The night before my grandpa died, I told a close friend at the end of our nearly two-hour phone call that I wasn’t too sad that his passing was likely imminent.
Just 10 hours later, my mom told me that he actually had died — from congestive heart failure — at 2:30 that morning. He was 85 years old.
Less than two weeks before, I’d seen him for Christmas, along with my grandma, where they’d lived for the last 40-plus years in Spotsylvania, Virginia. My family isolated so that we could safely visit him for what he repeatedly told us would “probably be his last Christmas.”
That was the visit I told my friend about the night before he died. He’d been in end-stage heart failure for the last few years, so we knew he might be right about it being his last Christmas. As maybe is reflected by my comment to my friend, I didn’t expect it to come so soon. Or to hurt so much.
My grandpa, Charles Donnie Britt, was a special man. As I suppose many people feel about their grandparents, he was both a fixture of familiarity and mystery in my life. I knew he’d served in Korea in the U.S. Air Force as a young man, and that he worked over 50 years in the retail industry. I’d heard many funny stories about him — like the time he allegedly almost traded my grandma, Gay Britt, for camels on a trip to Jerusalem or when he gifted my mom a Beanie Baby bullfrog as a funny apology for saying she looked like a bullfrog when she cried a few years before. I’d also heard the sentimental stories, like how he met my grandma when she was a young and widowed single mother — they were married for 57 years when he died — or how he prioritized attending all of his grandchildren’s baptisms, no matter the drive required for a five-minute ceremony.
For me though, my grandpa was simultaneously less and more than those things. To me, he was the man who never said no to reading me a book as a child, who taught me the words to “Jesus Loves Me” and always said the blessing before a meal, until his health meant he didn’t have enough breath left to say it anymore. He is the man who gave me my middle name — Britt — and my propensity for crying. He was the man I loved fiercely, even when that love was hard to pin down. He is the man I miss already, even after years of what I thought were preparation to say goodbye.
In the last few years, my grandpa and I bonded over UNC-Chapel Hill; my grandpa, a lifelong Tar Heels fan, was so proud of me for attending and graduating from UNC. Talking about UNC became something of a lifeline for us — particularly as even his hearing aids didn’t allow him to fully join the conversation, and as we saw each other less and less.
Our time together was easy, if not a little awkward. I have a bad habit of saying a lot of words at one time, knotting many sentences and thoughts into one. With my grandpa, this habit was especially cumbersome, as he typically couldn’t keep up with sentences longer than a few words. Our conversations often resembled an unskilled tennis match, with many conversation starters served, but few returned. And lots of shouting. In college, I began trying to more regularly call my grandparents. Once, when my grandma didn’t answer, my grandpa hung up on me after I’d said, “Hi Grandpa, it’s Hannah” — to which he replied (sounding quite exasperated, I must add) “No, it’s not, wrong number.”
Even so, my grandpa always knew what I was up to. He listened intently to what he could hear, asking when he saw me about how the job search was going or my latest article. The last few times I saw him, he began talking with all of us about his death in the casual and peculiar way old people do. Each time I saw him, he gave me another of his vintage UNC sweatshirts or windbreakers. In recent years, I’ve given most of my UNC apparel away — due mostly, I suppose, to disillusionment about and disappointment in the institution I used to love — but when I wear one of my grandpa’s worn out sweatshirts, it only makes me smile.
In the last year, every time I saw him or talked on the phone, he’d taken to reminding me of my singleness. “Now Hannah, I just want you to know, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’ll never see you get married,” he’d say. “I’m just glad I got to see you graduate, twice.”
I’m glad, too. In the midst of what feels like surprising grief, I am holding onto the memories my grandpa and I do have together — along with his laugh captured in old pictures, and the stories all the people who love him have shared in recent days.
Several friends have sent condolences, expressing sorrow that I lost my grandpa during what is already such a difficult time. It’s true — every day over the last week has felt heavy with the weight of grief; my individual sense of loss weaving with the collective loss and brokenness so pervasive in the world around us. That brokenness certainly bled over into my family’s life: my grandma was heavyhearted that she couldn’t throw my grandpa the “celebration of life” he deserved due to COVID-19. And though I love and respect my grandpa deeply, the disagreements we did have — mostly political — were very painful to me. Navigating the complexity of grief is hard at any time, but I’m realizing that navigating it now offers a small gift: space to grieve openly and with others, if over different things.
This past weekend, my family held a small funeral for my grandpa, and gathered together wearing masks, never truly hugging. I cried throughout the weekend, a lot. One day, my grandma was talking to my grandpa while looking up at her mistletoe decoration. My Aunt Carla jokingly asked, “Is Daddy up there?” My grandma, pausing for a moment, smiled and said, “Well, no, I just talk to him anywhere.” She then told us the story of how he died, for at least the third time, and that his last words were “I love you.” I cried more.
I am a Christian, so I believe in the resurrection of the dead, and hope for the day that all will be made right — from the broken world and systems around me to the death of my grandpa. But today, that hope doesn’t necessarily shrink my grief or stop my tears. When I saw my grandpa’s armchair — where he spent most of his time as his health sharply declined the last few months — empty, or occupied by another, or looked at his makeup-laden face in his casket, I couldn’t immediately call to mind the vision of a new heaven and a new earth.
I just missed him.
Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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