Caught off guard

Two weeks ago tomorrow we were spending Labor Day happily moving Josef’s grandparents into a retirement home community. It was a very good feeling to be helping them do this as Josef’s family had wanted them to be in a position where someone was always there to take care of their needs and they could live relatively worry-free. For a number of reasons this move did not take place until two weeks ago, and we were quite energetic about moving furniture, situating things just so in the retirement home apartment, checking out the facilities available to his grandparents. Although it was physically laborious and exhausting, the overriding emotion was relief that the folks in the retirement community could now be taking care of Josef’s grandparents and we could all rest more easily knowing they were cared for 24/7.

We knew the move would be tough for them, especially for Josef’s grandmother. His grandfather had a generally good attitude and we just knew he would be making new friends and doing some gardening on the property. He turned 90 in June, showing no signs of slowing down. His wife, however, has been in declining health the last few years with a more dramatic downturn the last few months. Although they had in home care a good portion of the day, that situation meant that Josef’s grandfather was left to care for Josef’s grandmother at night and any time the care taker wasn’t there. So, thank goodness for the move to the retirement community.

I used to volunteer in a nursing home in college. Even though it was very depressing to go there, the interactions with the residents made it totally worthwhile. I had so many great times there. I grew up in a church and in a family with lots of elderly people in them, so I have always been comfortable around them. They have so much wisdom, and yet they are also in some ways like kids of any age. Living in close proximity to each other, I saw the nursing home residents have squabbles over triffling matters that had me biting my cheeks to burst out from laughing. Once you get past the white hair, extreme wrinkles, and physical limitations, you can tell the age is irrelevant. But, of course, these folks have special sets of needs that the loving and capable hands of nursing home workers handle with such grace and dignity. This also makes them a bit like very young children. It’s easy to wonder what they were like at my age. Would we have been peer-friends?

One week into the new move, just a week ago today, Josef’s grandfather wasn’t doing too well. He had a upset stomach and made the declaration that we should take the car away from the retirement home because he was never going to drive again. We were frankly happy that he made that decision because we had been worried about him driving. We thought the weight of the move had finally settled on him, and that maybe the food in the retirement community was upsetting his stomach, both of which seemed likely scenarios.

Josef went out of town for a work trip on Monday through Wednesday. Monday night I had been on my laptop working on some things for my a cappella group. I went to bed around 10:30. Tuesday morning I was getting ready for work and saw I had missed a yahoo chat from my mother-in-law asking if Josef was home. This worried me and I felt bad that I had missed her.

A few hours later I got an email from her that was addressed to Josef and me. Josef’s grandfather had been to the ER the night before which was why she was trying to contact Josef. She was in the ER with him until the wee hours of the morning. She knew I would have come out there but didn’t want me to. Her email said the doctors couldn’t figure out why his white blood count was so high.

I worried about him all day. But I also had to work and prepare for an important rehearsal for my a cappella group — our yearly elections. This particular election was difficult and because I am president of the group I preside over it. The previous three days leading up to the election were difficult because of issues going on in my group. Even though we’re a small group, we have become increasingly organized in terms of how we run our group. As a result, we are all increasingly concerned with how we organize and run ourselves. I really am baffled at times how we have lost sight of keeping our group a balance of music and fun. It’s a constant source of stress for me when I hear about or experience people treating each other badly or having such strong opinions about things with complete disregard for other points of view. All of this has been at the forefront of my emotions for a year now. We got through this year’s leadership elections with lots of heightened emotions and the need to repair damage and to go forth in the new year with reconciliation at the top of the agenda. All this for a volunteer entertainment group. 🙂 I was glad to have the elections behind me as of Tuesday night.

Wednesday morning the verdict was in: Josef’s grandfather was officially diagnosed with an aggressive form of acute leukemia.

Acute leukemia.


He was given weeks to months to live.

But he was supposed to flourish in his new environment!

He didn’t want treatment.

This not the scenario we had prepared for. Just goes to show that God’s plans for us are not the same as what we have planned for ourselves. That’s a lesson in humility.

