Thirty years ago yesterday I got a little glimpse of eternity. It was both horrifying and reassuring beyond measure.
Let me explain.
A few years before that, my Oma – my mom’s mom, passed away in Germany, and since mom was there – she asked her dad, my Opa, if he would want to come live with us, and so he did. I still remember seeing him at the international arrivals terminal at Sea-Tac, wearing his wool coat, his old leather shoes, and his felt hat. He looked like a time traveler amidst all the hustle and bustle of the other travelers, and in some way, he was.
The goal was to have him stay for the winter, and then see how he was handling the change and go from there. When my mom’s brother (my uncle) came to visit, Opa was thrilled to see him, but, facing an empty house back in Germany, and having spent some time with us, surrounded by two generations of family all in the same house, he wondered aloud to mom, “Do I have to go back?”
Mom was overjoyed and told him he didn’t have to, so he stayed where he knew he was loved, where he knew he had a little garden he could work in, and we absolutely loved him, and he us.
I’ve written at least one story about him, and I’ll write more stories about him but yesterday was a day for thinking, and reflecting. I sent flowers to mom, and wrote my uncle a letter in German because he wasn’t here, and his English is what he learned in school and a British POW camp in WWII.
“I’ve been meaning to write for some time, and today I couldn’t put it off any longer. 30 years ago this morning, Opa went to Heaven, and I was there when it happened…”
…mom’s cousins had flown in the night before, and Opa had stayed up late to say hi to them when we got home from the airport. They talked for about half an hour, and then all went to bed.
Saturday was a gorgeous day, and we got up a little later than usual. I’d been downstairs, and people were awake, so I went to my room to write a letter to a friend on my old Remington Noiseless typewriter. It wasn’t really noiseless, it just made thunking sounds instead of the whapping sounds a normal typewriter made. So I was just hammering that letter on it, the sun was shining, and I heard the floor in the hallway creak as Opa walked by. He pushed open the door just a bit and waved at me, peeking in like a little elf. I stopped typing and waved back. He headed further down the hall to go downstairs, and as I went back to my typing, I heard this unending, unimaginable crash like I’d never heard before. Even all these years later, I’m at a loss to find words to describe it, and in the moment after the crashing sound stopped and before I got up, I heard my dad’s voice yelling, “Tom! You know First Aid! Come down here!” – I ran down the stairs I’d helped him up so many times, and saw Opa lying in the middle of a bunch of broken pottery, a huge gash on the top of his head.
I yelled for a flashlight, and for the first time in my life, shined a light in someone’s eyes, like I’d been taught in my First Aid class, only to have no one looking back at me. I yelled for dad to call the hospital for a helicopter (I’d had a bit of experience with them) and went back to Opa. He had a pulse, but it was irregular, so I didn’t start CPR, but kept checking his eyes. One responded, the other didn’t, and was pretty much dilated. I knew then, if I hadn’t known earlier, that things were very, very bad. Mom’s cousins were standing behind me as I was working on him. Dad had the phone cord stretched as far as it would go to tell me that the hospital couldn’t just send a chopper – that a medic needed to call it.
He handed me the phone, and the person on the other end of the line indeed said I couldn’t order one… Only a medic could do that. I asked him, politely, but in no uncertain terms, to call the medics then. He said he would.
About that time Opa had a pretty big convulsion, and one of mom’s cousins blurted out, “Der Stirbt!” (He’s dying!) – I wasn’t ready to accept that – and told her, also in no uncertain terms to shut up. I was 21 and wasn’t quite of the age where I could tell her that (she was mom’s age), but I did.
In less than a minute the siren went off for the Volunteer Fire Department in our town. The fellow on the other end of the line had made the call. Help was on the way.
The sirens and the throbbing sound of the old aid car stopped in front of the house. Someone opened the door and the paramedics crowded into the hallway, checking Opa and getting a pair of inflatable pants on him to keep his blood up where it needed to be.
I stood up and made room for Roy, the police officer and paramedic who’d been involved the time I’d needed a helicopter to get to a hospital, and he started doing CPR. By this time there were so many people in the hallway it was hard to move. Mom and I stood in the door to the living room just off the hallway, and we both (we talked about this later, not right then) were keenly aware of a presence above and between us. It was clear to both of us that it was Opa’s spirit, leaving at that time, and we both remembered “hearing” – honestly, “sensing” is more accurate – the words, “Lass mi doch ganga” – translated from our dialect,
“Just let me go…”
But things were moving, and once paramedics arrive, they start working and won’t stop until things are dealt with, one way or the other.
It was quickly decided that he’d go to the hospital in the ambulance, and mom and I followed in my old Saab, and we drove as fast as we could to catch up, watching Roy doing CPR on Opa the whole way. He must have been absolutely drained by the time we got to the hospital. I remember trying to pass the ambulance so we could get there and be parked by the time it got there, but the car, it turned out, had a clogged fuel filter and wouldn’t let me pass, so I tucked in behind it again, watching Roy trying to pump life into Opa’s chest through the ambulance’s back window.
We got there, and they rushed him in straight through the E.R, Roy still doing the CPR as he ran alongside the gurney. Mom and I were told to wait in a stuffy waiting room, but there were so many people there, we told them we’d be outside as we tried to comprehend all that had happened. They promised they’d send someone for us if there was anything we could do.
At 12:00 straight up, the sliding doors opened and someone came out and told us he was gone. They led us into the room he was in, partitioned off by curtains, and there was our Opa, lying on a bed, covered with sheets, looking as peaceful as anything. Mom took some scissors and cut a little of his beard off to remember him by, we signed some papers, and then headed home, both, admittedly in a bit of shock.
Our day had changed pretty drastically.
By the time we got home, there was no evidence of any pottery on the floor. The cousins were doing their best to be or look busy, and their thoughts of having a fun visit turned into thoughts of helping mom plan a funeral.
We stood there, mom and I, where we’d stood earlier, and realized we’d both heard Opa tell us, reassuringly, “Just let me go.” –
And we had to.
He was 10 days short of his 89th birthday.
This was August 6th, 1983, and I remember it as if it were yesterday, and every year I make sure my mom has flowers on that day, to remind her that someone remembers her Papa, my Opa.
It was only yesterday, as I was talking to Mom on the phone, that I finally realized, that Opa’s time on this earth was over that day, stairs or not. We found out much later that the doctors said he’d had a heart attack, which was likely when he’d lost his balance and tried to catch himself on that vase, but it went down the stairs and so did he.
And even though I’m now considered grown up and a man, there’s still a much younger ‘me’ inside who misses his Opa…
Take care folks… love the ones you have – you never know how much time you’ll have with them.