I have some things I wanted to blog about this week, but they’re going to have to wait — as you’ll see if you read this, life takes precedence.
Anybody who knows me or has followed Operation Jack over the years knows how much my grandparents mean to me. My mom’s parents died back in 1982 and 1983, but my dad’s parents have been around my whole life and I love them in a way that I can’t really describe with just one sentence.
My grandpa is probably the best man I’ve ever known. Truly, genuinely nice and a great person. He’s been an autism dad (my uncle has autism) since 1960 — back before folks like me had places to turn to for information. He was a pioneer, blazing a trail without a map. I learned a lot about autism from him as a kid and when we learned in 2006 that our son Jack is severely autistic, I was very familiar with that. My grandpa also loves people more sincerely than anybody I’ve ever met. At any gathering with his sons, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, he breaks down in tears and talks about how he feels like the luckiest guy in the world for being around his family.
He’s the stereotypical fun grandpa, always having fun, speaking in his silly Donald Duck voice, acting like he’s 12 (I’m the same way, I know where I get it from). Everybody says the same thing about him — he’s the nicest, gentlest person they’ve ever met, a truly good person.
He turned 90 last August and considering health issues he’s had in the past — a quintuple bypass in 1989, seizures in 1994, cancer in 2001, onset of Alzheimer’s about three or four years ago — every birthday he has is something we’re grateful for.
Unfortunately for me, I live in Pennsylvania and he’s in California, so I don’t get to see him as much as I did when he lived two miles from where I worked a couple of years ago. He went into the hospital a few weeks ago and when you’re 90, hospitals happen. I wasn’t alarmed, but after a little while, the reports I was getting weren’t going in the right direction.
I went to Chicago last weekend and I was checking up on him frequently because things were getting worse. On Sunday, the day I was scheduled to fly back to Philadelphia, I was trying to get as much information as possible because I was considering flying straight to California from there. After a lot of consulting with my dad, I decided to go home to Philly, hug my wife and kids and cry in my own home. I planned to spend the week at home and head out to California this coming Sunday or Monday and say goodbye to him.
Mid-day Monday, though, I got a call from my dad and he told me to just get on a plane, that my grandpa wasn’t going to be around for long. Coming out for a week would cover saying goodbye and the funeral. My flight was scheduled to land at John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California, at 11:55 a.m. Tuesday morning, which would have put me at the hospital by about 12:30 p.m. I woke up at 3:30 a.m. in Pennsylvania after getting just 3 1/2 hours of sleep and saw the text from my dad I didn’t want to see.
I couldn’t believe it. I mean, I could, but he was really gone. The day I dreaded ever since I was about 10 and I realized how much I loved him and that people who are two generations older than you tend to die when you’re still young. I didn’t regret not going out straight from Chicago. I know that he wasn’t coherent and probably wouldn’t have known I was there. He would have squeezed my hand, which would have been nice, but that wasn’t the memory I needed. The memories I have — going to baseball games with him, having sleepovers at his house when I was a kid, his silly Donald Duck voice and willingness to do anything to entertain children, the way he so deeply loved his family — I have more than 39 years of those memories and I’m content with the decision I made to come home from Chicago. I’m glad it was peaceful, without pain, and that my dad, stepmom and brother were in there with him.
I headed to the airport at 4 a.m. and my 6:15 a.m. flight was delayed until 1 p.m. after we sat on the plane for an hour. I was dead tired and very sad, but glad that I at least wasn’t stressing about getting to the hospital on time. They re-routed my itinerary and I only had to spend six hours in the terminal.
I was checking with my dad to see how my grandma was doing. My grandparents were as close to each other and in love as it gets. They bickered all the time, but you just couldn’t picture either one of them living without the other. They were married for 69 years, 11 months and 17 days — April 1 would have been their 70th anniversary. My grandma said some things to my dad last weekend and I was heartbroken for her. My wife Tiffany felt the same way. As sad as we were about my grandpa, we were more sad about my grandma.
When I switched planes in Minneapolis, I called my dad to ask how she was doing. She was doing fine considering what she went through — her life partner had just died, but she was with her sister-in-law (my grandpa’s sister) and holding up fairly well. When I landed in California, my brother picked me up and we went straight over to see her. She would always light up when I surprised her with a visit. I was in town in November and she didn’t know I was going to be there, and it made her month when I showed up. I hoped me popping in unannounced on Tuesday would cheer her up and sure enough, she was happy to see me.
My grandma is a different person than my grandpa, but I love her dearly, too. She is an autism mom and a true mama bear — she really defends my uncle. My wife developed a special bond with her over the years after our dealings with Jack. She loves her three sons and her grandchildren and great grandchildren and loves to see us. She smiled when I walked in with my brother and I gave her a hug and a kiss. That’s always the first rule with her — you have to walk over and give her a kiss!