Josef came home from his work trip Wednesday afternoon and we went out to the retirement home to see his grandfather. We found him sleeping fitfully, changing position often and breathing rapidly. It was such stark contrast to how he’d been three days earlier. It made me think about my grandmother’s death a few years ago. She had gone downhill really quickly, too. She was my last living grandparent until she passed away. So this experience dredged up my sadness about that time.

That night, the stress of everything was really getting to me: my a cappella group stuff, worrying about my many roles at school, Josef’s grandfather. I wondered how much longer?

I slept fitfully, too. I was in the process of waking up from a scary dream when I heard the sound of creaking doors, although I knew they weren’t real doors in my house. I opened my eyes to what looked like the figure of a tall white man walking across our bathroom. I instantly thought of Josef’s grandfather.

Is he still alive? I wondered.

I woke Josef as I tried to see what time it was. It was 12:30.

I told myself that I had seen car lights in the bathroom as I had many times before, because as far as I could remember, I’ve never seen ghosts before. I thought about the miracle at the end of life, as the body prepares to release the soul. It’s such a mystery but we and all creatures have a time when our bodies wind down and usher us out. Such morose thoughts are not very relaxing. I slept badly the rest of the night.

Thursday came along and Josef’s grandfather was still alive, but fading. Josef and I weren’t sure if we should keep our weekend plans of heading to the mountains. More bad sleep.

Friday morning I heard my phone ring as I stepped out of the shower. It was Josef. His grandfather had passed away around 4:30 a.m.

Gone. He’s gone.

I went through the motions of going to work. I dropped the dog off at the boarding facility, unsure if we would still be going out of town. I talked to Josef’s mother, who told me that Josef’s grandmother had been awake all night — she just knew he was going. I shared the news with my coworkers. It was the first time I had cried about his death as it was the first time I had looked into someone else’s eyes and said the words. We all seem to be having personal and work stress in our lives right now, so we certainly had a bonding experience as our tears turned to laughter.

Plans materialized and failed to materialize through the day. Josef and I struggled to decide about going out of town, but his mother insisted that there would be nothing going on until next week and we had her blessing to go on. We took the opportunity to rest on the front end of the experience, plus we got to see Josef’s brother. It was really difficult to be away though. As a woman, I want to comfort and tend to things, so removing myself from the situation felt awful.

We are almost back to Atlanta now. We will finally join the family in grieving jointly. We can celebrate Josef’s grandfather and thank God for his 90 years on this earth and his legacy he leaves behind. May he rest in peace and may we be forever aware of his impact on our own lives.


11 thoughts on “Caught off guard

  1. Susan and Josef- I’m so sorry to read this about the passing of Josef’s grandfather… Our thoughts and prayers are with you and all of your family… Love, Emily, Paul, and Little Paul

  2. Well.

    Sorry things have been so stressful. When I was in a few choir groups in high school, drama would definitely start after the honeymoon phase was over. I think the longer people work with each other in a recreational group, the more they feel comfortable stirring up drama. It’s just the way it works, and it’s a major bummer.

    Sorry to hear about Josef’s grandpa. I think it’s great he lived to be 90, which is very impressive! At least his passing wasn’t drawn out. I’m glad you guys have family to be with you while everything gets worked out and you can help each other.

    1. Thank you, Reid. It was Josef’s father’s father, Hal Henschen. Thank you for your offer — we are doing fine at this point. We’ll miss him, of course!

  3. Beautiful writing, Susan. I am so sorry to hear of Josef’s grandfather’s death. May God grant you a spirit of strength and peach during the coming days. Love to you and Josef!

  4. Susan and Josef,

    I was sorry to read about the passing of Josef’s grandfather and Gary’s father. I’m sure that he must be very proud of his children and grandchildren.

    When I started reading Susan’s entry, I wasn’t sure at first which grandfather she was referring to, and this has led to me to wonder how Ellen’s father is doing. Sam Spencer was a year ahead of my father at Davidson College, class of 1940, so he must be about 92 now. (Forgive me if he has passed away and I didn’t know it, but I think as a Davidson alumnus I would have heard. Sam was President of the College when I was a student.)

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