My grandfather was named Joseph, but I, and most of my family, only ever called him Poppy Joe. He smoked cigars, drank red wine, loved Jimmy Buffet, was most at home at the ‘Beach’ in North Carolina, and was a neurologist.
Unfortunately I only became really close with him a few months before he died. I’d suffered a seizure and he was the one who explained everything to me and walked me through all of the seemingly endless doctor appointments. A month later he was diagnosed with cancer in his kidney, his lungs, and, in tragic irony, his brain. He fought it best he could but lost on November 29, 2013 from the cancer and the ‘Old Man’s Friend,’ pneumonia.
I watched as everyone in my family coped differently — first with the diagnosis and then with my grandfather’s final days in the hospital. In a short span of time I was able to see how everyone’s behavior drastically changed.
My mother and her sister busied themselves with errands trying to make things easier for everyone, while my uncles both stayed in the hospital working on changing all of the accounts and other technicalities. My brothers and young cousins were either kept away from the hospital or drifted in and out of the rooms, seemingly unsure of how to accept what was going on. The reactions that hurt and scared me the most were those of my grandfather and grandmother.
My grandfather acted as normal as he could, given the circumstances, but what shocked me and made my throat hurt was seeing him cry. He was moved to tears by the visits of family members or friends, like the nurses he was close to.
This man was strong and wise and had a ‘Poppy Joe saves the day again’ kind of attitude, so seeing him so vulnerable was… hard. My grandmother never left his side and slept next to him in a cot everyday that he was in the hospital.
Jumping back four months to July of 2013, the night of the diagnosis, I was sitting in the kitchen with my mother and her brother at 2am. I remember my mother baking cookies and banana bread, simply because she needed something to do; while, my uncle and I sat at the table and talked.
Eventually my grandmother came down crying and sat at the table with her head in her hands. My mother tried to comfort her saying that my grandfather had been a rock for her when she had cancer, and that now it was her time to be a rock for him. All my grandmother said was, ‘I am not a rock.’
Those five words felt earth shattering then and still feel that way now. It still makes me cry thinking about it, and I decided then that my personal role during this time was making sure that I was there for my grandmother. I decided that I wouldn’t let her or anyone see me cry.
Was this the right way to cope? Keeping my feelings inside for the sake of others? I don’t know, and I’m not sure that I want to know.
For a long time, I held on tight to the decision to “keep it inside” and eventually started to believe that crying made me seem weak. I associated crying with signs that I couldn’t handle what was happening. Eventually this drove me into a pattern of breakdowns. At least once a month I would be doing something, like reading a book or listening to a song, and would just breakdown in my room.
For at least an hour I would lay on my bed or on my floor, clutching things that reminded me of my grandfather, and cry.
Yes, the release of the pent up emotion was great, but it didn’t help me snap out of the pattern I’d created for myself. After a breakdown my tear ducts would feel unusually light and I’d feel better overall, but then I would continue like nothing had happened.
Now, with the benefit of time and knowledge, I see that I was ridiculous. I could have still support my grandparents and also let them see how sad I was. Crying was normal and expected, but I had attached all of these negative connotations to it. Why? Because I thought that it was the right thing to do.
The number one thing I learned through living my story is that emotions are normal. I’m still struggling with expressing emotions to people because I instinctively push them down, but I’m working on it. Now, if I can’t get the words out by talking, I try to write letters to people expressing what I want them to know. I’ve learned that nonverbal communication is better than no communication at all. One day my hope is that I’ll be confident enough to talk through and express my emotions to the people I care about.
One last thought—
When my grandfather was sick I found a quote on a bottle cap and I’ve kept it with me on my desk ever since to remind myself to try and communicate. It reads as follows:
“No man can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be true.” – Nathaniel Hawthorne