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The Day My Grandfather Died

I was eight years old and we’d just gotten back from visiting him in the hospital the day before. Memorial Day weekend. We’d stayed at a campground near the hospital in Mount Kisco, New York, as if it was just another adventure, not pancreatic cancer.

I think we were only there one night, and then visited him in the hospital in the morning, but I don’t remember much. It was the phone call the next morning, as the bus was arriving for school that stuck with me.

Mom answered the phone on the wall in the kitchen, next to the yellow and orange wallpaper that was starting to peel. The skin around Mom’s eyes turned dark purple and if she said anything I don’t remember it, but I knew that Grandpa was dead.

I was in a fog. My grandpa was the first of my four grandparents to die, and the one I needed the most. He was the one who loved us. He was the one who could fix everything, or at least that’s what I wanted to believe. His death meant that we were on our own.

We had to go to school anyway, me and my brother. He was ten years old and I was eight, and he didn’t talk to me on the bus or in the hallway at school, ever. My friend Alex noticed that I wasn’t my usual self in the one class we had together, art. He chatted to try to get me to smile, and listened when I remembered how to talk, but mostly he just watched me, to make sure I was okay and not shattering into tiny pieces.

My parents picked my brother and me up from school at noon, and took us to the deli where our father picked up too many sandwiches, and chatted with the counterman, and drank Dr. Brown’s celery soda, (really gross), before we drove up to Westchester to see Grandma.

The funeral had to be planned. Relatives had to arrive. Decisions about the future had to be made. But I just remember sour pickles and pastrami sandwiches and the utter emptiness of that house without Grandpa in it.

My grandfather was my idea of God – a little bit frail and not especially powerful but full of love and joy. I knew he loved me, and my brother, and my cousins, and I knew there was enough love for all of us. My grandfather was the only person in the world who seemed to have power over my father, though he rarely used it.

One of my aunts spoke at the funeral, but I don’t remember much about that day. A lot of funerals seem to mush together from those years: the funeral parlor, the pine box, the black ribbons, the cemetery, the prayers, and all of those grey stones. What stays with me is the grief; the void of no-Grandpa that we were left with after that.

I don’t remember Delilah, our Doberman Pinscher, being a part of things. Did she come with us camping that weekend? Did she sleep on my feet after the funeral? Was she there in the kitchen when the phone rang? I don’t know. But I do know that I would have talked to her about all of it, like I learned to talk to Grandpa after he died, and like I used to talk to God. I never considered it talking to myself, because I always knew that someone was listening.

Delilah.

Delilah.

Delilah and my brother, comforting each other.

Delilah and my brother, comforting each other.

And Delilah, who loved me in her own quiet way, was always willing to listen.

Delilah's favorite form of listening.

Delilah’s favorite form of listening.

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About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

82 responses »

  1. Lovely. You’ve captured this memory perfectly.

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  2. Just wonderful. Thank you for sharing. Losing someone when you’re a child is always so confusing. And I have come to believe that your parents are still alive? Yes? I’ve buried both of mine now and just want to say that’s a whole ‘nother level of loss. Because you are now an adult and mourning takes on a different feel..(bad choice of words..I can’t express it correctly). But again, thank you for sharing a beautiful memory and recounting for us your reactions as you see them. And for knowing who the best friend was to talk to..

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  3. Lovely homage to your grandfather. Thank you for sharing. ❤

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  4. ramblingsofaperforatedmind

    It’s interesting to look back and see how our childhood selves perceived events. I’ll never forget when I lost my grandparents either.

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  5. Beautifully written … I especially loved that Alex was there for you, as was your ever-faithful Delilah … I don’t particularly remember much about my Grandfather’s death when I was around that age, but I figure it will come back to me when all the old memories come rushing back to me in my 80’s (if I make it that long!) ☺️

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  6. This is beautiful. Thank you for sharing such a personal story.

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  7. I felt as if I went back in time with you, you reminded me of how lost I felt when I experienced my great uncle’s death, it was pretty overwhelming, the questions and the fear. Wonderful poignant post.

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  8. I would have wanted to get to know your grandfather…he sounds very much like mine. I also would give anything to be able to talk to my grandparents and daddy again. So much I forgot to tell them – so much I forgot to listen to. Thank goodness for our memories…

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  9. Our loved ones do so personify Divine Love in our lives; thanks for sharing a heart warming story.

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  10. I felt the same way when my grandmother died….a beautiful, honest and heartbreaking post. Thank you!

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  11. My mom’s dad died when I was four and it was 3,000 miles away. I still remember when my Mom got the phone call-we had to track my Dad down on the 8th hole at Ardsley to tell him his Dad passed in Connecticut. Doing things like that aren’t pleasant.

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  12. Lovely story. Thank you for sharing.

