Bit of a personal story.
My Grandpa and I were pretty close. Well, close for itinerant, generally distant folk. I mean, I don't think distant is quite the right word. Every time we saw each other, it was always picking up right where we left off, often picking up the conversation from our last phone call three four months ago. Hugs, smiles, good food, good discussion, and then we do our own thing. And I've never been a religious person, but I'd always go to his sermons whenever I was in Winnipeg, or whenever he'd be giving a guest sermon out my way. It was just amazing hearing him speak. He never dished out guilt. He never dropped blame. Pure love, and friendship, and motivation, from the most powerful voice I knew. And more than anything, that's what made my last trip to Winnipeg so hard.
I knew he'd been having health problems for some time. Dad had been keeping me posted for some time, Gramma too, but Grampa and I just both seemed to want to bury our heads in the sand about it. We didn't discuss it. We just kept going the way we did on the phone. When the call came from Dad that things were looking really dark, though, I dropped everything. I called my boss and said I'm outta town for the next two weeks. I called my brother and told him to do the same, cause I'd already bought his ticket and to hell if he was missing the flight.
The cab ride to the airport was jovial enough. My bro and I just don't have it in ourselves to be anything else, until actually confronted with stark reality, but our laughs and talks of good times were definitely down a notch or three. Any lull and we were getting a little hollow eyed. The plane ride was a bit easier for Rob. He dozed off (4am flights, yeah) about 5 minutes off the ground. I was stuck awake, though. I gotta say, I was shaking. It was a damned long flight for me. My Uncle picked us up from the airport after we landed, and again, conversation was a godsend. Of course, when we got close to the house, he stopped the car and tried to prepare us for what we were walking into. It made us a shade more sombre, but sure as fuck didn't ease anything. We arrived, and Gramma gave us both a big hug, and sat us down for some breakfast. Grampa wasn't awake yet, but she was sure he was getting up soon enough. His younger brother, the doctor, was there too, and we got to have some time just chatting, both about the situation and just about this that and the other. Gramma sure made a strong cup of coffee that morning. Heavy cream didn't dent it.
A few hours and a brief nap later, and Gramma comes downstairs to let us know Grampa is awake and would love to see us. We weren't sure he would, because, y'know, sometimes people just don't wan you to remember them... like that. Anyway, Rob went first. About a half hour later, he came down looking pretty broken. Wouldn't say a word to me, just kinda sat himself in the cozy chair and stared at his thumbs like they were his only friend. My turn. Gramma took me up to his room, and, like Uncle Thom, tried to tell me what was what, and I did my best to steel myself.
Again, all my life, Grampa was a strong man. Even after I sprouted up and had a few inches on him, he was just such a strong personality that it felt like he held you in the palm of his hand. Perpetually rosy cheeks, eternal smile, booming but kind voice, and a little potbelly to finish it off, with muscle to back it up. Walking into that room was earthshattering. A small hospital bed was set up, and in it there he was. Tiny, shrunken down to a near skeleton of a man. He looked up and smiled at me, that same smile, but on such a different face, skin drawn taught along his ashen cheeks. In the hour I was up there, not too many words passed between us, outside of "It's so wonderful to see you," and "I love you." Other than that, there wasn't much to say. I just held his hand as he came into and out of consciousness, finished trimming his beard (yeah, to that very day, trimmed it himself every day, no matter how long it took), and reached for a few kisses with Gramma. When I left his room, I put my hand on his cheek and said, "I'll see you soon." He smiled again and grabbed my hand, and then dozed off again.
Shortly after 3, he went into what was either a really deep sleep or a comatose state, said Retired Nurse Gramma and Doc Great Uncle. We all did our best to keep up spirits, half heartedly watching baseball with Gramma (she loves the Jays), telling good stories or our travels with Grampa, and just chatting about everything. At about 8 o'clock, Gramma and Doc came downstairs and told us that Grampa had stopped breathing. Shattered and broken, but happy his suffering was over, we called my Grampa's sister and her reverend husband and held a small service to say goodbye to him in his room, each taking turns holding his hand and telling him that we love him and will miss him. Us younguns retired downstairs while the older family stayed with him until the funeral home folk came to pick up his body. I couldn't stop crying, and I just couldn't be around anyone, so I stayed in the living room and kept watch for them. I called my mum, my dad, my girlfriend. It was a long night.
After the Funeral Folk came, we cracked open a bottle of Grampa's favourite wine, and toasted to him, and soon after did our level best to catch some rest.
The next few days were a blur. Dad and his wife came up to town. Mine and my brother's significant others flew in. Family and friends started pouring in from all over the world, all offering condolences and telling more wonderful stories. The official service was beautiful, with many going up to the podium and telling their most definitive John Friesen moment. I gotta tell you though, that church felt hollow and empty without him, even with the place packed to the nines.
When I boarded my plane to go back home, all in all, I was glad to have been there. Visiting Winnipeg again will never be the same.