My great-grandfather was a hobo. A real, honest to God, train to train cross-country hobo. He didn’t need to be – his own family was wealthy, and he was not estranged. He just. . . went.
My grandmother and her brother grew up with him coming and going, it was merely part of who he was, their relationship with him.
When my grandmother was eight years old, he prepared to strike out again. My grandmother accompanied him down the long drive to the edge of the main road where they said their good-byes.
My great-grandfather pulled an orange from his pocket – a rare treat back in those days – and put it in my grandmother’s hand.
“I’ll see you again, Ona. Good-bye for now.”
And she did see him again. Thirty years later. But that is a different story.
My grandmother was an integral part of my life, and I’ve heard that story countless times over the years. Lots of others, as well. But that one made an impact on me that I wasn’t even aware of until she was dying.
Cancer. She fought it for several years, and the family helped her with the fight. She was taken out of state to specialists, there were shifts of family caring for her at home, and through it all, she maintained her sense of self. It was her choice to go to the hospital, but even then, the family shifts continued. She was not alone.
On one of those nights, I came home from work, agitated and out of sorts. I wanted to do something, and it made me anxious. I had dinner with my husband, and we settled in for the night, but I was restless and prowled about until he finally asked me what the trouble was.
I told him what I wanted to do, thinking it sounded stupid and juvenile. But he insisted we go. Right then. He knew what it was like to watch a hero fade away. He’d only recently watched his father go.
So at nearly midnight, we made the long trek to town, making only one quick stop along the way. When I crept into the room, I found her night shift there – my own mother and my aunt.
A whispered conversation with them, then I made my way to the edge of the bed to look down on the fiercest person I’ve ever known.
I leaned down and gave her a kiss, but it was enough to wake her.
“It’s just me, Gram. I brought you this.”
I placed the orange in the palm of her hand, careful not to dislodge the IV needles bruising the back of her hand.
“I’ll see you again. I love you. Go back to sleep.”
I gave her another kiss and left after a few more whispered words with my aunt.
She died early the next morning.
It was the first time and the last time in my long string of mourning years that I got it right, the only good-bye that hasn’t left me filled with outrage or regret.