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  13. The first death that registered with me was that of my paternal great grandfather. I was about 4. When my great grandmother died several years later, it was a normal school day for Sis and I.
    The first funeral I attended was in 1974, and that of my paternal grandfather. Dad and I were the last people he probably remembered before he slipped into a coma and away from us. I remember I made the call to my Uncle, Dad’s youngest brother, who had only just found us as a family after years of searching.
    It was an election year and a guy came canvassing to the front door. Dad answered and cut him short saying he was trying to arrange a funeral.
    At the service, I held tight to my Dad’s hand, it was one of the two occasions I ever saw him cry. I sang my heart out, tears streaming down my face but my voice strong and steady, Abide with Me. Yet the song I play for my grandfather is not this, but Everything I Own (Bread) and the line ‘Just to have you back again’ says it all.

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  14. Lovely thoughts, Rachel. Here’s hoping and praying that your family and friends in Paris are safe.

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  15. I’m at a conference, where I met a woman who talked yesterday about the healing powers of dogs for grieving children–and also about how dogs can help children in situations like chronic illness, etc. I thought, “Rachel would love to talk to this lady!”

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  16. Beautiful post Rachel. Thank you:)

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  17. Weird Guy With The Dog

    I think dogs are a window into the soal of the person who loves them the most. It’s a powerful connection that is only broken upon death. I will be very sad when my folks die, but they understood life and its end. My best friend knows only me so its my responsibility to make sure he loves and is loved every day.

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  18. So lovely to hear your fond memories of him! Thank you. Pip

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  19. There’s something about grandparents, they can be best at giving unqualified love. I suppose because they usually don’t have to be disciplinarians, and raise you.

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  20. I was eight, too, when my grandfather passed away. He lived with us, and we were great friends. He played cards and dominoes with me, and was a kind and generous person. I feel your pain… Love x

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  21. The death of a loved one affects children more than adults imagine. It stays with us all our lives, as you have so poignantly illustrated. It may be years late, yet I give you my condolences. Lexi’s Mom.

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  22. hello rachel mankowitz its dennis the vizsla dog hay dada sez his paternal grandfather wuz the last of his grandparents to pass away it wuz fifteen yeerz ago but sumtimes he stil dreems that he is visitting his nana and papa at there howse just like he yoozed to!!! ok bye

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  23. Oh, Rachel, this line sums it all up for me, “But I just remember sour pickles and pastrami sandwiches and the utter emptiness of that house without Grandpa in it.” Nicely written. Dogs sense when we’re sad or upset — no question about it.

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  24. Such a touchy story Rachel. Thank You for sharing.

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  25. I loved my grandfather too and miss his hugs, stories and warm heart. Sending love and light too you.

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  26. There is a draft in my account with the same title. I could never muster up the courage to finish it.
    Your post was beautiful. Made me want to finish that post.
    Thank you 🙂

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  27. Lovely writing Rachel, I love the juxtaposition of the adventure and the pancreatic cancer, I love also the description of the peeling wallpaper, the colours placing this this post in the past.
    Like you, I remember very little of my grandmother’s (first of the four to die), but I remember eating ham sandwiches on white bread that stuck in my mouth, I also remember the coffin in the front room that my mother and ants encouraged me to look inside, I pretended to, but firmly shut my eyes.
    And I remember riding in the big shiny black funeral car
    I hope that your cousins are all safe and coping well in this stressful time, we are under a cloud here.
    Much love
    Lindy

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  28. Thank you so much for sharing the loss of your beloved Grandafather, Rachel. I noticed that you’d read my flash fiction about hands. It was inspired by a number of things but when I last saw my grandfather 3 days before he died, he talked to me about the importance of hands. He had lost a leg and at the time I thought that had made him appreciate his hands in a way that I didn’t as a 13 year old. However, he was a dentist and my grandmother was a concert pianist so hands were very important to them. My grandfather was in the throws of a dreadful coughing fit as he had lung cancer and was gasping for breath but he insisted on taking off his oxygen mask because he didn’t want to frighten us. I have always been very moved by that. His selfless courage when he was in the throws of death.
    I was born two days before his birthday and I guess I’d grown up feeling I was his birthday present.
    Like your grandfather, he loved me and had his jokes like giving horsey bites on your leg under the table or finding a coin in your ear.
    How I miss him!
    You wouldn’t believe it! Recently, his former dental nurse who was a pupil of my grandmother’s contacted me via my bog and has even emailed me a sketch she did of my grandmother. It was incredible!
    Hope you are doing well. I feel we’re all rocked by Paris and everything else going on in the world. Somehow, we need to build a lasting peace xx Rowena

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  29. This is your BEST blog post ever! Grandparents are the greatest. HUGS to you!

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  30. It is remarkable Rachel how you remember everything from that day so clearly though you were so young. The colors, the smells, the sequence of events and all. I am sure your grandpa meant a lot to you. Love and hugs to you dear 💕

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  31. Your description really pulled me into the story of the day. What a lovely tribute to your grandfather!

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  32. Wow this is powerful…. thank you

    Reply

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