On June 19, 1986, I was home from college and taking a history class in the summer session at the local junior college in my hometown. It was around 7:30 p.m. and the instructor was lecturing about the importance of the civil war. Yada yada yada… I simply didn’t feel like being there. So after a few minutes had passed, I got up from my seat and quietly walked out of the room. I went to my mother’s house, which is where I stayed in the summer awaiting the fall semester to begin. I arrived at home to find a note on the kitchen table from my mother.
It said, “Bumpo (my maternal grandfather) was taken by ambulance to the local hospital.”
Bumpo was a name given to him by my older sister (The first grand child) when she was two, and it just kind of stuck.
According to Gracie, my grandmother, my grandfather had been suffering for several days with considerable chest pain. When I arrived at the hospital I saw my mother, my grandmother and all of my siblings in the emergency waiting room. The doctor treating Bumpo, soon came out and spoke to my grandmother.
“Your husband has had a massive coronary. Due to his age and the stage of his condition, I should tell you, it doesn’t look good,” the doctor told Gracie. This was not good. Heath issues, it seemed, were a constant problem for my family.
Then he asked Gracie if she wanted to see him. She did. We all did. We took turns briefly visiting him over the next several hours. When I saw him, he looked old and tired. Although he was ninety-one years old, he had never looked his age. I would ordinarily describe him as spry, energetic and active. He had been able to drive his car until just the day before... but now; I could tell that he was dying.
Bumpo was the backbone of our family. When my parents divorced many years earlier, he and Gracie gave up their retirement activities to help care for all six of us. He assisted us financially, and they supported us emotionally. They were loving and attentive and became great friends to all of us.
Although Bumpo had no real formal education beyond high school to speak of, he was extraordinarily bright. He had a remarkable vocabulary. He was an avid reader and was abreast of most subjects affecting the world, past and present. Bumpo was the most generous man I had ever known. I loved him dearly, and to see him in this state… was heartbreaking.
When I entered his hospital room, I quietly stood next to the cot where he was lying. “Hey Bumpo, how are you doing?” I asked him.
“Not… too… good,” he replied pausing briefly between each word.
“There are a lot of people praying for you, Bumpo,” I told him as I stood staring at him in silence.
I waited for him to speak again, but instead he moaned uncontrollably while his body contorted with pain. I just stood there watching him through tears. This man was a fixture in my life, and it felt like everything was falling apart…
As this continued, I was told to leave the room. As I walked back toward the entrance doors, I quickly turned around and yelled softly to him, “I love you Bumpo.” I don’t know if he heard me in the midst of his obvious anguish, but I’m certain he knew it!
Not long after, Bumpo was moved to a room of his own. My entire family sat in the waiting room not really knowing what to pray for. He was in such misery. He didn’t have to be suffering, I told myself. He had experienced such joy in his life, why should it end in such visible distress.
I began to pray to God. But not in the “please make him better” way most do. Most would want their grandparents to live even when they were clearly suffering in pain, but I decided to ask for mercy.
“Please take Bumpo. Just please take him out of his suffering. Take him with you God. Please love him and protect him. Please give him what he gave to all of us over the years.” I prayed as tears rolled down my face.
A nurse walked over to Gracie and asked if she and the rest of us wanted to say goodbye to Bumpo. She explained that his blood pressure had dropped significantly and he was now unconscious. We quickly walked into Bumpo’s hospital room and encircled his bed. As we silently said our goodbyes to a man who meant everything to us, together we experienced something extraordinary.
After having been totally unconscious for over an hour, to the surprise of everyone who watched, Bumpo abruptly opened his eyes. We stood there, looked at each other, and then back to him, but no one spoke a word. How could we? Whatever was happening was something to be witnessed. He appeared to be focusing not on any of us, but on something above him, something in the distance. We immediately noticed a remarkable state of peacefulness emanating from his entire body. Then, with his eyes still fixed above him, he began to deliberately lift both of his arms from the sides of his body up towards the sky, and I could tell there was meaning behind it. He made this motion three or four times softly. There was tenderness about him. His eyes were shinning. A gentle smile took over his face, then seemed to radiate through all of him. He looked as though he were greeting someone. Someone he knew. Someone he loved. Then he slowly closed his eyes while his arms slowly floated down from above him with grace. He was quiet. Serenity took over the room. A Without uttering a word, all of us realized what we’d witnessed. We were awestruck.
A flash of memories flooded my head, each a vague instance of good times gone by. But one stuck out. When I was nine years old, Bumpo determined that I couldn’t tell time.
In retrospect, it seems strange that at age nine something so basic as telling time eluded me. He asked me if he could teach me (a polite question not a request). He devoted every afternoon to his wide numbered Timex wristwatch and me. And it worked. Soon when he randomly asked, I could tell him the time. I was so proud of myself. And so was he!
I remember many years later when I was away at college studying for final exams, he would call me and remind me of that story and say, “you’ve come a long way baby!” And I had.
He had a distinctive role in shaping our lives, all of our lives. He was unforgettable! He’d had a free and tranquil departure. And now, he was gone.
Marked by that moment, I will remember Bumpo. He was an exceptional human being. He suffered painful deprivations in his early life, but always viewed life as an opportunity. A gift. He lived life with exuberance. And he died peacefully.
The day of Bumpo' s funeral, a family friend, an older gentleman, sat down next to me and gave his condolences.
"I know how important your grandfather was to you. To all of you kid's," The man said.
"Yes. He was important to us," I admitted, fighting back tears.
"Who do you think was his favorite? " He questioned.
What an odd question, I thought. Here we were, mourning the passing of a man who had affected all our lives in one way or another, and here was this man, asking if he had any favorites amongst us. “His favorite?" I repeated. I was flabbergasted, to say the least.
"Yes, who was his favorite?” He asked again.
I fell silent, as I couldn’t believe anyone would assume Bumpo had a favorite. I was stunned, speechless really, by the lack of tact and the inappropriateness of the question.
"Bumpo didn't have a favorite. He loved all of us the same,” I finally muttered, hoping to sound polite, but clearly irritated by the ridiculousness of the question. Moments later, I couldn’t help myself any longer, and suddenly heard myself ask noticeably annoyed, “Why would you ask me such an inappropriate question?”
The man just looked at me and gently smiled.
“Why are you smiling?” I asked the man, feeling visibly irritated.
"Well, I spoke to both of your sister's earlier today, and separately each one told me how sad they were by the loss of your grandfather because they each thought they specifically were his favorite grandchild," He said earnestly.
I slowly smiled. “He had a way of making each person in his life feel incredibly special. He had that gift. He was amazing that way.” I told him, and then thanked him.
Karra Barber-Wada is the author of The Social & Life Skills MeNu: A Skill Building Workbook for Adolescents with an Autism Spectrum Disorder , and Living Your Best Life with Asperger’s Syndrome . Her latest book, is entitled, Plan B: Parenting Solo with a Child Affected by Asperger’s Syndrome. Her work has been regularly published in The Autism Perspective Magazine, Autism Spectrum Quarterly, Exceptional Parent, Autism-Asperger’s Digest, THE MAAP International, as well as the San Francisco Chronicle. She has been featured in the Contra Costa Times on a number of occasions.