March 2nd

My dad who raised me (Mike) turns 60 today, March 2nd. I asked him what he wanted to do for his birthday, and he said, “I don’t need anything. It’s just another day.” My dad has been a beacon of guidance for me throughout my life, but when it came to this moment, he couldn’t have been more wrong. For the rest of my life, my dad’s birthday will represent both the worst and best day that ever happened to me.

On the morning of March 2nd, 1993, before it was time for school, my mom and I woke my dad to breakfast in bed. It was his 34th birthday. My mom had just turned 30 about a month prior, when we found out that the baby in her belly was a boy. They named him Tyler, and our whole family was ecstatic. I was nine at this time and had been begging my parents to have a baby for years.

After we sang my dad “Happy Birthday,” I started getting ready for school while my parents, unusually, also began getting ready. My mom was in nursing school at the time and not working, and my dad had worked third shift the night before. I had assumed he’d go back to sleep. I asked my mom where they were going, and she told me that they were driving to Lake Orion (45 minutes away) to get their taxes done. For a reason that I still don’t understand, this unnerved me. I started crying and pleading with her not to go, to instead get her taxes done in our town. I remembered that my third grade teacher’s husband did people’s taxes and offered him up as a replacement resource. My mom, perplexed, did her best to assure me that it would be fine. Inconsolable, I argued with her until she took me to school.

Within an hour of arriving there, I realized that, amidst my fit, I’d left my math book at home. I went to the secretary’s office so that I could call my mom, who said she’d swing by to drop it off. When her car pulled up in the circle driveway, I walked out to get my book from her through the passenger side. I told her I loved her, she said it back with a loving smile, and then she drove away.

Not long after lunch, I saw the secretary again when she knocked on the door of my classroom. She stuck her head in and said, “Heidi, Mrs. Snyder is here for you. Bring your coat and backpack.” I didn’t know who she was referring to. Mrs. Snyder was a second grade teacher, who had never been my teacher; I’d gone to a different school altogether in second grade. It wasn’t until we got to the office that I realized she was referring to my mom’s friend and running buddy, Tracy, who had also been my daycare provider before my mom stopped working to go to school. Tracy had never picked me up from school before. I didn’t know why she was there, but I knew it wasn’t right. We left the office and wound around the corner toward the double-doors that led out to the parking lot. We pushed on the horizontal bar that unlocked the door, allowing light to creep into the dark and empty gym, which was painted with children’s book characters. Tracy said, “Mom and Mike were in an accident.”

We drove to Tracy’s house where there were daycare kids playing. Tracy subscribed to the Disney channel, and I remember watching the shows that we didn’t get at home, an attempt to distract myself from all of the questions that gripped my attention. Tracy told me she didn’t know what was happening. The hours passed, first with me wondering when my parents would be released from the hospital and come pick me up. Then came the most horrific fear that my nine year-old brain could imagine: what if my mom lost her legs or was paralyzed? What if she could no longer run or do aerobics, passions of hers that had become our family-wide activities?

At some point hours later, Tracy took me home to my house. We had to take care of the dogs and cat, and she told me I needed to pack some clothes. I went upstairs to pack a bag, and when I came back down, I found Tracy standing in our den. In her right hand, she held a crystal picture frame of my parents on their wedding day just 10 months prior. Her left hand covered her mouth. She brought the picture to me and put it in my bag. As I grabbed my toothbrush from the bathroom, the phone rang. It was Tracy’s oldest daughter calling to tell her something. She looked shaken. During the car ride back to Tracy’s house, I wondered what she knew.

When we arrived at Tracy’s home, it was quiet, dark, and still. All of the daycare kids were long gone. Tracy’s youngest daughter, who was my age, was in bed. Her oldest daughter was going to bed. I sat at the kitchen table, waiting beneath a photo of someone praying over their meal (presumably Eric Enstrom’s Grace). After some time, my Aunt Mary and Uncle Mike (my mom’s brother) pulled into the driveway. They came inside and sat down in the wooden chairs at Tracy’s kitchen table. I stood in front of them. My Uncle Mike looked at me and said, “Mom and Dad were in a bad car accident. Dad’s going to be okay, but Mom didn’t make it. Tyler didn’t make it, either.”

“Didn’t make it.”

It took a minute for those words to sink in. When I realized what they meant, I threw myself into my Aunt Mary’s arms and started crying. They told me to grab my bag, because we needed to drive all the way down to Pontiac to go see my dad in the hospital. We got into their Jeep and started the bumpy 45-minute trek. I remember sitting mostly in silence, watching cars pass on the highway, while they warned me that my dad didn’t look good.

