Motherhood & Words

Thank you all so much for your thoughts and prayers over the last couple of weeks. I know all of you have experienced the deaths of loved ones, and I know many of these loved ones were too young to die.
At 102, Spencer wasn’t too young. But as I sat by him in those last days I realized that the fact he was ready to go and had lived an incredibly long and happy life didn’t take away the hard parts of letting go.
When my mom called early Thursday morning and D answered the phone, I knew Grandpa was gone. When D hung up, I said, “Grandpa died.”
“Thank God,” I said. And then, “I’ll go.”
Because Spencer had been so determined to live life on his own terms, I thought his determination to die—when he decided he was ready—would make it happen quickly. I was convinced that he would go Monday night. But Tuesday morning when I arrived at my mom’s, he was there, still ticking, though much weaker. I sat by him and swabbed his mouth when he was thirsty. He was still able to talk, to say goodbye to those who visited him. But he seemed uncomfortable. And Tuesday evening, as my mom was sitting by him, he said, “Why can’t I just die?”
His wonderful doctor, who has cared for him since he and my grandma moved into the apartment in my mom’s house fourteen years ago, came to the house on Tuesday night after a full day of work, to see Grandpa. I know Grandpa was hoping for something to end it—he’d said as much to my mom a few days earlier—and I imagine that when the doctor explained that he couldn’t do that, my grandpa was devastated. I wonder if Grandpa was thinking of all the hunting dogs he had owned in his life. They were dearly loved, but when they became too old or sick to walk—to enjoy being dogs—he put them down.
It does seem unjust that we can do that for animals and not people. But I wonder if there is something in that hard letting go, the slow shutting down of organs, that is somehow necessary—to experience, to witness. I’m not sure.
Early Thursday morning, my younger sister and I both said goodbye to Grandpa’s body. But of course it wasn’t really Grandpa anymore, just a shell. He was gone. My mom called my older sister, who was just leaving her house to catch an early plane to the Twin Cities. We could hear her crying through the phone. She didn’t make it on time to say goodbye. But she hadn’t seen his deterioration over the last week, and I think the shock of seeing him as he was the day he died—when he looked very little like the man she had seen a couple of weeks ago—would have been almost incomprehensible. She decided she didn’t want to see the body.
My younger sister had to go back home and sleep before heading to work, but I decided to stay at my mom’s until the Cremation Society people came. I tried to lie down on my mom’s couch, but it seemed wrong to leave Grandpa alone downstairs, so I returned to his bedside, and my mom and I alternated sitting there with him.
At 5:30 a.m. they came for his body, and I left, not wanting to see it taken out.
When I got home, both girls were curled up next to D in our bed, as if they sensed the need to be together. I scooted the girls over and lay down on the sliver of bed remaining. And I just lay there, half asleep, half awake, until the girls woke up. I told them that Great-Gahgee had died. I told them again that he had lived a long life, and they we would remember him. They both looked serious, and we hugged, and then D took them down to get them ready for their two-day-a-week summer program. And I slept deeply for three hours.
On Friday, we left for my mom’s cabin, where my family converged on Friday evening. We sat on the deck that my step-dad had just built, with the ramp for Grandpa’s wheelchair. “Great-Gahgee would have loved to sit out here, wouldn’t he?” I said to Stella.
“We’ll have to sit here for him,” she said.
I nodded. “That’s a wonderful idea.”  
I’ve been dreaming of him, and they are odd, confused dreams. I’ve been sleeping a ton. (Partly because I woke with a bad cold on Saturday morning.) But this morning, I woke up ready to write again.
A couple of years ago, when my piece “Becoming a Sanvicenteña” appeared in Brevity, I took my mom’s computer down to show Grandpa. (It was a publication of which I was/still am particularly proud.) He sat in his recliner, squinting at the computer, and when he finished he looked up and said, “Pretty good stuff.” And then he said, “You know, you could write a piece like that about me. About my nine lives.”
I put away the computer and found a tiny piece of paper and began taking notes, recording his brushes with death.
Last week, as he lay dying, I searched desperately for these notes, but I couldn’t find them on the mess of my desk. And when I tried to get him to recreate the details for me, he couldn’t. It was too late to talk about near death as he lay dying.
I found them on Thursday morning after I woke up from my long nap. “Thank God,” I said again. “Thank God.”

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I have been teaching creative writing for almost twenty years. Reading about other women’s lives and experiences has expanded my world. To be able to walk in someone else’s shoes, whether it’s for a moment or an hour or a few days, is an incredible gift, providing me with insight into the human experience. It takes courage to write your truths, especially if it doesn’t seem as though anyone cares, as though anyone is listening. Let me tell you: your stories matter, I’m listening, and I’m here to help you find the heart of those truths, to get them down on the page, to craft them, and to send them out into the world. Together, we will change the world, one story at a time.


  1. gillian on July 6, 2011 at 3:46 pm

    prayers, friend. Wonderful, soothing words. I loved that Stella wanted to sit for him.

  2. finding words on July 6, 2011 at 4:51 pm

    What a beautiful post, Kate. I also liked your daughter's reaction of just doing it for the person who is not there anymore (sitting where Great Grandpa would had liked). How practical. I am very glad you found those notes too. They are invaluable.

  3. Elizabeth on July 7, 2011 at 2:10 am

    This post is a beautiful paean to your grandfather but also to his inspiration — your writing is exquisite, and that Brevity essay perfection.

    Love and comfort to you, Kate.

  4. Anonymous on July 7, 2011 at 4:17 pm

    Thanks for sharing your beautiful words about your grandfather, Kate. Love to you all.

  5. K on July 8, 2011 at 10:12 pm

    Thank you for sharing this with us, it helps us who have experienced death of a loved one to read about it in such a beautifully written way. I'm glad you found the posts when you did, a comfort in a time of sorrow. Thinking of you, Kate.

  6. Andria on July 13, 2011 at 2:28 pm

    So sorry about your grandpa. I have been thinking of you a lot these past couple of weeks, knowing it was nearing his time. You keep his memory and your relationship with him alive beautifully with your writing, and through sharing those amazing photographs. What an awesome, awesome man.

    I love his T-shirt about being a Swede. Can't wait to share that one with all these crazy Swedes I have somehow married into.

    Thinking of you.

  7. Andrea on July 15, 2011 at 6:37 pm

    Oh, Kate. I'm so sorry. I know you loved your grandpa a lot, and I'm sorry he's gone, but happy that he had such a long wonderful life, and that you were able to be so close to him, and that when he went he was ready. I look forward to seeing your nine lives story about him, I know it will be the perfect tribute to him and your relationship to him–and a gift for your children to cherish always.