January 31st, 1989, sometime after 8:00 p.m., Sharon Hospital, Connecticut. I took my first breath of air on this planet that night, and I’ll have taken over 200,000,000 by Saturday, my 26th year of life.
September 25th, 2012, sometime shortly after 5:00 a.m., Sharon Hospital, Connecticut. My grandmother took her final breath on this planet that morning. She took over 700,000,000 breaths over her 91 years of life.
I’ve been lucky to have 26 healthy years, but I’ve been unlucky to have been plagued for the past 3+. I shared my time on this Earth with my grandmother for just under twenty-four years. I learned about life, listened before speaking, and grew up earlier than most. It’s taken me over three years to sit down now and tell her story, to sit down and tell our story. It won’t do her justice, or bring her back, nothing will, but I want to tell it.
My grandmother was always like a third parent to me. My parents would go to work or go out with friends and my two brothers, sister, and I would stay home with her. She was 68 years old when I was born, and 74 by the time my sister was born, but she was always up for the challenge. We lived in Pawling until I was four, moving to Dover Plains after that and living there for 13+ years until we were all older. When we moved, my grandmother came with us. She always lived with us, and I’m thankful for that. As I grew up, my relationship with my grandmother evolved, and she became my closest friend. We spoke for hours on end in the kitchen, from the time I was about ten until she passed. She liked to drink hot tea and eat toast, things that have become every day occurrences for me. We would talk about anything, the Yankees and Cowboys, which were her favorite sports teams, the weather, the neighbor’s antics, life. She taught me different card games and we would play them as we spoke. I look back and just remember asking her so many questions. I’ve always wanted to learn as much as possible, and I still do. I would listen to her speak, ask questions when I could, and take everything she said to heart. Sometimes we would be up until 11:00 at night or later just talking. She would fall asleep in the chair in our living room as I watched television so I would wait for her to wake up and keep talking more. Maybe she was annoyed with me sometimes, who knows.
As I entered high school we got closer. I would go to work with her over the summer in Pawling. She worked at the funeral home for years, and would take the train from Dover to Pawling and walk to the funeral home, which was probably a mile or so. I marveled at her ability to do this, and it was her routine year round, up until she was in her mid-80’s. One morning we couldn’t take the train because the lines were doing maintenance so they provided a bus instead. The bus didn’t stop at the train station though, instead making a different stop in town, so we walked to the funeral home from there. We were crossing this one intersection and my grandma (in her 80’s) tripped over a small pothole and fell to the ground, scraping her elbow. I immediately helped her up and we kept walking. She never let the small things affect her, life was too important and not worth “crying over spilt milk,” as she would often tell me.
Entering my junior year, talk of going to prom came up. I had a girlfriend at the time but the topic wasn’t urgent for us, so I didn’t really pay attention to it. A few weeks before the tickets went on sale, I asked her to prom and she said “yes.” I was excited and felt happy to be included in something that you get one chance at in your life, unless you go to prom with someone older or younger, but I don’t count that because it’s not your prom. I told my grandma and she was happy for me, as she always was, being my biggest supporter. She told me she would pay for it all, and didn’t hesitate in making that offer. She put me to work making the necessary phone calls to order my tuxedo and a corsage for Kayla. I was on the phone with the tuxedo rental company when my phone beeped to notify me that there was an incoming call. It was Kayla. She broke up with me during that phone call and I came back on the line with the salesman and said, “Never mind, my girlfriend just broke up with me, so I won’t be going to prom, thank you anyway sir.” My grandma said she would still pay for me to go, regardless of if it was alone or not, but I respectfully declined. I loved her kindness, and it’s one of the great traits I carry with me to this day. She went above and beyond for me and wanted nothing in return, and that to me is greatness.
I graduated high school on June 23rd, 2007. My parents were bringing my grandma to the ceremony and I was looking forward to it. I always wanted her to be at my functions. They had planned a graduation party for me at my house afterwards, so the day was shaping up to be a good one. I remember being in the first row and looking into the crowd, scanning to see where they were. When I located my parents I did not see my grandmother, wondering where she was. They told me after the ceremony was over that she was having issues with her hip, which hurt on occasion, and she didn’t want to slow them down with her walking, so she was waiting for me at home. I remember being sad in that moment, because I really wanted her to be there.
