December 19th is no doubt the toughest day of every year for me. For the past 17 years, I’ve kept why largely under wraps as I’ve not really felt open or comfortable discussing it with anyone. Sure, I’ve mentioned in passing the very unfortunate significance of this day, but I feel I can finally open up more about it and maybe this can help someone suffering from a similar type of feeling.
So the story actually starts a few days before when I contract some upper respiratory illness that was very much like the flu, even though I question whether or not it was actually the flu. I was a Freshman in high school and a manager for the basketball team. We had been traveling for a tournament and I swear I picked up the virus probably in the course of that travel (close quarters and all that). Well, with myself and four others living in a little trailer house, someone was bound to get it from me, and the person who did was probably the worst person it could have happened to: my 84-year-old great grandmother.
Though she was active and seemingly healthy, my great-grandmother had recently been battling early stage kidney failure. Her nephrologist actually wanted to put her on dialysis but she adamantly refused (and quite frankly I don’t blame her – that just sounds like a miserable existence).
Anyway, I digress. The evening of the 18th comes around and I get home from school and my great-grandmother is incredibly ill. Of course, this shook me hard and combined with the stress of upcoming finals in school, I was freaking out probably too much over my own situation instead of worrying about hers. I probably shot my mouth off in the process (as I often do under extreme stress) and my mother got pissed off at me and said I was being selfish because the illness could kill her (as if I didn’t already know that). What she said next are words that have repeated in my head nearly every day for the last 17 years: “and you’re probably the one who gave it to her!”
So then my dad gets in on the action, pulls me into my bedroom and told me if I didn’t shut up he was going to ram my head through a wall (yes, he had physically abusive tendencies in the earlier days and that was starting to resurface given the situation). Anyway, needless to say the evening of December 18th, 2002 was high-stress all around and my nerves were fried. How I was ever going to take a final exam the next day totally fried me.
Anyway, I wake up the morning of the 19th and go to school for finals. I actually only had one final exam – 2nd period. First period was gym and I had chosen to exempt my 3rd period final (biology). This was good, as I just had this sick feeling within me.
So I was done that day by 10:30-ish if I remember right, came straight home and saw my great-grandmother. Her breathing was very labored and heavy, drifting in and out of consciousness. She asked me for an ice cube to suck on as her mouth was extremely dry. I gladly went to the freezer and got her one.
As the day wore on, I would frequently check back with her, and she asked for a couple of more ice cubes as the hours wore on into the afternoon. I stayed with her as much as I could (balancing that and study time, which was largely unproductive) knowing I probably didn’t have much time left with her. As time wore on, she spent more time in an unconscious state and her respiration was tainted with sounds of sloshing fluid (is that what they call “aqualung?” – I know it’s a medical term and not just a stupid song by Jethro Tull). It was at this point I held onto her hand for the last time, silently saying my goodbyes, then left the room as my dad called 911.
First responders came and wasted no time strapping her to a gurney and hauling her to the ambulance, but it was too late. She died in route to the hospital – DOA. When my parents got back, they broke the news. I was crushed to say the absolute least.
However, I didn’t have much time to dwell as I had another series of finals the next day. I had to shelve my own pain and power through my next round of finals. As such, I never really had a chance to grieve initially, but my mother’s chilling words never left my head. They stung like daggers through my heart, and on some level I came to believe she was right. I felt 100% responsible for her death. The guilt was crippling and would remain so for the next 16 and a half years of my life. Though I’ve kept it mostly under wraps, I’ve largely suffered from “complicated grief” over the loss since.
Fast-forward to Sunday, March 24th of this year. Laina and I had just gotten back from the IndyCar race in Austin and stepped out on her deck for some wine (and a cigar for me, of course). This topic came up in passing. Something I’d bottled up since that awful day. Yet somehow, I felt comfortable opening up to her about it – something I hadn’t felt with anyone else. She felt “safe” to me.
So I did just that, but out of my pain (and it was painful for me to talk about – I will admit that) the floodgates got opened. Floodgates that would spawn something beautiful out of my pain – the bond we share today. Opening up and telling my story to her set the stage for us to bond the way we have.
Between that and going on my recent health journey, I’ve begun to finally come to terms with it. It isn’t my fault. She was ready. She stuck around long enough to make sure I’d be alright before she crossed over (as I had gotten my diagnosis of Aspergers not too long prior and things with my parents were finally starting to smooth over). She made sure they understood me on the level she did before her departure. She was my rock growing up, as I’ve mentioned prior. She stuck around long enough to make sure my parents knew who they were dealing with, and for that I am eternally grateful to her.
It’s been 17 years to the day since my great-grandmother departed this world. Though gone from the physical realm of the living, she lives on in the little things – my tattoo, my peony scented soap, her old clock. As I continue to heal physically, so does my inner brokenness. I’ll always miss her. I’ll never stop thinking about her. However, I’m finally starting to come to terms with it, 17 years later. I couldn’t have written this post even last year. I feel a lot “lighter” finally being able to tell the story without the feelings of sheer guilt coming back.
Well, thanks for those of you who read this post to the end. I’ve gone on for 1,200 words now, which is probably way more than enough so I’ll shut up now, go light some candles and reflect. Have a good day everyone, and always remember to remind those who mean the most to you just how much they mean to you, for they might be gone tomorrow.