When my Dad died in 1989, I didn’t find out about it until hours after the fact. It happened suddenly — he suffered an abdominal aneurysm and quickly bled to death internally — and I was out of town at the time.
My mom didn’t have a cell phone that she could call me from in the ambulance that took Dad to the hospital. They were still uncommon then and obnoxiously large and expensive. I was in a car with a friend and his father, less than 70 miles from home, but essentially unreachable.
Today, I live in Beijing, a world away from my family in the United States. Yet as my Grandpa, stricken with final stage Parkinson’s disease, enters the final days or hours of his life, I’m receiving texts and emails every few hours about his condition. My aunts are uploading on Facebook pictures of relatives by Grandpa’s bedside, kissing his face, holding his hand and playing guitar.
Grandpa has stopped eating, and the hospice nurses say he can no longer see. He can no longer talk, but is still able to hear. Family is at his side 24 hours a day, with my mother and brother Billy working the overnight shift. Yesterday, Billy asked whether there was anything I wanted to tell Grandpa.
I texted Billy a response.
“Tell him I’m thinking about him a lot, and that I love him. Tell him I appreciate everything he’s done for me, and that I’m going to continue to work hard, because I know he would want me to. Let him know that you and I are going to continue to look out for our family, that we are strong and will do a good job.”
Strong is the first word that comes to my mind when I think of grandpa. Before Parkinson’s devastated his body, Edsel Beach was an imposing man. He had broad shoulders that made his 6-foot-3 frame look even larger than it was. Though he rarely got angry at his grandchildren, he didn’t have to say much to keep us in line if he did.
An independent drywaller, Grandpa worked into his late 70s, until he was physically no longer able to. He was drafted into the army during the Korean War, in the early 1950s, and stationed at a U.S. military base in Germany before being transferred to Chicago.
He married my Grandma in 1954, and they’ve been together ever since. They had five children, and when they were still young, Grandpa would take his family on 1,000-mile journeys from their home in Michigan all the way to California.
He hunted, fished and chopped wood to heat his home. Grandpa liked sitting in his favorite La-Z-Boy and eating freshly cracked walnuts. He preferred radio over television, and listened to Rush Limbaugh during the day and legendary broadcaster Ernie Harwell call Detroit Tigers baseball games at night. He had opinions, of course, but wasn’t one to judge or cast stones.
The last time I saw him in October, Grandpa, now 83, was a just a shell of his former self — too frail to stand on his own, though still able to hold a brief conversation. One evening, as my family gathered around their kitchen for dinner, Grandma asked for someone to sing grace.
To everyone’s surprise, Grandpa volunteered and began singing.
Day by day thy children
from our hands are fed
Father now we thank thee
for our daily bread
As of today, Grandpa hasn’t eaten in over a week. He’s receiving oxygen as well as morphine to dull the pain as much as possible. Most importantly, Grandpa is lying at home with family at his side.
Even though I can’t be there, the pictures and constant texts and calls from my family allow me to be with them in a way that wasn’t possible when my father died.