That graduation party is very memorable for me because someone there took a photo of my grandmother and I standing side by side outside in the yard. I believe this is the only photo of her and I taken in my adult life, all the rest are of me as a child. I have the only copy of that photo and it hangs above me on the visor of my truck, held there by a “Guardian Angel” visor clip that my grandmother gave me and made sure I always had in my car. It reads: “Never drive faster than your guardian angel can fly.” I didn’t know when she gave it to me that the guardian angel it refers to would be her in the future. To be honest I never pictured a day where I would have to exist without her. I still don’t, it’s difficult to grasp when I dwell on it.
I went away to college from 2009-2010, attending SUNY Oswego, which was about five hours from home, and when the car left my driveway I cried. I sat in the back seat and broke down to myself, because I would miss out on so many talks and moments with her. Upon arriving and moving in, and throughout the semester I made sure to call home often. My grandma and I spoke the longest out of everyone, that’s always how it was. I was glad to move back home after college and reclaim the moments I treasured most.
Life moves in mysterious ways and after a few years I was living on my own. I remained in contact with her and still visited on weekends often. I visited my parents house for my grandma’s 91st birthday on September 8th, 2012. It was crazy to me, 91 years I thought, and it was like she never changed. She was always the same person, physically and mentally. That night I showed up and my mom warned me that my grandma wasn’t herself, and was in poor health. I entered her room to find her laying in bed, very frail and weak. This wasn’t the person I knew, not by any means, and the transformation seemed like it had happened overnight. She could still speak and I made sure she knew I was there and wished her a happy birthday. Her spirits were high despite her physical condition. My mom told me later that night that on Monday, they would seek to get her some medical care, which they did.
My brother Ray and I went to the hospital that Monday, September 10th, to see how she was doing and learned she had a few minor issues and needed some intravenous fluids to get her back on her feet. She need nutrients that her diet didn’t give her and by mid-week when we visited again she was her old healthy self again. We brought her a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, which she loved, and we sat and laughed and talked with her for hours before leaving around 10:00 that night. The hospital told us that they would monitor her and think about releasing her shortly, perhaps during the following week, which made us happy.
I received phone call, I believe it was Thursday, September 20th or Friday the 21st from my aunt telling me that my grandmother had suffered from cardiac arrest and that she may not make it. I remember driving down route 9 in Wappingers, I had just left work and was driving at the time of the call, and I broke down in traffic. I remember it being bumper to bumper traffic and I was speeding and darting in and out of the lanes to get to her as fast as I could. I knew the drive was over an hour and I had one stop to make. I stopped at a red light and there was a young girl in her car in the next lane looking at me as I cried and I made eye contact with her, realizing she had noticed me but didn’t really care. I pulled into the car dealership that Ray worked at and with tears pouring from my eyes, told him what our aunt had told me, and told him to come to the hospital with me. He told me he couldn’t leave work so I went by myself. I got there to find her asleep in the hospital bed and the nurse asked me to sit in the waiting room for a second, she wanted to speak to me.
(I just found the actual date by looking at my Facebook wall to a post I wrote that day) It read: “September 21st: One doctor just spoke with me, telling me my grandmother is a strong woman. Her heart recovered and bounced back from cardiac arrest.” She went on to tell me while she had come out of it, if she slipped into cardiac arrest again, they may not be able to bring her back and would have to let her go. I remember saying out loud “I don’t want to hear this, I didn’t come here for that talk.” I went into her room and spoke to her some, finding it hard to find the words. I haven’t always been the best about opening up in person about my emotions, and this time was no different. I said “hello” and told her I wasn’t here to say goodbye to her, because she was going to beat this and walk out of that hospital one day soon. I thanked her for everything she had ever given me in life, the lessons, the hard talks, the knowledge, the love. This wasn’t an ordinary person in that hospital bed, to me this was my hero, and she was fighting, not giving up. I made it my goal to make sure my other siblings got to see her before she left, if in fact she was going to leave. My sister went with my parents that weekend and I brought my brother Matt with me to see her at the end of that weekend. I went back myself and fell asleep in the chair next to her bed. I felt that if I left, I would never see her again, so I spent every minute I could with her. I would speak to her sometimes and she would nod to me. She could hear me, but couldn’t say anything back. She was fighting.