I don’t remember ever visiting someone in the hospital prior to that day. When we got there, we made our way to the ICU, turning left into my dad’s room where my grandma sat beside him. She stood up to greet us. We walked toward the back of the room, past the privacy curtain, to where my dad lay. He was unrecognizable. His thin face was swollen to what seemed like twice its size, and his head was covered in bandages. Were it any other situation, I would have denied knowing this man. I remember him acknowledging me, and I remember telling him that I loved him, but I also remember being terrified and unsure. I wanted to curl up in his lap and cry with my dad, but this wasn’t my dad. This man was an utterly fragile stranger. Everything had changed. His jaw was broken, he had a massive head injury, his ribs were broken, and they punctured his lung and bruised his heart. He was weak, exhausted, and hurt in every comprehensible way. When my parents had been rushed to the hospital, it was my dad that doctors were most concerned about.

My grandma took us into the hallway so we could talk and let him rest. She said that his memory wasn’t good and that she had to keep reminding him what had happened. Not long before our arrival, she said she’d stepped away to get something while he was asleep. When she walked back into the room, he was wide awake and told her, “Linda was just here.” My grandma said, “No, Mike, Linda’s gone.” He said, “I know. But she just came to tell me that everything would be okay.” I clung to those words as we got back in the Jeep and made our way to my aunt and uncle’s house, where I’d spend the next several days. My aunt put me in bed with my cousin Jennifer and told me that we would return to the hospital in the morning.

For the first time in my life, I couldn’t sleep. I lay awake, tossing and turning. Finally, I got up and went to my cousin Rachel’s room thinking that perhaps a different setting would help. It didn’t. I lay awake in her canopy bed, looking out her bedroom window at the flood light that glowed above the garage. I’d occasionally doze off to sleep, only to awake in a nightmare. Having to confront my horror time and again felt worse than just lying in it consciously, vigilant about our new reality. So I lay there, waiting for the sun to rise and waiting for my cousins to wake up and discover me there. Eventually, Jennifer joined us in Rachel’s bed. They asked me how Aunt Linda was. I said the only thing I knew to say: “She didn’t make it.”

Within a few hours, we were back at the hospital, and I saw my dad in daylight. Standing next to his bed, my ears began to ring, my heart rate felt audible, and my knees turned weak. Just as I was about to faint, someone stabilized me and took me to the hospital cafeteria to get some food. Everything after this is a blur that mostly involved funeral planning. My aunt and I picked out flowers and decorative pillows — two for inside the casket (one for my mom and one for Tyler) and an identical one that my aunt gave me to keep so that I could hold something that my mom would forever hold, too. We picked out clothes for my mom, dad, and me to all wear to the funeral, not knowing if my dad would be released in time to attend it 4 days later. Meanwhile, my uncles bought us family cemetery plots and decided what would be on my mom and Tyler’s headstone. My dad was in such rough shape that he helped as much as he could, but he primarily focused on getting better.

After two days of missed funeral visitations, the hospital agreed to let my dad attend my mom’s funeral, as long as an ambulance took him there and stayed onsite. We sat together during the service, and then after everyone headed to their cars to drive to the cemetery, my dad and I walked up to the closed casket. They opened it for us so that we could see my mother and say goodbye. This is the only moment that my dad remembers from that day or even the weeks surrounding what came to be known in our family as “The Accident.”

After the services were over, my grandparents — who moved in with us for a while — took my dad back to our house to help him get settled in. Meanwhile, I went back to my aunt and uncle’s house where we gathered up my things before heading to the grocery store, where my aunt made sure that we had food, shampoo, and all of the other necessities. Appropriately stocked for the week, my aunt dropped me off at home, where remnants of our vibrant and promising life together just days earlier were scattered everywhere, amidst my dad’s new medical supplies and the dozens of funeral plants that we couldn’t give away.

After my aunt left, my dad told us that he was tired and needed to take a nap. He asked me to come upstairs with him. I followed my dad to my parents’ room, sitting on my mother’s side of the bed until he was soundly asleep, wondering if I’d ever sleep normally again. It was a jarring experience, realizing as a child that I didn’t just need my dad but that my dad needed me. I needed to be there for him. He needed to be reminded that something in our lives was still normal, that he didn’t lose everything, and that we still had each other.

I understood in this moment that my childhood innocence was gone. I understood — in the most visceral way — how much my dad meant to me and how lucky I was to have him. I would never look at life so naively again. I would always trust my gut when something felt wrong. I would always tell people I loved them before I said goodbye. And I would live every day trying to do my best, to work hard and build a life that I could be proud of — just like my parents had — knowing that any day could be my last and, if it were, I wanted to die happy and fulfilled like my mom had. As my dad continually said, “We were so happy.”

