I Said Goodbye to a Great Man

It’s that time of year again when my mind goes back to December of 2003, exactly nineteen years ago now, when I had one of the most profound experiences of my life. 

A bit earlier in that year, in May of 2003 to be exact, my maternal grandfather, a real-life cowboy and a man I called “Pawpaw,” fell seriously ill.  He was eighty-six years old at the time.

His condition deteriorated rapidly.  At first, they put him on a walker and then tested him for just about every sort of sickness under the sun.  The results were inconclusive.  Many of us in the family had our private theories about what was taking place.  Most of us felt like he was finally “played out,” a phrase Pawpaw liked to use to describe anything that was either entirely broken or nearing the end of its usefulness.  In fact, during a moment of candor between us, Pawpaw said, looking me straight in the eyes as he spoke, “Cowboy, I’m just played out.  That’s it.  Just played out.”

I probably should mention that my grandfather periodically referred to me as “Cowboy,” even when I was a grown man. 

By early November, they put him on Hospice care and moved a bunch of medical equipment—a hospital-style bed and a special toilet and the like—into the farmhouse he and my grandmother, my “Memaw,” lived in.

It just so happened that all of this was taking place during one of my short visits home to Texas.  Pawpaw’s illness occurred in the middle of a twenty-year period when I lived abroad, in various locales in Europe, Asia, and Africa.  It was a bittersweet period of my life.  I was at home again, around loved ones during the holidays, but this meant I was near enough to watch my beloved grandfather, the man who’d always been there for me, even as my parents’ rocky marriage ended and I felt lost and bewildered as a result, go rapidly downhill while we all felt utterly powerless to change the course of these events.

One cold December evening about two weeks before Christmas, at around 9 p.m., my mother and I—I was staying with her in a town about an hour away from where Pawpaw and Memaw lived—received a telephone call.  Cindy, my cousin—the registered nurse—was on the other end of the line.  She informed us that Pawpaw had taken a sudden turn for the worst and advised us to come immediately if we wanted to say goodbye to him before he passed.

My mom and I jumped in her car and drove like crazy people across a dark and remote part of West Texas.  We were terrified as we went because it was a moonless evening and that time of the year when deer were out on the roads and causing hazards for drivers.  The last thing we wanted was to hit one of those leggy beasts as we flew down the highway.

When we got to the house, we went straight to Pawpaw’s bedroom.  The first thing I noticed is how small he’d gotten.  I’d seen him about a week earlier, and in those seven days, his body seemed to have shrunk so much that he looked like a boy even though he’d always been a large, muscular man.  It occurred to me that he was already in the process of disappearing.

His bedroom was filled with several family members, including Memaw, my uncle, two cousins, my mom, and a couple of other folks.  We looked down on him.  He was unconscious and seemed asleep.  In fact, he was snoring, and I would have sworn that he was simply taking a nap.

Memaw looked up at me through teary eyes and said, “Troy, why don’t you pull up a chair and sit down and hold his hand.”  So, I did.  It felt strange to be touching him like that.  A few seconds later, the dam broke, and I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed.  It was the most soulful sort of crying.  It felt like it came from a place inside me I rarely have access to.  I knew, in my heart of hearts, that I was in the process of saying goodbye and these were his very last moments.

My cousin, the nurse, had a stethoscope around her neck and she kept noticing little changes in his breathing.  She was playing her role as explainer to the rest of us.  At one point she said, “He doesn’t have a lot longer.”

We all sat down and moved closer.  His breathing was getting shallower and shallower.  Soon, he stopped taking in air and we all held our breath too.  Then, after a few seconds, he started inhaling and exhaling again, much to our amazement.  He did this twice more.  On the third time, he seemingly held his breath, as if he might be swimming and about to take a dive under the surface of the water, but he never started breathing again.  It was over.

But my grandmother wasn’t ready to let him go.  In fact, she squeezed her husband’s hand in an attempt to get him to wake up.  My uncle, her son, a cowboy himself, quietly said, “Mother, let him rest.”

We all sat with him for maybe half an hour and then moved out of his room.  I found a quiet spot and tried to make sense of what I’d just witnessed.

All that happened nineteen years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday.  Over the years, I have spent many hours thinking about what that experience has meant to me.  My conclusion:  It’s meant more than I can put into words.

I do know this.  From watching my grandfather take his last breath, I learned to try every day to be a better person.  If I can succeed in greatly improving myself, I might just end up being half the man my Pawpaw was.

32 thoughts on “I Said Goodbye to a Great Man

  1. Dear Troy,

    When you write from the heart, you always “get” me. Tears, damn it, tears. Your grandfather would be most proud of you–I know it–still.

