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.