It was the second week of college. High school was over, and I was ready to begin a new stage in my life. No longer would I be bound by rules that my parents established, but I would be the one responsible for myself. I was determined to learn and make something of this opportunity. I was just settling into my new life when my father called. I had no idea that this second week would be the end of one thing and the start of something new, a commencement totally unrelated to academics.
My grandmother was in the hospital. She had fallen the night before and was unable to get up. Her strength had failed her. Within days, she was in the intensive care unit and on a ventilator. She was tied to the bed. Her hands were wrapped in gloves so she could not do damage to herself. She fell into a coma. We were told we were going to lose her. We were in a separate room, gathered in a circle, holding hands with my grandfather who was beside me weeping openly. It was then that I offered a prayer up to God. I asked Him to be with my grandma in that hospital room. I asked Him to give her strength and comfort. I asked Him to save her, to let her live. My grandfather hugged me and thanked me for those words. We waited.
As long as I can remember, my grandparents have always been the biggest influences in my life. I tried my best to emulate their character. My grandfather told me how much he admired his own grandfather. "My goal in life was to be half as good as he was," my grandfather would say. All my life, my goal too was to be like my grandfather; however, I could not possibly hope for being “half as good.” As men go, he is the greatest I have ever known. Selfishness is a foreign idea to him. I have never seen him angry. He is totally dedicated to love for his family and devotion to God. More than anyone else, my grandparents have taught me how to live. They taught me principle. They taught me the Golden Rule. But despite all those teachings, I was unprepared for what life would be like in the years after that second week of college.
My grandmother recovered. She did not die. She was saved just as I had asked God to do. We were all ecstatic, but we quickly learned that “recovered” was too strong a word. She would never walk on her own again. She would never eat food again— she had a feeding tube to do that for her. Her physical strength was almost completely gone. She was in the ICU for three months and returned home just in time to watch all of us celebrate Thanksgiving, eating all of the food that she would never taste again.
My grandfather adamantly refused to admit his wife into a nursing home. “I’ll take care of her,” he said. And he did. For the next year and a half, he cared for his wife, doing for her all the things she could no longer do on her own. He bathed her; he carried her; he never stopped loving her. He would rise half a dozen times or more at night to care for her. No matter how tired he was, he never rolled over to go back to sleep. My grandmother was now an invalid who depended on others, but she never totally understood just how helpless she was. We all helped out when we could, but it was my seventy-seven year old grandfather who did most of the work.
My grandfather cared for his wife because she could no longer care for herself. He carried her wherever she wanted to go. He would strain to lift her out of her chair. He would walk beside her as she leaned upon both her walker and her husband for support. He never let go. He never walked away. He never stopped doing the things that he knew had to be done. No matter how hard it was, my grandfather never stopped. He never tired. He gave her the medicines she hated to take. He gave her the yellow liquid tube-feeding that kept her alive. He took her to her weekly hair appointments because she absolutely refused to cancel them. He did everything. He lived twice as much so that she would still feel like living. For him, there was no other choice. He would rather collapse from exhaustion than see his wife slip away. And then, one day, he did.
Half way through my second year of college, I got another phone call. This time, it was my grandfather who was in the hospital. He had worn himself out. I walked into that hospital room and saw a man I had never seen before. He was thinner, and his face was sunken. He stuttered. He was hallucinating. He was weak. He had never been weak. He was the strongest man I knew. More than that, his resolve had left him. “I can’t do it anymore,” he said. Taking care of his wife had been too much for him. He was in the hospital for several weeks. During that time, my grandmother stayed at my mother’s house a few nights. After the second night, my mother told me, “I don’t know how he did this.” After two days and two nights, my mother was already exasperated and needed a break from caring for her mother. Two days. And my grandfather, a man thirty years older than her, had done it for a year and a half. I still do not know how he did it, but he did. He was that strong, but now it was someone else’s turn to be strong. He had done enough.
The family took over, and we did what we should have done a long time ago. From then on, someone would always be with my grandparents to help and offer love and support. During the days, someone would be there from our family. More than anyone else, it was my mother. She did the brunt of the work. During the nights, we hired caregivers to come to their home and take care of my grandmother while my grandfather got the best sleep he had in years. Nursing homes were still out of the question for now. My grandfather still would not hear of it. Maybe he wasn’t so weak after all.
My own commencement was not one where high school ended and college began. It was one where my grandparents stopped taking care of me and I began taking care of them. My duty is to stop my grandfather from worrying about all the things that consume his mind. My duty is also to my grandmother, doing for her the things that she can no longer do on her own. We go shopping. We go to the movies. We play euchre. The few times I am actually home, my time is with them. When I was younger, I would call them to make sure they got home fine. Now, I drive down with them. This is the way things are now. And, no doubt, another commencement still lies ahead. One where I will have to do something that seems impossible now — learn to say good-bye.
Jason Stevens is a junior from Massillon, Ohio, majoring in Political Science and History.