So here we are on March 2nd, 2019, and my dad is now 60. He’s remarried, has two more daughters, and we have a new family that never could have happened were it not for that March 2nd 26 years ago. Birthdays are a day to celebrate the birth of those we love, but to me, my dad’s birthday is so much more. It’s the day that he entered the world, and it’s the day that I nearly lost him. It’s the day that I lost my mother and brother, and it’s the day that made it possible for me to have my stepmom and sisters. It’s the day that taught me what it means to truly value and love someone — and let them know it. Everything about my dad, everything about his birthday, everything about how hard he worked to claw his way back to happiness, taught me what it means to live a full and purpose-filled life. Indeed, everything became okay.

I love you, Papa. Happy birthday.

My dad relaxing on a well-earned vacation in Punta Cana earlier this year.

My dad relaxing on a well-earned vacation in Punta Cana earlier this year.

Getting Back to Beverly

In February, I drove home to Ann Arbor for a quick 24 hours to help handle some Intermitten administrative duties. Because I no longer own a vehicle and have my grandma’s elderly dog, Muffin, making these drives is always a bit of an ordeal: rent a car; trek through the city to get it; park in the loading zone in front of my downtown apartment building; schlep up and down the elevator with my overnight bag and Muffin’s carseat, medications, diapers, and food; hit the road before I get a parking ticket; and attempt to drive 4-5 hours without falling asleep (no small feat for those who know me well). Much to my delight, however, this trip started off smoothly. I even made it on the road a bit early, which had me riding high on life.

This was perfect because at my destination waited one of my best friends, Erin. Muffin and I were staying with her for the night, as we often do when I go to Ann Arbor. She and I have been friends since 6th grade and became close in recent years. Our time spent together—even when one or both of us feels a bit salty—always feels restorative. I was so excited to see her and kept imagining what our evening might look like. I wondered what we'd eat, which movie we'd watch, how late we'd stay up talking until we couldn’t possibly stay awake any longer, whether we'd have a dance party before bed. Our usual things.

At some point midway through the trip, though, I looked over at Muffin who was lying so peacefully in her carseat and gazing sweetly at me, and I felt a sudden and overwhelming sense of sadness. As I sat there staring at I-94 traffic, I tried to sift through what was triggering this emotional ambush. I thought maybe it was because it was Valentine’s Day, and a few days prior, the person I’d been seeing abruptly ended it hours before our date when I jokingly warned that if the middle-eastern restaurant we were going to put "french fries inside my chicken shawarma sammy, I'd have to judge the restaurant hard ;)" (Yes, Michiganders, this happens in Chicago.) Well, they didn't find this funny and told me that I’d do better to meet my high standards elsewhere. Mmmkay. Or maybe I was sad because Erin was going through a tough time, and by the time I'd reach Ann Arbor, she would have visited a dear friend who was in the final stages of a losing battle with cancer.

While those things certainly contributed to my tempered enthusiasm, there was more to it. I realized I was sad because the last time I'd rented a car and driven to Michigan with all of my stuff in tow, periodically staring at Muffin in the carseat next to me, was because I knew it might be the last time I saw my grandma, Beverly.

With the exception of her obituary, I haven’t written about my grandma in a long time—more than 2 years, in fact. The last time I wrote about her, I was about to have her over for a weekend visit during which I planned to record our conversations to share here. I never wrote those blog posts, though. In fact, I didn’t even listen to the recordings. Rather, I got wrapped up in work and helping to develop a tech conference. And while I’ve been pretty transparent with friends and relatives when discussing my grandma’s death last spring, I haven’t been ready to sit down and put into writing what the experience of losing her was like or what it taught me. Although some people may think it's silly that I'd feel compelled to do this, writing is how I process and understand my thoughts. And it wasn't until this drive to Ann Arbor, when I had the space and time to reflect on the last 9 months, that I felt ready to write.

Grandma with her babies, Muffin and O'Malley, during our 2016 slumber party

Grandma with her babies, Muffin and O'Malley, during our 2016 slumber party

On a Sunday evening last April, after having spent 6 weeks working crazy hours in an attempt to help save my company, our customers, and my department in particular from some serious cross-functional communication problems that put the entire business at risk, I sat down on my couch to relax. I wasn't there long when I got a phone call from my grandma. This was unusual for her; she didn’t call me often, because she was always afraid of disrupting me at work (also because she couldn't hear well on the phone). She was in the hospital again, which had become a somewhat-common occurrence in recent years due to her COPD. She told me she was doing well now, but the doctors said she wouldn't survive another bout of pneumonia. I asked her how she felt about that. She said, “I’m not afraid of dying; I’m just afraid of suffering.”

That response rattled me to my core.

