Death catches some people unawares. Others, like my Grandpa Reuben, see it coming.
As the only child of two only children, I was unusually close to my grandparents. I followed Grandpa around the farm as a kid, rode with him on the tractor and trailed behind him swinging a stick as he chopped weeds from the soybean rows. When I was in grade school, he helped me with arithmetic.
By the time I was in college, Grandpa was in his 80s. He was still spry and still good at arithmetic, but I had better things to do than spend time with my grandparents. They listened to boring church music. They didn’t have a color TV. Grandpa was getting deaf, and he talked so loudly that I found it embarrassing. My visits became less frequent.
Grandpa still balanced his checkbook, sometimes working on it for days. Once, convinced the bank statement was in error, he insisted that Mom drive him to the bank, where he confronted a skeptical teller.
After much to and fro, the teller determined to her great surprise that Grandpa was right.
“I may be old,” he crowed. “My brain may be a little moldy, but I can still add and subtract.”
“Hush, Dad,” Mom urged. “Let’s go.”
“That woman isn’t very smart, is she?” Grandpa hollered as Mom hustled him past grinning bank patrons and propelled him out the door. “She’s not near as smart as you and Carol.”
When Grandpa passed the milestone of his 90th birthday, I was an associate medical examiner in Fort Myers, Florida.
“The little girl’s a doctor,” Grandpa told anyone who would listen. “Doctors make a lotta money.”
“Oh, Dad,” Mom would chide when she overheard his bragging.
Grandpa hated nursing homes.
“You’ll have to go,” he often told Grandma. “But I won’t. Staying out of the nursing home is the only thing I’ve ever asked the Lord for. I think He’ll grant me that one wish.”
“Oh, Dad,” Grandma would say. She, too, called him “Dad,” a leftover from my mother’s childhood.
I was vacationing in Colorado with my daughter and future son-in-law when Grandpa called Mom and asked her to drive him to the hospital. When she and my father arrived at Grandpa’s home, he was dressed in his hat and overcoat, ready to go.
Grandpa leaned down and kissed Grandma on the cheek.
“This is it,” he said. “I won’t be back.”
At the hospital, doctors found Grandpa was in congestive heart failure. The medicine they gave him to reduce the fluid build-up in his lungs didn’t work.
In a few hours, Grandpa was dead. He was a few months short of 95. I didn’t find out until I called home several days later.
It’s been almost 25 years, and I still miss him. I wish I’d spent more time talking to him. I wish I could tell him I loved him.
A professional lifetime spent among the dead has made my own experiences with death no easier.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Dr. Carol J. Huser, a forensic pathologist, served as La Plata County coroner from 2003-12. She now lives in Florida and Maryland.