One day this past July, my dad and I were pulling out of the driveway to make a quick run for groceries. His phone rang, and he answered with his usual upbeat greeting. As I watched him react to what he was hearing on the other line, it didn’t take much to guess what sort of news he was receiving. He kept taking off and putting on his baseball cap, trying to find something to keep his free hand busy. Dad could barely get the words out: His father had developed an illness he wouldn’t be waking up from. I felt gutted. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this.
That night, my dad, oldest brother, and I loaded up the car and headed to Nashville to be with the rest of my dad’s family. Between the first two days at the hospital and the following five at the hospice, we spent seven days saying goodbye to one of the best men I’ll ever know. Most nights I was too afraid to fall asleep because of the possibility of what kind of phone call could wake me up. I held my breath every time I heard my dad or aunt’s phone ring.
We did nearly everything together that week: meals, shifts at the hospice, errands. None of us ever had to carry something out alone. If Grampy opened his eyes even a little, we all gathered around to let him know he was surrounded by love. Dinner outings turned into funeral-planning sessions. To call those meals “difficult” would be an understatement, but we had to honestly confront the reason we were all in Nashville in the first place. We weren’t OK, but we weren’t alone in this.
During that week, it struck me that I wasn’t used to having a reason for feeling so on edge. Anxiety and depression had become my twisted version of normal. They taught me to be content with living my life by two rules: Stay down in the cracks where nobody can see me and don’t leave behind any footprints. Anxiety tried to convince me that I was completely replaceable to my friends, especially when I saw photos on Facebook from their evenings spent on the beach while I was in a different state. Anxiety tried to downplay the fact that those very friends had been texting me throughout the week with prayers, offering to stay up with me on those particularly bad nights, and adamantly asking how I was dealing with the impending loss. Even when I would text one friend about something funny my grandmother said, she would respond with, “But how are you holding up?”
From the day I woke up at home only 24 hours after the funeral, any attempt I made at moving forward felt completely wrong. We’d spent seven days saying goodbye and had to leave for home immediately after the service. I was stressed about putting together the last few arrangements for the UChapters conference, especially since I was the only one from my school who was able to attend. Those ten days between arriving in Nashville and the funeral had worn me down. How could I return to my life when I hadn’t really left my grief behind in Tennessee?
The beginning of the conference marked exactly two weeks from when my brother and I walked out of our grandfather’s room at the hospice for the last time. Now there was only a quiet two-hour drive from home to Cape Canaveral. With my suitcase dropped off and my dad back on his way home, I had no choice but to enter the conference center.
One of the first things we discussed that day was the importance of community: “Community is where we are reminded of who we are because it can be so easy to forget.” Nearly every text I sent during those ten days was focused on updating my friends of what was going on with those around me, while nearly every text I received was asking about me, making sure I was OK. During that time, they reminded me who I was. They reminded me that I matter.
That weekend, I realized I didn’t have to fake it and keep my grief to myself. So during the final dinner, wearing the same dress I had worn eleven days earlier to the funeral, I took a chance on opening up to the group I’d recently befriended. The conversation at our table had turned to the subject of tattoos. Since returning home, I’d been turning over in my mind possibly getting Grampy’s signature tattooed on me some day in the future. I shared that, explaining how he’d passed just two weeks ago. This new little community of ours was thoughtful and kind. They, along with the entire conference community, filled my heart back up to the brim. It was a weekend of honesty, growth, necessary lessons, and new friendships that I’ll never forget.
It’s going to sting every birthday that my grandfather isn’t singing off-key on the other end of the phone and asking when we’ll come up again to visit. There are going to be a lot of moments every Christmas where it’ll hurt to realize that we won’t have to shop for treats to fill his “Santa’s Hot Pants” stocking. But it’s OK if I feel that way sometimes. Seven days of saying goodbye to my grandfather were exhausting, but seeing how over a hundred people were impacted by his life to come to the visitation reminds me that I still have time; I don’t have to pull myself up out of the cracks on my own. I may not be OK in those moments, but his visitation and my weekend at the conference showed me that I’ll never have to face my grief or fears alone.