I am convinced that it is a much better thing to know someone is dying than for it to be a surprise — though I’m less sure that this is the case in the first person rather than the second or third. My Grandfather’s decreasing health was a familial reality for a number of years, and at one point he and my Aunt decided that it was time for him to move from his small apartment in Michigan to live with her in North Carolina. Supported by an understanding workplace and her own angelic character, she was able to care for him in for the last years of his life in a manner saturated with serenity, dignity, and love.
As we knew the end was drawing near, my Dad and I planned to go and visit him. My Dad was himself recently out of the dramatic hospital stay that inspired Another American Childhood, so it felt like an appropriate time to go on such a visit, wreathed in a feeling of uncertainty regarding anyone’s health and the wobbliness of the days and hours stretched in front of us.
We stayed a few days. My Grandfather was comfortably supported with medication and a group of friends who had encircled him during his time in Raleigh. It was March of 2011. He primarily sat in a recliner in my Aunt’s living room, dozing in and out and chatting with us when he was awake. I started writing this poem during one of his naps.
We flew in on Friday and back out again early Sunday morning. I can still hear him saying goodbye as I closed the door behind me the morning we left, before dawn, to catch the plane back home. “Goodbye, Rog.” As his name, my Dad’s name, and my name are all Roger, I don’t know if he was saying goodbye to me or my Dad specifically, but I did know it would be the last time I would hear him say our name, and the thought of it left me unable to reply. A couple of days later, he joined my Grandmother in whatever it is that comes next.
Because it happened so quickly after our departure, it became easy to interpret the timing of his passing in a way that suggested he had waited for our visit, either holding on tighter to the rope of life in the days that lead up to it or letting it slip between his fingers shortly after. It is a compelling thought and one that is, selfishly, emotionally appealing. Regardless of its truthfulness, it was an utter relief that we were able to see him one last time; such an amazing, peaceful relief. I’ll never forget it.
In a random way, I had been listening to Ingrid Michaelson’s Everybody album every dark morning that winter as I drove into work. The song “Men of Snow” became associated with my Grandfather and has been paired in my memory with the beautifully haunting music Howard Blake wrote for the animated version of Raymond Briggs’s The Snowman, another snowman who had, too soon, “gone and melted all away.”
Here’s Mr. Schmitt’s note regarding this timeless photo:
Before our first child was born in June 2011, my wife and I decided to go on one last travel adventure. Spending the holidays in the Galapagos Islands was one the best memories I’ve had in my 36 years. There is nothing quite like sitting on the beach next to sea lions celebrating Christmas. During our trip, we also had the good fortune to visit the Ecuadorian capital of Quito. What most people don’t know about Quito is that it is the second highest capital city in the world. To put it in perspective, Kathmandu, Nepal, is at an elevation of 4,865 ft., while Quito is at 9,350 ft. The crown jewel of Quito is the Basílica del Voto Nacional, which is the largest neogothic basilica in the Americas. It was very hard to get a photo of the church as the entire city is covered in clouds. Fortunately, just as I was leaving, the clouds opened up and I was able to snap this photo.