, its going to be alright now, we'll get through this somehow, and yes Snicklefritz, I love you too."

A few hours after I let go of his hand for the last time, as I was tucking my own children into bed at my father’s house, Burton George Gundlach passed away.

It was October the fourth, nineteen hundred and ninety-eight. He was seventy-nine years, three months, and eleven days old.

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My sister and I with our Grandparents Summer 1971 Ports Of Call,  San Pedro, CA
My sister and I with our Grandparents Summer 1971 Ports Of Call, San Pedro, CA | Source

One of the Most Important Gifts a Parent Can Give To a Child

With his passing, the last of my grandparents had slipped quietly from my life, but each of them left me with the indelible marks that have helped to form the basis of my character, my beliefs, and my understanding of the world around me, it is their influence that helped to lay the foundation on which my life is built.

My mother told me once that in order to clearly see where you are going, you must have a clear picture of where you came from, “A strong sense of themselves,” she said to me, “is one of the most important gifts that a parent can give to their child, A child who knows where they are coming from, has that strong sense of self, and that is something that will sustain you through the hardest of the rough patches in your life.”

They gave that gift to me, my parents, and my grandparents, every day of my life, with the stories that they told to me, with the histories that they repeated; the same stories and histories that I have whispered to my own children; The oral history of our family, passed from grandparent to parent, and from parent to child, as it has been for generations.

It all begins and ends with our families. Love them or hate them, in the ever changing tides of our lives the only true constant is our family; The old and the young, the born and the dying, those who came before, and those who have yet to be; They are always there, woven into the big things, the little things, our joys and our sorrows, and even those mundane details we do not think matter. They are always there, intertwined with what we know, what we learn, and what we experience; they help to shape and mold us into who were before; who we are right now; and who we will become in the future.

Burton George Gundlach 1919-1998 Last Photo Taken with Great Grandchildren Joseph (4) and Jordan (3) August 1998 (about 6 weeks before his death)
Burton George Gundlach 1919-1998 Last Photo Taken with Great Grandchildren Joseph (4) and Jordan (3) August 1998 (about 6 weeks before his death) | Source

A New and Greater Responsibility ...

My grandfather’s passing also brought with it a new sense of urgency, and a new greater responsibility, for I am now the last story keeper in our family. I am the only one left who remembers all of the history, the stories, and the legends told over and over around our kitchen table, around a campfire, or as a bedtime story to two sleepy little girls who spent plenty of nights camped out in their grandparent’s spare bedroom, couch, and living room floor. It has become my responsibility to ensure that my family’s past is carried along into its future, ensuring that their memories will not die, but continue to burn brightly, illuminating the way for future generations.

© 2010 Kristen Burns-Darling


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