It Can Only Get… Worse I once considered visiting cemeteries a hobby. I tried to be optimistic every time I returned, thinking, “It can’t happen again”. That statement was proved wrong again, and again, and again. I felt as if I were in a dead world and there was no way out, no way to ignore the ominous truth that death was near and abundant. The life in my loving great grandparents’ soft grey-blue eyes was just slipping away slowly, and there was nothing I could do about it. My parents told me that things could only get better. I felt as if they had lied to me. Things” did not get better; “things” got worse, much worse. Always close at hand, my great grandparents lived next door to me my whole life. Both had soft, thinning, silver hair and smile lines around their mouths. They were always smiling. I had just turned 13 and felt invincible — that is, until I was told that both Faye and Leland Ledbetter were slowly dying. Leland had pancreatic cancer and Faye was slowly losing her memory. The day I was told my Granddaddy had six months to live was the day that my world came to a screeching halt. I can remember going to sit on his lap, which had comforted me many times before.
I felt as if I was a little girl again; I cried like one that day, too. I had always been a strong person, never showing my emotions, but after that day crying came easily and frequently. The tears weren’t just from sadness; they were tears of frustration and anger. I was angry… Angry at my parents for telling me things would get better. Angry at the doctors for just giving up. Angry at my God for not answering my endless prayers to spare my grandparents lives. I felt weak and helpless. Granddaddy was always strong for us, never showing how sick he was.
I will never forget the day I walked in unannounced and found him leaning over the toilet clenching his stomach in pain, tears abundant. He never knew I saw. What I had seen made me realize that I was losing the person I considered to be my best friend. The months went by slowly as I watched his body grow thinner and eyes sink deeper. He was dying. The worst times came during what was supposed to be the happiest time of the year, Christmas. My older sister stopped going to visit with me after Grandmother forgot her name. Christmas dinner I refused to eat because Granddaddy couldn’t stomach anything, and I didn’t want him to feel alone.
We sat there together, hand in hand, and just watched everyone else. This was one of the last times my whole family would ever sit together. Grandmother fell two days after that last dinner. Soon after that the call had to be made to Hospice. The nurses moved two hospital beds into their living room so they wouldn’t have to be apart. They were each other’s everything. Even though she would forget where she was, Grandmother could always remember that that man lying still next to her was the love of her life, the person that would never leave her. I would go visit every night.
Even though he became too weak to speak, I would still go sit with him and tell him about my day, tell him about my life and tell how everything was going to be okay. I would make plans for the far-off future and tell him how proud I would make him. He would smile… I will never forget his smile, toothy and white, stretching from ear to ear. I would stay with them, falling asleep on the floor in between their beds. I awoke to a note one morning lying on Granddaddy’s lap. It was written with green crayon in child-like handwriting on Granddaddy’s lap. He had written the word “pray”.
Linking us together one last time, I held one of each of their soft frail hands and prayed. That was the last time I saw them together. I was sick and wasn’t allowed to be around them in fear of making them sicker. Three days after that last prayer I woke up and felt that something wasn’t right. Fearful, I walked down the long dark hallway leading to my parents’ room. Gone. Neither was in bed. I could see the illuminated house just across the rain-drenched yard as I gazed through the window. I knew what had happened and dropped to my knees, sobbing violently to the point of vomiting.
I sat by the door for what seemed to be hours, clenching my teddy bear, waiting on my parents. Finally, I cried myself to sleep. I awoke to someone stroking my hair. My mother was lying next to me on the cold tile crying softly. I looked down in an asking way and she nodded. He was gone. I never got to say goodbye. My heart was broken. The violent tears came again, but this time sleep didn’t follow. I got up and ran for the house, but I was too late. The body was gone. He was gone. I curled up next to my Grandmother in her solitary white hospital bed and wept. She never spoke, just held my hand. Over the next week her memory left her.
She frequently called me Carolynn, which was their only daughter’s name. I would just smile and nod. She was confused. Leland was gone. The funeral came and I had to be medicated before my parents would let me go in to the viewing. I sat alone on the front pew and acknowledged no one. I was forbidden to tell Grandmother that the funeral had taken place. I just sat with her, day after day… holding her hand, just talking, trying to help her remember. She spoke of Leland often, smiling. I broke. I spoke slowly and clearly, telling her every detail that I could remember from the funeral. She sat in awe. I had broken her heart.
I kissed her goodnight and knew what the hollow look on her face foretold. She still called me Carolynn up until the day she passed. It had been one week and four days since I had visited that funeral home that smelt of Clorox and death. I sat in my pew and said nothing. I didn’t cry. I wanted to be strong. I held my sister’s hand and stared forward, eyes glazed and heavy. I watched both of my great grandparents be set in the decaying earth within weeks of each other. Their love and smiles and lives were taken from me. For weeks I would go sit in between their graves on the soft green grass and talk about my life.
I would cry and say it wasn’t fair, then curse God for taking them from me. It took months before the reoccurring nightmares depicting their funerals stopped. We moved away from the small town. My parents couldn’t stand to look out the window and see the old house, full of so many memories. I understood; I knew I wasn’t the only one hurting in my family. I knew I wasn’t the only one who lost someone they loved dearly. I knew I was lucky to have them both as long as I did, and I was lucky to know their love. I still visit that cemetery and speak with them often, remembering and smiling.