Last Monday, I awoke to a text on my phone: “doc passed away”. I can’t say that I was shocked, sad or that I felt anything other than a tight, heavy ball in my stomach for the people his passing would affect. Namely, my stepmother – she is the only immediate family member surviving. (There are other family members surviving, but they were not ever a part of our lives.)
To be clear, Doc is my stepmother’s father, so technically my stepgrandfather. To my knowledge he only has one biological grandchild (whom I don’t believe I’ve ever met); there is one other stepgrandchild besides myself and my sister, but I don’t believe we’ve ever met him, either.
Are you beginning to understand the title yet?
Doc was born in 1927 in the very same area he passed away in, served in the Army in the Korean War and operated a dump truck for a paving company. He had two children, my stepmother and her brother who passed away at the age of 48 in 2008 from cancer – eight years after Doc’s wife passed away from breast cancer. That’s the gist of how much I know about my stepgrandfather.
My stepmother never had any children and I can count on one hand how many times we ever saw her family. They were never around, we never went around and quite frankly I don’t believe there was ever any interest from them to have a relationship with us.
Five years ago, Doc was admitted to the hospital for pneumonia and an UTI where they diagnosed him with kidney failure; he was given a year to live. After a short time in a nursing home, my dad and stepmom brought him to live with them for his remaining time. I was brought in to prepare him meals three days a week, three times a day – something I continued to do for the past five years even after becoming pregnant and having a child.
A year so ago, Doc began to slowly decline and I was asked to stay with him five hours a day, three days a week in case he fell while my stepmom was at work. While we were on a long weekend vacation in OBX this past November, Doc DID fall (while my Dad and stepmom were home) and he was admitted to the hospital and they determined his condition was deteriorating further and he really needed someone to be with him at all times. From November to mid March, I was staying with him from 8am to 5pm, three days a week; after five years of caring for him, I only stopped because of COVID-19.
In those five years for three days a week, I was around him more than I ever had been in 16 years that my dad and stepmom had been married. (Doc did not even come to their wedding – not out of spite or disapproval, just that he never did anything.) He would make small talk with me, but he never seemed to be interested in developing a relationship.
The plan was always for my stepmom to take medical leave once Doc got to an end of life stage. I had to force her hand to start medical leave by declining to continue to watch Doc through a pandemic. She ended up taking off three weeks and then having my sister start to watch him; my sister took care of him one day and that night he was admitted to the hospital again where they told her that he would likely not last the week.
Less than one week later, he passed away in his sleep.
Due to the pandemic there was no viewing, no formal service, no family meal – just a brief graveside service with 10 people in attendance. I was unable to go due to Jeremy being back at work that week and Elias was napping; my sister streamed me the service from her vehicle.
On Tuesday, we took Elias to visit Docs’ grave; it was the most sadness I felt since his passing. I told him we were going to see Doc and he immediately said “Doc, lunch, plate. There you go, Doc.” Although we hadn’t watched Doc in over a month, he absolutely remembered Doc and our routine. When we got to the cemetery I explained that Doc was gone and that this is where he is now. We picked a flower for his grave and had a moment of silence.
As we were getting ready to leave, Elias turned towards the parking lot, waved his arm behind him and yelled “bye, Doc” and continued to do so until we reached the gate. It was totally unprompted, completely unexpected and unarguable proof that he understood and accepted that this was where Doc was now. And it broke my heart.
We said goodbye to a man we never really knew. Someone who could’ve been a part of our lives in another time, another reality. Someone who could’ve shared with us, laughed with us, been there for us. But “it does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live”.