She was tired, and she looked drained, but it was nice to see her. She wasn’t super talkative, because she was pretty tired and emotionally spent, but we chatted for a bit and hung out for an hour. I told her how my kids are doing, I laughed about all the snow shoveling I’m doing this winter, I asked her how she was doing. I could see that she was pretty overcome with sadness and exhaustion, but I was pretty surprised with how well she was holding up. She looked to me like she had aged and I was concerned with how she’d feel when the loneliness kicked in. She was clearly tired, though, and told us she wanted to take a nap. Me and my brother helped her into bed and tucked her in at about 6 p.m. I gave her a kiss, told her I loved her, she smiled, and we were on our way.
I went out to dinner with my brother and my folks and got back to my their house a little after 9. Maybe two minutes later, we got a frantic call from my great-aunt that they had to call 9-1-1 because my grandma wouldn’t wake up or something along those lines. We didn’t know exactly what was going on, but we knew something was happening so we raced up. I was communicating with the family — my dad was pretty panicky but I was staying calm and focused (probably because I was so tired!).
I wasn’t saying it at the time, but I was praying on the way up that my grandma had died. I thought she would be so miserable without my grandpa, and she had lived a very full life. I just thought that would be best for her. We parked and there was a fire truck outside the house but no lights on. A fireman asked me if I was a relative and I said, yes, I was her grandson, and he instructed me to go inside the house. A fireman inside had the same question for me and when I confirmed I was immediately family, he said a simple sentence that froze that moment in my mind, and I know I’ll never forget it.
I’m sorry, but your grandmother is deceased.
My grandma spoke to my uncle on the phone at about 8:30 p.m., then they gave her her meds, and she had a heart attack shortly thereafter. I was shocked. I had just seen her a few hours earlier. I was happy inside for her, but still, it was very surreal. I was tired from the travel and the sleep and the emotional strain of my grandpa dying. This was like a strange movie, but it was for real. This really just happened. My dad is keeping it together on the outside, but I could tell he was just stunned. He looked like he had just gotten punched in the gut and I’ve never really seen him like that, but I don’t know if he had ever felt that combination of shock and sadness — in less than 24 hours, he had lost both of his parents. My dad has a big heart, which he got from his dad/my grandpa, and I felt so bad for him. He was pretty flustered, but that’s understandable.
I told my stepmom (I use that term as a technicality, she’s definitely like a mom to me) that I was happy for my grandma. I went and communicated with the family. I was (and still am) in a state of shock.
But I am really happy for them. Death is a part of life for all of us. For both of them, it was peaceful and painless. They were truly one, joined in marriage. Me and Tiff talk all the time about how we hope we end up like them some day, old and deaf and bickering at each other and still as madly in love as we were when we were 19. I lose Guy Points to admit that I like the movie The Notebook, but I really liked the way they die together at the end. I even admitted that once in a job interview, because I hope that’s how it ends for me and Tiff decades down the road.
Well that’s what my grandparents had, and it wasn’t a Hollywood movie. It was 69 years, 11 months, 17 days of marriage, and praise God she only had to withstand 22 hours as a widow. It’s the best love story I’ve ever seen, the way I hope my story ends. As sad as I am to lose two grandparents I loved so much within a 24-hour period, I’m very happy with how it ended up for them.
Two quick grandparent anecdotes:
1. We named Jack after my grandpa’s dad, as an honor to my grandpa. When I called up my grandpa to tell him, in typical Grandpa Milt fashion, he broke down in tears and told me couldn’t talk and hung up the phone. He was so happy to know that, so honored to know how we felt about him. His dad died of ALS in 1961, so I never got a chance to meet him. But my son Jack Felsenfeld was not the first Jack Felsenfeld. My grandpa was so happy to hold Jack in the hospital and told me (through tears, of course), how he looked up in the sky and talked to his dad the night before. He always asked about Jack, and was sad when we left California, but he always asked how Pennsylvania was working out and was happy to know that it was going well.
2. My grandma and I bet on the Super Bowl every year for 25 years. That was the only bet on the Super Bowl I ever made. The stakes varied from year to year. One year, when I was in college in Kansas, it was one dozen cookies for every point the winner won by. She shipped me 10 or 15 dozen homemade chocolate chip cookies. The year the Ravens beat the Giants (2001), I had the Ravens. She was at my house at my Super Bowl party and when they poured it on in the second half, and the beer started getting into my system, I started to get a little, hmmm, loud. It was all in fun, though, and we enjoyed having that bet every year.
A lot of people tell me that they’re sorry for my loss. But I got 39 years with my grandparents, who I thought were amazing, and I’m really grateful for that. If you got all the way here, that means you read the entire thing, and that took some time. Thank you for doing so. :)[subscribe2]