Twenty-five years ago today, my Grandpa Leo died unexpectedly. I took a non-fiction writing class my junior or senior year of college and wrote an essay about his death from my perspective. It’s a little lengthy and I actually haven’t even reread it since I wrote it, but I will tell you that I got an A.
Everything Changed At Midnight
The door to my room opened slowly. The sound always woke me because it was how my dad would wake me up every morning for school. I pretended still to be asleep when he sat down on my bed. He touched my arm lightly. I rolled over and opened my eyes just a sliver. It was still dark outside, my eyes darted to my alarm clock. It was midnight.
I looked up at my father and saw bloodshot eyes and shaky hands. Softly he asked that I go into my brother’s room. I crawled out of bed, grasped my father’s callused hand and walked slowly into the hallway. My parent’s bedroom light was on and suitcases were lying open on their bed. I could see the reflection of the kitchen light on the wall and a very dim light coming from the living room. It was at this time I began to wonder where my mother was. Fear suddenly welled up inside of me. I got that nervous feeling in my stomach. The feeling you get right before you have to give a speech.
We entered my brother’s room. Dad didn’t turn on the light, the street light shown through the window and lighted the room sufficiently. I sat on my older brother, Dan’s bed which caused him to shift in his sleep. He was a much heavier sleeper than I and needed to be shaken softly to be awakened from his slumber. It was then that my father told us why he had woken us up at midnight on July 8th in the middle of our summer vacation.
“Grandpa Leo died,” he said.
“Are you O.K.?” he asked.
My mind was racing. Where was my mom? Was she O.K.? Why wasn’t she here with the rest of the family right now? I had to go and find her.
“We’re leaving to go to Iowa City tonight. Do you both think you can pack a bag?”
I nodded my head and got up to return to my room. Once again I stopped in the hallway and looked down towards the kitchen and the living room. Was my mom down there? I crept down the hall til I had full view of the kitchen. The bright light hurt my eyes and made them tear up. Through blurry vision I scanned the kitchen, no Mom. I heard a light sob in the living room and peeked around the corner. There was my mom, sitting in a chair, hunched over and sobbing. She didn’t have her glasses on and her eyes were puffy from crying. I stood in my secluded spot watching her. I had never seen her cry before.
I didn’t feel like I would be welcome in the living room at that time. Or maybe I was just afraid to go in and sit with her. I walked back to my bedroom and found my little suitcase that I took with me on trips. I filled it with shorts, T-shirts, underwear, socks and a couple pair of shoes and a few of my favorite stuffed animals. Then I realized that I would have to wear something nice to the funeral. I grabbed my favorite skirt and shirt and squeezed them into the suitcase.
I went into my parent’s room to tell my dad that I was ready to go, but he wasn’t there. Once again I snuck down the hallway to the living room to find a husband comforting his wife. I didn’t see my parents in their normal everyday behavior, joking and laughing. I saw a distraught woman being consoled by a man who loved her. I again didn’t feel like I belonged in the room with them. Not because I was afraid, but because it was more beautiful to see the love between the two of them.
I walked out to the garage with my suitcase and hoisted it into the back of the car. I stood outside for a minute and looked up at the stars. Was he up there? Could Grandpa see me? I didn’t know. Death confused me at that young age.
The next thing I knew, the car was fully packed and my dad was escorting my mom to the passenger side of the car. My mom passed me and caressed her hand on my cheek. I climbed into the back of the car and laid down. My brother was already in there and looked like he was sleeping again. I could see my mother’s profile from the back seat. I laid and watched her. I felt I had to protect her, how I didn’t know and from what I didn’t know.
We had a long trip ahead of us. We lived 200 miles west of Iowa City. It was a trip that we took often and I was used to the drive. My parents would joke about how I was always “out like a light” 5 miles out of Carroll, where we lived at the time. This trip was different. I couldn’t sleep. I tried to let the motion of the car put me to sleep, but to no avail. Instead, I stood guard, watching my mom.
The four hour ride wasn’t like any trip to Iowa City I had ever taken. What was usually filled with my brother and I fighting over space in the back seat, his threats to throw my favorite belongings out of the window, my parent’s warnings from the front seats, and background music was filled with a deafening silence. I could hear the tires rumbling under me and the sound of every passing car.
As we got closer to Iowa City, the sky was beginning to take on a purplish hue. The sun was soon going to rise and start a new day. What the new day would entail, I didn’t know.
We arrived at my grandparent’s house at 5:00am. Normally, we would all still be sleeping, but instead the house was full of my relatives. My mom hurriedly got out of the car and ran inside. My father, brother and I stayed behind and grabbed some bags to take in. When we entered into the house, the first thing I saw, besides the people, were my grandpa’s shoes. The big black wing-tips that he wore every day. They were a little scuffed on the toes and a slight film of dirt coated them. I wondered how long those shoes would be there.
My brother and I shared a small bedroom whenever we stayed at my grandparent’s house. I was told to take the bags back to our room. As I got closer to our room, I could see that the door was closed. That door was never closed. The first thought that jumped into my head was that my grandfather was in there. He was lying on the bed that I was to sleep in that night. As I said before, I was naive when it came to death. I put the bags outside of the door and ran back to the kitchen.
I sat down at the table and listened to my grandma explain to my mom what had happened.
“It was around 11:30 and all of a sudden, Leo sat up in bed, coughed loudly and fell back down. I tried to wake him after that and he wouldn’t move. I called 911 and the God damn fire trucks got here before the ambulance and they even seemed to take hours to get here! I was hysterical trying to wake him, he wouldn’t move. They took him to the hospital and pronounced him dead on arrival. He had a massive heart attack. They said his heart basically exploded and there was nothing they could do.”
The anniversary of my grandfather’s death was this last July. It had been 10 years. Since his death, my mother, father, brother and I had all moved to Iowa City. I have lived here since I was 16 years old and wasn’t until recently that I went to the cemetery to visit his grave.
I got out of my car and began to walk through the rows and rows of tombstones. I was with my grandmother when she picked out my grandpa’s stone. I was thinking of that. They told her it had to be flat because of the location of his grave site. I hadn’t been to the grave for many years and I wasn’t positive that I could find it. I was watching the ground to make sure not to step on the graves of anyone else. I was scanning the names on the stones trying to find Evans. I walked straight up to it.
I knelt down and brushed off the old dead grass and leaves that had accumulated since the last visitor had been there. I sat down and told my grandpa that I was making a memory book of him for a class I was taking, among other things. I looked around and found a stray flower arrangement lying on the ground nearby. I went and picked it up and placed it neatly in the granite vase. I said my good-byes and made my way back to my car.
On the way back, still watching to make sure I didn’t step in the wrong spot, I found something that I believe was a gift from my grandfather. I found a one dollar bill. My grandpa was always giving my brother and I money and candy against my parent’s wishes. I picked up the dollar and put in in the pocket of my jeans. I turned around one last time before I reached the car, just to see if anyone was there.
I am so glad I wrote this paper 15 years ago. I would have never remembered all of the details that happened that night. I am also really amazed at the different emotions it evokes in me now that I am a mother. I can still feel the feelings of that 10 year old version of me as well as that 20 year old version of me in the cemetery.
I miss my grandpa a lot – he was a great man and I am thankful that I got to spend 10 years with him. I still have that dollar bill.