    1. Thank you, Art. That means so much to me coming from you. Believe it or not, tears welled up in my eyes while I was rereading this. Life is so beautiful and so terrifying sad at the same time. I miss my grandfather and grandmother greatly and would give anything to have one more conversation with each one of them. Tell me, how do we keep going on when all the really wonderful people in our lives keep slowly and inexorably disappearing?

      1. You’re welcome, Troy. I believe it, what you shared about the tears. Yes, the conditions of life can be beautiful and terrifying–I agree. I, too, have conversations that I would like to have in person; but I feel that I can still speak the words that are in my heart, and that they will be “heard/felt.”
        Learning to live with “apparent” loss (I know it will seem very odd to put quotation marks around apparent) has definitely been a journey–beginning with the passing of my father’s body-mind when I was sixteen. My career, too, as a paramedic involved the witinessing of uncountable persons dying.

        Awakening to our true Self involves processing all of these circumstances very differently. It’s not better, just very different. For me, I see the real Self as the silent witness that watches the passing of our “conceptual” selves of name and form. It is the same “I Am” that is at the heart of all of us. This is why I am so incredibly passionate about offering pointers so that Beings will experience it directly. We can do this NOW.
        The “thought” of who we are is not true Self.
        Sending kind wishes and blessings to you and your family,

    1. Thank you for the kind words. I felt very touched while writing it. Putting it all down on paper took me back–back to that evening so long ago. Thinking about it even now, I feel profoundly sad.

  2. This was lovely and powerful: “But my grandmother wasn’t ready to let him go. In fact, she squeezed her husband’s hand in an attempt to get him to wake up. My uncle, her son, a cowboy himself, quietly said, “Mother, let him rest.”
    Let him rest. Three little words that are very moving, Troy – thank you for sharing. ❤

    1. Thank you, Victoria. I’m happy to have shared it; though, it brought back some sad memories. I hope you’ve been well. If I don’t speak to you again, I hope you have a wonderful holiday season.

  3. A wonderfully clear description of one of our most powerful experiences: observing and feeling the death of another that somehow makes every subsequent day more meaningful. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting. And thanks for the kind words. It means a lot coming from a person who’s written and published as much as you have. (I had a look at your sites.) By the way, you describe yourself as a former educator. If you don’t mind my asking, what did you teach?

      1. Hi Troy—don’t mind at all—middle level and upper level biology, and then I did curriculum & assessment development, followed by a high school principalship, and ending up on the dark side: a state dept of education bureaucrat! Are you an educator?

  4. Oh wow, I’m holding back my own tears now. The post is great, as always, but you could also be describing my own situation to a tee. The grandfather who was a rock when life was chaotic at home. The time of year (my grandpa passed away last year on Christmas Day). Seeing the changes taking place in a “now” frail body. And sitting by his bedside, just as you described. Thank you for sharing a beautiful post – one made all the better for reminding me of Papa Wayne.

    1. It seems that we’ve had a very similar experience. I bet your Papa Wayne was as a great an influence on you and your life as was my Pawpaw on me and my life. It was certainly hard (but cathartic) to write this. I had to fight back tears a few times myself. Thanks for reading and sharing your story.

  5. Thank you for sharing such a personal and heart-felt story Troy. It’s always difficult to lose those closest to us, but as you said, being with them to share those last few moments is so precious. Such bittersweet memories. Your writing brought back memories of my grandmother

    1. I’m so happy my writing helped remind you of your grandfather. Some of us are blessed to have been around really good people during our formative years. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    1. Hi, Cheryl. Losing a husband must have been so hard. I’ve had my share of hardships, but losing a spouse isn’t on that list. I hope you are doing well and that you have a wonderful holiday season. Thanks for reading and talking about your own loss.

  6. You got me all choked up Troy. Beautiful post. Thank you for sharing this. I often think the closer we are to death the closer we are to life.

    1. The real mystery is how my grandfather went from living and breathing human to utterly gone and a mere “shell” in just a second. What must that transition moment be like? There’s no greater feeling of powerlessness than sitting at the bedside of someone who “going away” forever. You want to say everything to them so they know how much they meant. Thanks for the kinds words. For what’s it worth, I also choked up a bit writing this.

    1. I have to admit that I had tears coming to my eyes while I was writing this. Putting the words down brought the scene back to me very vividly and powerfully. It was one of the saddest (yet most important) experiences of my life. Thanks for reading.

    1. Thank you for the nice comment. I guess we were both very lucky to have known such wonderful people. Without my grandparents’ support and encouragement, I don’t know where I would be today. I bet your grandparents were great people too.

    1. I’m so sorry that politics separated you from your grandparents. There are interesting things happening in Iran today. I wish the people of Iran all the best. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  7. I just lost my father a 96 year old cowboy to ALS this last September. Your heartfelt words echo mine. Sorry for your loss. Although mine was much more recent than yours, the pain of loss is always there. May God’s peace comfort us both.

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