Thursday, June 21, 2012

Changing of the Guard - In Memoriam

It’s been over a month since my grandfather died and I started writing this blog post which falls somewhere between an attempt at a eulogy and a theological reflection, not only on my grandfather but on death itself. But with father’s day, it seems a good time to get this finished and posted. First, a bit of backstory:

On Thursday, May 3, I got the news that my grandfather was in the hospital and that it was fairly serious so I made plans to drive down to Connecticut that weekend. The following day, the news was worse – the doctor said my grandfather probably only had a few days left in this life. Friday night my mother called me from Connecticut and simply said, “I need you.” My plan had been to come down Saturday evening after some events I had scheduled, but now things had changed. I’d be leaving first thing Saturday morning and picking up my brother from the airport along the way. From the moment I spoke to my mother until I got to the hospital, the words of the Song of Simeon kept replaying themselves in my mind: “Lord, let thy servant now depart in peace.” My grandmother had passed away two years ago and I knew my grandfather had been incredibly lonely since then. At that moment, all I could do was pray for a peaceful end to his suffering. It wasn’t an entirely selfless prayer – while I did long for an end to my grandfather’s suffering and peace for him, I also wanted to stop watching him suffer. His health had deteriorated quite a bit since Christmas and I couldn’t bear to watch it.

When I arrived at the hospital and greeted my grandfather, the words in my head changed. I looked at my grandfather, lying there in the hospital bed, kept comfortable with morphine, surrounded by children and grandchildren and only the following two sentences popped into my head:

“I relieve you.”
“I am relieved.”

The words popped into my head from the Star Trek (2009) film, but what connection was there between a sci-fi film and my grandfather dying? Not much. But the exchange didn’t originate with Star Trek – it comes from the military. These words signify the changing of duty – when one officer takes over for another. Simple sentences that signify that a person is no longer on active duty, they are free to do something else. I began to contemplate the significance of these words in the current situation. What does it mean to be “relieved” and can we apply this to the end of life?

Maybe that was it – maybe my grandfather was finally going to be relieved of all his pain and suffering. We use the word “relieved” often in our lives, but does it mean what we think it means? It’s a word that has become commonplace. As a student who might not have always been prepared for class, I was relieved when a teacher didn’t call on me on days when I was unprepared. As a young professional in these economic times, I am relieved when there is enough money in my bank account to cover this month’s bills or when I land a job, even if it’s not the one I want. But I wonder more about a different type of relief. The eternal relief that comes with death is something beyond our imagination. It is that moment when all our cares and troubles go away. There is no more worry, pain, stress, or anticipation. This is the relief I believe my grandfather felt in his last few days – surrounded by family, with morphine to dull the pain, he passed in the night with my mother holding his hand.

It’s the ultimate changing of the guard – all four of my grandfather’s children are already grandparents themselves and now they have become the elders of the family. It’s the beginning of a new order, in a way, but one that values the tradition it came from and seeks to integrate it into the culture we live in. Maybe that’s why the words occurred to me, but I wonder if there was something more – some deeper connection to my grandfather’s military past.

My grandfather was a Polish veteran, who served in the Polish Underground Army during World War II, so the phrase seemed fitting. Moreover, in the hospital, the directive was simply to keep my grandfather as comfortable as possible because his kidneys had shut down and there was fluid in his lungs. When I saw him, lying in that hospital bed, there was sorrow, but there was also relief. After two years of sadness, loneliness and deteriorating health, he’d be joining my grandmother in the afterlife, and I believe he was relieved that his journey would be coming to an end. He’d lived a long full life in his 92 years and seen the birth of seven great-grandchildren. He’d fought for the freedom of his country and achieved the American dream. He’d been married to my grandmother for over sixty years.

My grandfather didn’t speak of ‘the War’ (WWII) often because there were too many painful memories. Reflecting on his life, it’s highly likely he suffered from PTSD, undiagnosed and untreated. He coped in our family’s traditional way – you just keep going. He rarely spoke of his time in the military and he was probably grateful his sons weren’t called up for the draft during the Vietnam War, but he took great pride in being a Veteran. He was active in two Veteran groups in New Britain, Connecticut and took the children and grandchildren with him to events whenever possible. His life with the Veteran’s group was something we knew little about, other than he rarely missed a meeting. Perhaps they provided him with the support he needed as a survivor of the horrors of World War II, perhaps they understood what he went through in a way we never could (and maybe he never wanted us to). I didn’t realize just how esteemed he was by the Veteran’s groups until his funeral. Both Veteran’s groups were there in uniform – over fifty Polish veterans and auxiliaries. Two stationed themselves as an honor guard to my grandfather’s casket and one my one they came and saluted the casket. My grandfather had been a leader among them and well-loved and honored. As I stood there in my Polish Scout uniform receiving their condolences (somehow at the front of the line), I felt simultaneously honored and unworthy. Who was I to receive condolences from these people who were braver than I could imagine, who had seen horrors I’d only read about, who had survived concentration camps? They had fought for freedom and had moved to the US for a better life, just like my grandfather. I was the product of that. Perhaps the changing of the guard wasn’t just the passing of the torch from my grandfather to his children, but passing it also to the grandchildren. We are his legacy, and while I don’t feel ready to inhabit that, I know that in time, I will. “If we are willing, God will make us ready.”

When I stood in the corner of that hospital room and prayed silently the Song of Simeon as well as the Litany for the Dying, I could imagine Jesus coming to stand at the foot of my grandfather’s bed and saying “I relieve you.” My grandfather’s duty on earth was finished and now it was time for someone else to take over. After all, the bible has Jesus saying “Come to me all who are weary and I will give you rest.” What greater rest, what greater relief, is there than life eternal with the one we love and who loves us unconditionally?

Albin Sypko 1920-2012