It was the first time in my life that I'd ever heard Grandma utter anything remotely close to a willingness to let go. This woman was not simply resilient; she was a force of nature. She grew up in a pretty wild environment. She married her middle school sweetheart at 17, despite his parents’ disapproval. They honeymooned in San Diego, where he shipped off to fight in the Korean War and where she was supposed to set up a homestead. Immediately after he left, though, she grabbed a flight home and sent him a letter so he'd know where to find her. She did what she wanted, even in 1955.

After my grandpa returned home from the war, they tried to start a family. Unfortunately, they struggled with infertility. She endured more than 10 miscarriages and a stillborn before adopting 2 children, getting her tubes tied, and then miraculously giving birth to their youngest. Just as their family was getting established, my grandma's mother ("Grams" or "Grandma Lucy," as we called her) nearly died in a car wreck that took her second husband. At that point, Grandma Lucy permanently moved in with my grandparents.

Before long, Grandma's son (my bio-dad) descended into addiction as a 12 year-old. Meanwhile, she nursed her best friend throughout her lost battle with cancer and subsequently helped care for her best friend's children. She did all of this while working full time and managing their ever-expanding household. Oh, and by the way, she survived a brain aneurysm at 62, against all odds, because “it’s hard to die when you know all your kids aren’t settled” (a reference to my bio-dad). Despite all of this trauma and hardship, my grandma gave herself wholeheartedly to everyone she knew and exemplified unconditional love in every imaginable way.

The fact that she, our family rock, was even considering the possibility of giving up was a strong signal to me that I needed to get home as fast as possible. After she was released from the hospital, I told my boss I’d work remotely, rented a car for 2 weeks, packed up Muffin, and prepared to live with my parents again for the first time since high school.

Grandma's wedding announcement

Grandma's wedding announcement

I arrived at my parents' house on a Saturday evening at the end of April. I thought about going to see my grandma that weekend but couldn’t quite bring myself to do it. I wasn’t ready; I wasn't prepared for what our forthcoming time together would mean. I wanted to settle in and knew I'd have the next 2 weeks. My plan was to work from my aunt’s house, where my grandma lived, and talk with Grandma while she was still feeling well. We’d have the days together and really just get to enjoy each other's company with no pressure of my impending departure.

Muffin and I arrived on Monday, and Grandma was surprised to see us. We chatted while we sat in her den. I worked on my laptop while she watched shows like Wheel of Fortune and Judge Judy, with Muffin snuggled up on her lap. It was a great day, and she felt great.

The next day, we sat together and enjoyed each other's company. Work was a little more complicated that day. I took Grandma to her lung appointment at lunch time, which she insisted we bring Muffin to. The doctor said she looked and sounded great, that he’d see her in 4-6 weeks for a chest x-ray. She asked why her chest hurt in the mornings; he told her it was because she wasn’t coughing up mucus in the night and that she needs to do breathing treatments first thing when she wakes up. She became very quiet, drooped her head, looked up at him sheepishly, and asked, “Can I have my cuppa coffee first?”

We left the doctor’s office, and Grandma asked if we could take my bio-dad out to lunch. She said she always did this when she went to the doctor. I looked at the time; we had already been away for a couple of hours. I hadn’t expected this or prepared my team for me to be away for so long, and our entire customer onboarding strategy was running off of a spreadsheet system that I'd hacked together—my last-minute, poor-man’s developer solution to the late-game changes in the company plan.

I asked Grandma if we could take lunch to my bio-dad that day and take him out for lunch the next day. She wasn’t thrilled, but she agreed. We went to the motel where he'd been living to drop off food. I nervously pounded on the door; I hadn’t seen him in years and only knew that he was dying of liver failure. Finally, he came out, and I gave him a hug and his food and told him we'd take him to lunch the next day.

The next day when it was time for me to go to Grandma’s, I wasn’t feeling well. I thought I might be getting sick, and my dad (the one who raised me) came home from work sick. I was worried that I might get my grandma sick, so I stayed home but called her throughout the day to check on her. She said she was fine. The next day, I worked from my company's office in Ann Arbor so that I could help record a promo video for Intermitten afterward.

The next day, Friday, I went back to Grandma’s. This time, Grandma wasn't feeling well. She was still in her pajamas and using her oxygen. She looked tired. She said she didn’t feel well enough to take my bio-dad to lunch. She was also upset at me for not taking him to lunch on Tuesday. She told me that I didn’t care about him, which was very unlike her. I sat on the ottoman in front of her, put my hands on her knees, and assured her that I did love him, that she had protected me from the volatile parts of his life, which allowed me to only have good memories of him. I told her that I only didn’t want to take him to lunch on Tuesday because things were so crazy at work and my team and our customers needed me. I explained that I had an important responsibility at the company, which was in its most critical time of year. She looked at me out of the corner of her eye and said, “Do you like it?”

