Some superstitious part of me hesitated to submit my recent article about my grandfather’s 100th birthday (100 Years Young, v13 i48). I had started the article months ago, shortly after celebrating his birthday, but for some reason I had not been able to complete it until last week. I think on some level I felt that by writing about it I would somehow jinx his longevity. My sixth sense was right. My grandfather passed away peacefully in his sleep last night, at 100 and one-half years of age.
Earlier that evening, I had cried tears of joy as I welcomed my newest grandchild into the world. We had been on baby-watch for the last week after my daughter’s due date came and went. My cell-phone stayed on and at my side constantly. Every time her number came up my heart would begin to race as I expected that the moment had arrived. At 5:00 a.m. yesterday morning, she called to advise me that her water had broken. We leisurely began to make our way to the hospital. With her first baby, the time duration between her water breaking and the delivery was over 30 hours, so we were settling in for another long haul.
My youngest daughter had been assigned the task of taking care of her sister’s weekend shop, so I arranged to have her take my car and drop me off at the hospital. My task was to care for my grandson during the birth. I was surprised and pleased to discover that hospital policies have changed since the time I had my children, and my grandson was allowed to be present for the whole thing. One of the reasons I had opted for home births was because I wanted my children to be with me when their siblings were born. My daughter embraces this same philosophy. We feel it is essential that he be part of the birth process, welcoming his new brother into the world.
Shortly after arriving at the hospital, however, my daughter was sent back home. We theorized later about why this occurred. Ostensibly, it was because her labour had not progressed far enough; that she would be better off at home during early labour. However, the hospital was unusually busy with births that day, and rooms were being filled as quickly as they were vacated. The doctor suggested a 5:00 p.m. return would probably be appropriate, so we packed up all her items and returned home to rest and wait.
I took advantage of the break to visit with my other daughters and my granddaughter. I finally headed home at around 2:00 p.m., hoping for a short nap to energize me for the expected long night ahead. I had barely walked in the door when the phone rang. My daughter was in hard labour. I could tell from her voice that we needed to waste no time in returning to the hospital. A little over three hours later, at about 5:45 p.m., she gave birth to a healthy, beautiful little boy.
He was silent and unmoving in the first moments after birth. It was only when the doctor said, “we must wake him up,” and cut the cord, that he finally took in the breath of life and greeted us with a lusty cry. In the first hour after the birth, mother and son bonded. I was amazed at how intently he gazed into her face. Her sisters arrived, and as we surrounded the bed to admire him, she commented, “he looks like great grandpa.” We all agreed that he did, indeed, bear a strong likeness to his great great grandfather.
After a few hours, we left the hospital exhausted. My intention was to go straight to sleep, but something motivated me to email a few pictures of the baby to my father before I went to bed. It seems like, once again, that sixth sense was in operation. When I spoke with my father later the next day, he told me how much it had meant to receive the pictures in his in-box first thing in the morning, after he had spent much of the night mourning the loss of his own father.
An early morning phone call awakened me with the news that my grandfather had died. I was still disoriented and on a high from the birth, so it took me a few moments to absorb the news. My grandfather had been in the hospital with pneumonia, but had been doing well. Some part of me really believed he would pull through it, like he had done so many times before. Some part of me really expected that he would still be with us for a while longer. I hadn’t rushed to the hospital to visit, because some part of me thought he would pull through. He was healthy, able to get around on his own, and still mentally sharp. Some part of me thought, irrationally, that he would live forever. But his 100-year-old heart finally gave out.
Throughout the day, family members discussed things and examined the circumstances around my grandfather’s death. We all agreed that after his 100th birthday party, he seemed to have turned a corner. It was as if he had decided that 100 years was enough; it was time to go.
Our conversation turned to those moments shortly after my little grandson was born and the pronouncement in that first hour that he bore a resemblance to his great great grandfather. It was surreal and difficult to actually comprehend. Many cultures believe that death is always accompanied by new life, but I’ve never before experienced that phenomenon so directly.
Sunday was a very difficult day. My daughters and I spent the day together as a family, processing the profound emotions that these two events had engendered. After visiting with the new baby, we stopped and had dinner with my parents. My father is a stoic man who does not show emotion easily, but I knew how deeply he was hurting. For my mother, this death brought back memories of the passing of her sister (my aunt) earlier in the summer. Although we all tried to remain upbeat and positive, focusing on the beautiful new addition to our family, we could not shake the deep underlying sadness that clung to every thought and word.
Finally, I arrived home Sunday evening, exhausted from too many tears — tears of joy and tears of sadness. Suddenly my doorbell rang. I was surprised, wondering who might be calling at 8:00 p.m. on a Sunday. As I made my way to the door and switched the porch light on, I heard singing. Puzzled, I wondered whether some of my younger daughter’s friends had perhaps imbibed one too many at the bar down the street and were visiting my house in hopes of continuing the party. As I opened the door wide, the words and the tune came clear, “…the stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay…the little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay.” To my amazement, eight young carollers stood on my doorstep in the chilly night air, singing “Away in a Manger.” Their smiling faces beamed with joy as they continued serenading me, verse after verse, while I stood, mouth agape in astonishment. I had never before been visited by carollers. The coincidence of their presence and the song they were singing was extraordinary. It brought back long-forgotten memories of standing around the piano with my grandfather and my grandmother singing carols.
The carollers finished their song with a loud, “Merry Christmas!” and retreated down my steps. Tears filled my eyes and I could barely get out the words to thank them, to tell them just how much their beautiful and selfless gift of song had meant to me on this particular evening. They responded by offering to sing me another song! Although tempted, I refused, afraid I would be unable to maintain any semblance of control if they continued singing. As I closed the door, I finally broke down and wept uncontrollably, all the strange, surreal events of the weekend taking their toll. I don’t know who these wonderful young people were, nor how they happened to choose my door, but I felt in that moment that I had been visited by a choir of angels.
Although I don’t hold a particular belief about death and the afterlife, I don’t believe death is the end. I am confident that my grandfather has moved on to the next phase of his existence, reunited at last with my grandmother. But he lives on in so many other ways. He lives on in the faces of his grandchildren and great grandchildren and in their personalities. His philosophy of life lives on through the lessons he has taught my children and me by the way he chose to live his life. He lives on in our memories of him, the precious times we spent together. Most of all, though, he will live on through the birth of a new child — his great great grandson. A child who has forged a powerful connection to his great great grandfather across the span of one hundred years — one soul entering the world and embracing life…one soul leaving it.