Sunday, October 4, 2015

All the days of his life

Isaiah's full name is Isaiah Andrew Stanley. The Andrew is for my grandfather on my mom's side (we call him opa). So when, two weeks ago, opa was moved to hospice care, Isaiah and I made a trip to Michigan for the two to meet.

On the plane ride, I sit between a man wearing a large African dress that spills brilliant purple into my lap, and an elderly lady who needs helping getting her snacks from her bag under the seat. She drops her ziplock bag of grapes, and I juggle a sleeping Isaiah to pick them up, then escort her to the bathroom when she admits she cant walk without help. She tells me she has only known one other Isaiah in her life: her great-nephew, who had a heart transplant at three years old. I sit wedged as the plane dips towards Chicago, thinking about life, about death, about coincidences, and about the unexpected trip Isaiah and I are taking together.

After landing in Chicago, my sister (Emma) and I drive the three hours (four and half with traffic) to Grand Rapids, where we collapse exhausted in a hotel. We go out for breakfast while my mom meets with the hospice nurses, mapping end-of-life plans. She calls us and says opa can see us now, but only for a few minutes: he is tired.

The hallway to opa's room stretches long, smelling vaguely of french fries and apple juice. I am nervous, unsure what to except. The whole trip feels like a flash of deja vu from when we brought tiny Jayci to meet opa's wife (oma) when she was moved to hospice in this very space seven years ago. His apartment is the last one at the end of the long hall. Most of the doors are festooned in fall wreaths, but opa's remains unadorned aside from a gray plate announcing his name.

His room hasn't changed much. There's a hospital bed in his bedroom. A large whirring oxygen tank and cannula in his nose, reminding me of the days after Caden's surgery. My sister has to keep reminding me not to step on the small oxygen tube snaking across the room. Piles of books top every surface, mostly serious and spiritual. I notice one by Nouwen on the top of the stack on the coffee table.

The room is warm, and Isaiah fusses so I make him a bottle, while opa points out that I'm much more relaxed with this baby than I was with my last two. We laugh and lean down for hugs, and I'm unsure of the right protocol for talking to someone on the fringes between this life and the next.

I think of the thin places at the beginning and end of a life. When the room seems both astonishingly ordinary and somehow holy. Those first anguished moments of Isaiah's life, pushed and pulled from me with sobs while Adam presses an icy washcloth to my forehead and feeds me ice chips. And these moments here in this room, when the end is perhaps not imminent, but never far.

I am not afraid, opa says, but I am curious.

I finish feeding Isaiah and burp him softly before settling him into opa's arms. He stares up at his great-grandfather with wide unblinking eyes. My sister and I settle ourselves cross-legged on the floor at opa's feet. We watch as he lays his hand across Isaiah's forehead and prays in a wobbly voice that the Lord would bless his life. I cry, of course, trying to contain myself so tears dribble quietly down my cheek rather than dissolving into sniffles or sobs.

Emma tells him about her new job in Chicago, where she works at a bakery. And one day a week she mills wheat into flour to make bread. When he was a boy in Holland during the war, opa tells us haltingly between gulped breaths, his dad bought a bag of wheat for an exorbitant amount. When his mom expressed her disbelief and disapproval, his father said: you can't eat money. He and his brother were tasked with milling the wheat into flour using a coffee grinder.

He asks about Emma's boyfriend, a butcher, and tells us about the various jobs he had at meat packing plants. I take Isaiah back when he squirms, and my mom cuts up one of Emma's croissants and lays the bowl of tiny pieces in opa's lap. I sweat a little in the warm room, and opa closes his eyes until I wonder if he's fallen asleep. But then he opens them again and asks me about the boys - about Zack, whom he has met: Zack told me opa reminded him of the old man from the movie Up. I catch him up to date, and he says in a breathy whisper: you wonder if even God can save them.

I shake my head, though I've thought the same thing myself before of course.
I stretch my sore legs out on the floor, wondering about this life, the things opa has seen and done. The ways that life has stretched and surprised him, and the ways he has been hurt and alternately surprised by the joy of unexpectedly staring into the eyes of another great-grandson. And I hope that my littlest one, who sleeps contented in my arms at opa's feet, might know the grace and curiosity of a life well-lived. That he will have the kind of faith that holds enough space for doubt without fear. And that, like his namesake, he might faithfully follow and seek the Lord for all the days of his life.

This is day two in a 31 day series Finding the Pretty in the Gritty. Each day this month, I'll be writing on how I am finding pretty, even when things are gritty. Click here for a list of all the posts in the series. Or if you want to make sure you don't miss a day, feel free to subscribe (link on the right).


  1. This is a wonderful post ! Those pictures are precious and such a wonderful thing to have in later years to show him is namesake !

  2. I usually read your blog from my email on my phone, therefore I have little access to comment. However, today I had to log in to do so. Your words are always incredible (yes always) but today they brought tears to my eyes in a special and beautiful way. Thank you for sharing some of Opa's last moments with us. Thank you for sharing the highs and lows of your amazing life. Your humility and humanness are so evident. Thank you for transparency. And today, thank you for bringing to my remembrance my own grandparent hospice experience that I so often want to and desperately try to forget, yet realize today that it was beautiful in it's own way.

  3. I just love how you write, almost always your words strike my heart and bring about tears. I love you sweet friend.

  4. I so love your heart, Becca, and I adore this series.

  5. Oh man, you are Dutch and Canadian and a heart kid mom? I knew about the last two but not about the first! We are the same! Though I was born there and my Opas and Omas all lived in Holland and so I only saw them every few years... This was a great post - I like how Opa said he is curious, not scared. Kind of how I am about death too... which is weird to say when you are still in your 30s! Love your gorgeous little man with such a classic name.
    p.s. we had our two-year heart check-up today and got the all clear for another 2 years :) Knew you'd "get" that kind of news.


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