I was dumbfounded by the question and had no idea know how to respond. I had always felt that this job was the most important job I’d ever had. We were literally trying to ensure that there was enough food for the world, and my incredibly talented team was on the front lines of that mission. It was my job to protect them and clear their paths so they could do their best work. But the truth of the matter was that I'd spent the last 3 years building last-minute technical infrastructures because we weren't operating well as a company. In an attempt to protect the business and keep our employees happy, I spent most of my time cleaning up messes that I didn't make and that shouldn't have been made in the first place, let alone repeatedly.

I realized then that no, I no longer liked it. I wasn't happy. But how could I tell my grandma, one of the most important people in my life, that I'd chosen a job I no longer liked over her? I lied to her for the first time in my adult life; I told her that I did. She nodded and turned her attention back to Judge Judy. I look at this moment now and recognize how strategic my grandma was. She didn't tell me I was wrong to choose work; she knew that I'd initially dig my heels in, stubborn as I am. Instead, she asked me a question and knew I'd reach the realization on my own.

That afternoon, I made Grandma tomato soup just how she liked it—with half water, half milk, in her “Happy 39th Birthday Again!” mug, with a straw. We laughed at jokes. We watched Wheel of Fortune reruns. She asked about a relative who'd recently come out, and when I said that some folks weren’t handling the news so well, she said, “That’s a shame. We're supposed to love unconditionally.”

Within a couple of hours, Grandma’s visiting nurse came by and noted that Grandma had a fever. She had my grandma walk a bit and monitored her oxygen level. When Grandma sat back down, the nurse told us that the pneumonia was coming back and that Grandma needed to go to the hospital. Grandma said that she didn’t want to go back to the hospital. She didn’t want to fight anymore. So in a moment pregnant with trepidation, we called Hospice instead. The nurse assured Grandma that she had lots of time, that some people even go to work while on Hospice. They asked if we wanted to have our new Hospice nurse come out that night to set up Grandma's paperwork or if we wanted to wait until tomorrow. We decided on the next day, since Grandma was doing fine and had already endured a lot of poking and prodding.

That evening, I packed up Muffin. I told my grandma that I was going home to help my sisters prepare for Prom the next day, but I assured her that I’d be back afterward and we’d take my bio-dad to lunch over the weekend when she was feeling better. That night, my sisters and I did a practice run of their makeup, got our nails done, went to dinner together, and then I went home to watch a movie with my parents who raised me. I texted my aunt a picture of Grandma and Muffin from earlier in the day. She said Grandma enjoyed it and that they were all going to bed early because everyone was tired.

Grandma and Muffin that Friday

Grandma and Muffin that Friday

20 minutes later, my phone rang. It was my aunt again. Suddenly, my grandma couldn’t breathe. My aunt didn’t know what to do. Grandma had decided she didn’t want to go back to the hospital, but Hospice wasn’t supposed to come until the next morning. My aunt asked if she should call the on-call Hospice nurse and find out what to do. I said I thought that was a good idea and to call me back right away. Within 10 minutes, she called back. The nurse hadn’t answered, and my grandma was crying in the background to make her suffering stop. I told my aunt I was on my way. I grabbed my toothbrush, left Muffin with my parents, and got in the car. I drove the 30 minutes to my aunt’s house, with the sound of Grandma's cries from our phone call echoing in my mind. This wasn’t good.

When I got to my aunt's, I ran inside the house and found my grandma on her hospital bed, gasping for air. I will never forget the look on her face as her mouth opened and closed, taking in air but not getting enough oxygen. She reminded me of a fish out of water. She was too worked up to speak. She flailed her arms as though she were trying to swim to the surface where she could take a deep breath, but there was nowhere to swim. There was no surface. She had me hold her arms in the air like she was a small child who swallowed something down the "wrong pipe.” I held a cold washcloth to her forehead and couldn’t believe how warm it was every time I tried to refold it for her. She was dripping with sweat from all of the exertion it took her to breathe. I hadn’t seen my perpetually-cold grandma break a sweat in years. I stood there trying to assure her that she would be okay soon, that the nurse was coming. She just shook her head at me, her way of saying, “This is what I was afraid of.”

The Hospice nurse finally arrived and after getting a glimpse of my grandma's state, the nurse was in shock. She wasn’t expecting this. She started giving my grandma Ativan and morphine, anything and everything to relax her. But dose after dose, it had no impact on Grandma whatsoever, and Grandma looked at the nurse with desperate eyes that I’d never seen on an adult.