I woke up on Tuesday, September 25th at a little past 5:00 in the morning to my phone ringing, it was my aunt calling. I didn’t pick up the phone. I had an idea as to why she might be calling, but refused to hear the words. The call ended and I laid there in bed, my mind was totally blank. My phone beeped to tell me I had a voicemail and I said “Nope, I’m not listening to it.” After another half hour or so I went out into the driveway and listened to the voicemail, and my worst fear became my reality. I still remember my aunt’s words as if they are being spoken to me now, “Your grandmother went into cardiac arrest this morning after 4:00 and they let her go.” I hung up and the burden of telling my family members was on me. I was the first one to know, and I didn’t break down in that moment, I had to hold it together for now. I called my parents’ house phone, and no one answered. I called my sister’s cell phone, no answer. I tried the house phone again, and my mother answered. I told her, and she began crying, she woke up my dad and brother Matt and told them. She said Megan had went to school and it would be best to tell her after she got out of school, so I agreed. Megan must have noticed the missed call shortly after because she texted me asking what was up, and I told her that I had something to tell her but wanted to wait until after school. She told me “Rob it’s ok to tell me now, I’ll be ok,” almost as if she knew, and she called me and I told her, both of us crying. One person remained, and I knew it was going to be the hardest discussion yet.
Since I had slept over Erin’s house that night, I still had to go home. I made arrangements to not work that day, drove home to where Ray and I lived, and just stood in the driveway for about three hours in a hoodie and jeans shooting a basketball through a hoop. I have no idea why I did this, and really didn’t put much thought into it other than doing it. My friend Joe, whose house it was, came outside and asked me what I was doing, I told him and he just left for work without asking me anything else. I finally went inside and sat on the couch for about twenty minutes, pondering how to tell Ray. Finally I walked down the hallway to his room, knocked on the door and said “Hey man, nan passed away shortly after 5:00 this morning” and walked back outside. Shortly after, Ray came out and left for work and we didn’t speak much that day. We’re much in the same, in times of crisis, we don’t say much.
It’s taken me over three years to write this, as I said earlier. I’ve drafted so many pieces in my head over those three years, never committing to put the thoughts into words. I didn’t know where to start. How do I write and accurately describe someone who meant more than words on a screen ever could? Why was she gone? Why did I feel as if it was a lie somehow? Many questions, hours of thought, no answers.
I always joke about never dying. People balk at it, because obviously no one lives forever. I beg to differ however, as I found my solution to that riddle at a very young age. You can only truly die if no one remembers you. Even if only one person carries your memory with them, you still exist. And to me, my grandma is still alive today, because even if everyone else forgot about her, I never could. I’ll write her story and have someone read it to me if I should be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease one day, because I love the story.
She will live on so long as I am physically alive, because in many ways, her personality and mine are parallel. I have so many traits now as a young adult that I look back and realize she had as well, the most important of which is altruism. By definition, altruism is the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others. It means that you are kind and generous to others always, without ever looking for or receiving compensation for your actions. It’s a marvelous trait, and one I’m glad she bestowed upon me. I have learned to ignore people, another very important one. In my younger days when someone was mouthing off to me I had the habit of wanting to say something back all the time. My grandma would take me aside and tell me “Robert just let them talk, don’t pay any mind to it, it’s not worth it.” I’ve dealt with much controversy using that line of thought. I wake up every day and look for purpose, choosing not to live a boring life. I surround myself with few people, because you can’t rely on everyone. I’m smart with my money, often frugal regardless of the amount in the bank. I believe in hard work, in doing the dishes every day, and in eating my vegetables. I “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” I drink hot tea all of the time, I enjoy the simple parts of life, such as birds chirping, and I never take anything for granted. Above all, I’m lucky to have shared this Earth with Bernita M. Bailey. That’s my proudest achievement.
My grandmother passed away almost 5 months to the day before my oldest son, Peyton, being born. She knew he was coming, but didn’t survive long enough to become a great-grandmother for the first time. She didn’t get to meet my two other children, Landon or Savannah either, and that makes me sad. I hope wherever her spirit lies, if she can look down on them now, she smiles at the sight of them. I hope she continues to lead me in some small way as I’ve always looked to her for guidance. And I hope she knows just how much I miss her every day, and can one day correct the battles I face within on a daily basis of the thought of her no longer being here.
My grandma and I had a tradition that developed when I was a child and continued into my twenties. Before I went to bed every night I would kiss her cheek and say four small phrases, in the same order every night:
“Goodnight, see you in the morning, I love you, sweet dreams.”