Finally, the nurse said, “I legally can’t give her any more medication without approval from a doctor." The nurse called the ER at the nearest hospital and started talking to the doctor on call. She mentioned my grandma’s name, repeated it, and then held her phone out to look at it. She turned to me and said, “The doctor asked your grandma’s name again and said, ‘You give that woman whatever you need to make her feel comfortable' and hung up on me.” Turns out that the on-call ER doctor was my grandpa’s doctor, whom Grandma had raved about for more than 10 years. She loved him, and he loved her.

The nurse put a port in my grandma’s belly to give her the medications subcutaneously instead of orally. This finally did the trick. Grandma went into a sleep, relaxed, but with her chest gurgling sounds I'd previously only ever heard come from a fish tank. (Lots of fish metaphors here, folks.) The nurse said Grandma wouldn’t make it through the night and gave me instructions for her medications so that she’d stay unconscious: inject two different medications into her stomach, swab her mouth with a sponge, and give her a medication orally. We were to monitor her breathing, which would become increasingly shallow with longer pauses. My aunts and I crawled onto the bed with Grandma. We lay there, holding her hands, kissing her, letting her know we loved her and that it was okay to go. I set my phone alarm to wake me up every 2 hours to give Grandma those sedatives and ensure she didn’t wake up to the horror that she had experienced just before she slipped away from us.

But night came and went, and Grandma was still with us. The Hospice nurse came the next day and seemed surprised to see her. She told me it wouldn’t be much longer and helped us change Grandma’s clothes so she would be in fresh pajamas. All of the family was coming in to say their goodbyes. My bio-dad showed up and sat with her, assuring her that he’d be okay, that he always is. He used what few resources he has to buy food for the whole family and made us some amazing meals, inspired by his time playing music in New Orleans. My grandma always loved his cooking, and I knew that if she could hear us, she was happy that we were all enjoying each other's company. After a bit, I went home to my parents' house to pack some clothes and get Muffin. When I returned, I put Muffin on the bed with Grandma. She curled up on Grandma’s feet and didn't take her eyes off her first mommy, the irreplaceable OG.

Another night came and went, and Grandma was still with us. My cousins, aunts, uncle, and I sat in her room the next day sharing stories, laughing at how she had a lead foot, teasing about how naive she always was, and reminiscing about all of the amazing things she did for everyone she knew. I sat there thinking about the whirlwind that had happened. I knew she had COPD for so long. I knew I was coming home for the end, but it all still happened so fast. It was like watching sand fall inside an hourglass. At first, it fell slowly and steadily, but all of a sudden it was almost the end, and I was certain the sand was falling much faster now than it had before. How did I plan for this moment and yet feel so unprepared?

Another night came, and I again sat there with my phone, timing Grandma’s breath spaces, giving her medications, and listening for any changes. By the next morning, the nurse said Grandma must be holding on for something. But everyone was there. We’d all said our goodbyes and told her she could go be with Grandpa.

The nurse asked if she could see pictures of Grandma. I sat down with her and showed her a scrapbook album that Grandma had made. She commented on how beautiful and vibrant Grandma was and said she wished she could have talked with her. I was so grateful that she could see a glimpse of the woman I had grown up with, who was so much more than the fragile and scared person the nurse had seen nights before. Grandma had once been so full of life—more exuberant when recounting memories than some people express while making them. It was hard to even get her to stay still for pictures.

Grandma celebrating her ability to blow out all of her birthday candles

Grandma celebrating her ability to blow out all of her birthday candles

That night, I stood over Grandma. I put “Unchained Melody,” my grandparents’ wedding song, on loop on my phone, and I placed my phone on her pillow with hopes that she could hear it. I stood there and told her how much I loved her. That's when my guilt broke me. I had let my job, which I’d been killing myself over for years, prevent me from taking Grandma to lunch with her son. I had let my job interfere with my own time spent with my grandma, the woman who took me home from the hospital, helped raise me, let me live with her when I was going through rough times, held me when my mother died, taught me to cook, and sat on the phone with me for hours when I was a freshman away at college and completely confused by the events of 9/11.

I stood in the darkness of Grandma's room, watching her struggle to breathe, and started weeping. I told her that I was sorry, that I would change, that I would get my priorities in order. I assured her that I’d make sure her son (my bio-dad) was okay. I hugged her and kissed her and touched her silky soft hair, knowing I wouldn’t have much longer to take in how perfect and precious she was. I sat back down in the rocking chair that had become my makeshift bed those last few nights, set all of my phone alarms, and started timing her breath spaces again.

I woke up a few hours later when I didn’t hear Grandma take her next breath. I walked over to her and kissed her warm cheek. My aunt came in, and I told her Grandma was gone. I sat with Grandma until the funeral directors came to take her. Then I sat at the kitchen table with my aunts and wrote Grandma’s obituary. When that was done, I packed up Muffin and my toiletries, grabbed Grandma’s “Happy 39th Birthday Again!” coffee mug (with permission), and drove home to my parents' house to shower. I was alone when I got home and stood in the shower, heaving the loudest, heaviest sobs I've bellowed as an adult.

It wasn’t until that moment that I moved from “crisis management" mode into “I just experienced some of the worst horror of my life” awareness mode. I had been medicating Grandma and caring for her so that my aunts didn’t have to remember their mom that way but also because I felt so guilty for being so far away and not spending more time with her. Why didn't I just take the time off work, which I had certainly earned? Why didn't I go to her the second I got home to Michigan? How had I not called her every damn day? I'm still processing the answers to these questions, but I think the gist of it is that we can only handle so much at once, and I knew that the loss of my grandma was one that I'd never be prepared for.

I came out of the shower to find my sister and sweet stepmom, who held me and then took me to dinner. I tried to explain what had just happened, but I also knew that few people would ever fully understand. I had learned that lesson when I was 9 and my mom died unexpectedly in a car accident—there are some things that people will never comprehend until they experience the pain themselves, a pain you’d never wish on them. This was another one of those moments woven into the tapestry of my life, one that would shape who I am as a human being.

The next day, my aunts and I went to the funeral home, picked out our flowers for her, and then I set my car toward the nearest mall to go find some funeral clothes. On the way, I plugged my phone in and finally listened to those recorded conversations from our sleepover the year before. I could hear her voice, healthy and bright. My grandpa was still alive that weekend, and I could hear a carefree spirit that I realized I hadn't heard in her since he'd passed. Hearing it made me feel so close to her at a time when she'd never felt farther away.

The next few weeks were a blur. I could barely cope. I woke up with terror in the night when I couldn’t hear Muffin breathing. I couldn’t bring myself to leave my apartment for anything other than work, and even that was a chore. I felt physically incapable of doing work, and when I got home from the office, I had to force myself to work on Intermitten, which was just a few weeks away.

Then my trusty Ann Arbor friend, Erin, told me she was coming to visit me in Chicago for Memorial Day weekend. On day 2 of her trip, we went out for brunch. We sat outside on the restaurant patio, and she said, "So are you going to tell me what happened?" I finally confessed to someone just how broken I was, told her what I'd experienced and how much I hated that I let my job interfere with my time with one of the most important people in my life. We wept together, into our mimosas, next to the busy city sidewalk. A group of people came by, paused to look at the restaurant menu, saw us mopping our wet faces with our napkins, and then kept walking. That restaurant is no longer in business.

After brunch, Erin and I went kayaking on the Chicago River, during which we met a sudden and unexpected downpour. We sloppily paddled our way toward a bridge to stop underneath it for cover. We looked at each other, completely drenched, and then laughed until we couldn't laugh anymore. When the kayak tour was done, we dried off as best as we could and then started sloshing our way through the city. We stopped for hot chai tea lattés, grabbed some takeout, and cozied back up in dry clothes at home. I felt cleansed and a sense of renewal. For the first time in a while, I was looking forward to something again—my first summer as a Chicagoan. I resolved to enjoy the parks, the beach, the water, all of which were among the reasons I'd decided to move here 6 months prior. I was excited for Intermitten.

A week or so later, Intermitten happened, and it was invigorating. People came up to me and told me that the previous Intermitten had changed their lives, that they found their passion or next job, felt inspired to do work that matters, or that they couldn't wait for the 2018 event. Standing in the event venue before the after party, it hit me: The 2018 event was a year away and the only thing I had in my near future was my job. My body filled with dread.

I discovered then that all of the professional things that had been fueling and nurturing me were behind me. It was also in that moment when I realized I didn’t have to save the world from starvation to contribute value and help make the world a better place. I was adding value in other ways: by nurturing the Midwest tech ecosystem and the people affected by it. I got in the car to drive back to Chicago, and I told my friend who rode with me that I was done.

When I got home to Chicago, I told my boss I was resigning, that I couldn’t pay the price for our company’s broken processes anymore. I promised that I’d stay as long as he needed and transition the team but said I needed a break to get perspective and figure out what was next for me. He was kind and understanding. He agreed that things were broken and the company had failed me and my department. He asked me to take time off instead of leaving so that he could fix things and create something healthy to return to. He even asked me to consider an expanded Operations role when I came back—one that would empower me to help fix some of the cross-functional issues that were plaguing us.

I tried to make my time "off" time on. I set my alarm everyday so I could get up, work out, read leadership and self-help books, meditate, re-learn French, organize my home. Basically, I did anything I could think of to help restore clarity and order to my life. A couple months later, when it was time for my boss and me to consider whether I’d come back, the company was in a very different place and had some tough decisions to make. Not only was it decided that we didn't need an Operations leader, he wasn't sure how long my existing role would be necessary, given that I had set up my team to function well without me. Knowing that I could be included in a future downsizing—in which case my team would be disrupted by my departure again—I decided it was best for them and for me to finally and officially move on. It was a long and slow break, one that few people in the company understood, one that I've oversimplified here for brevity, and one that I'm still processing.

I still dream about that job. In fact, I dreamed recently that after being belittled by a coworker whose mistakes I kept fixing, I finally lost it and whacked him in the chest with a hairbrush. That's some seriously messed up stuff and not even remotely close to any real interactions or feelings I had toward him in real life. But it’s a perfect metaphor for what did happen: I kept letting work chip away at me until I finally shattered. I'd let my life get completely out of balance. And while I love and miss that company dearly and still communicate with the folks there often, my relationship with it was no longer healthy for me. Too much damage had been done to try to make things work again.

And so 9 months later, I found myself driving to Ann Arbor, still processing it all, not always understanding these occasional turbulent waves of emotion. They’re so complex and intertwined. Is it work? Is it regret? Is it because there are times when I miss my Grandma so much that I can hardly breathe? Is it because every once in a while, some monster in a middle eastern restaurant kitchen puts french fries in a chicken shawarma sammy and it’s the last GD straw? Still kidding to be clear.

And then I remember that I need to write in order to process my thoughts and feelings, and I think about those audio recordings from Grandma's visit in 2016. I play them and revel in the sound of her voice, her stories, her wisdom. In retrospect, I feel so grateful that I didn't listen to them until she passed away. She kept me company for hours while I walked around a suburban mall looking for clothes to wear to her funeral, remembering all the times we'd shopped together. Hearing her voice retell some of my favorite stories was so comforting to me in those moments. And then I think about how I'll write her stories here, as I promised I would. I haven't forgotten, friends of our dear Beverly. Bear with me.


Meet Beverly.

On Saturday, my grandma, Beverly, is coming over to spend the night. Friends, let me tell you. This. Is. Big. This will be our first sleepover in a very long time. In fact, it might be our first sleepover, just us, in decades. She doesn't know it yet, but I have several goals for our visit. Some will not surprise her, such as getting our nails done, drinking our coffee black, playing with Muffin (her dog that I now take care of), and slurping down a pair of Faygo Red Pop floats. I do have one goal that she probably doesn't expect, though, which is making her tell and re-tell lots of stories about her life so I can record and share them here. It's going to be amazing. (At least I think so, but she might be slightly less enthused.)

Grandma and me catching up over black coffee in 2013.

Grandma and me catching up over black coffee in 2013.

The thing is, guys, as far as lovely human beings go, my grandma is in the upper echelon. She has a heart of gold, is hilariously gullible, makes the best food, is unfairly generous, and has been known to shoot Amaretto from paper cups. (Honestly, the latter is an aspect of her life that I'm hoping to get some clarity on this weekend.) I'm fortunate to be related to her (literally, but we'll cover that later), and I'm even more fortunate that we've always been very close.

Grandma and I go way back to my beginning in 1983. She took me home from the hospital after I was born. My mom had contracted a staph infection in the hospital and had to stay there longer. So Grandma busted me out of the joint, and we hit the road. I imagine us whipping up M-24 like Thelma and Louise, only I sincerely hope that I was in a car seat (with my family, there is some room for doubt here). Our first destination after the hospital was LS Family Foods, the grocery store where she worked in Lake Orion, Michigan. As she tells it, she had to stop on the way home to show all her friends at work her first grandchild. We were tight from day one. At least that's what I assume. I obviously don't remember that day.

Indeed, I have no memories of my grandma until I was a toddler at my aunt's wedding reception. My toddler brain doesn't remember much, but it remembers one thing from that night: Grandma was having so much fun celebrating her last child's marriage that she was dancing on the tables. You can imagine my disappointment when I grew up and discovered that this doesn't happen at all weddings. I don't know that I ever saw her do that at another wedding again, but let's get one thing straight right now: if I ever get married and she's at my wedding, I'll be damned if we don't dance on the table together.

Grandma and I got very close over my early childhood years. I spent most of my weekends with her. My biological father, Grandma's son, suffers greatly from alcoholism. Due to this, he and my mom divorced when I was so young that I don't even remember it. And on every weekend when my father should have had me, I hung out with Grandma instead. As far as I was concerned, I'd hit the jackpot.

It was during these times when I learned a lot from Grandma. We did typical "grandma" things like play Go Fish, Solitaire, and Gin Rummy. But she also taught me–by example, I might add–things like how to do a headstand, slurp spaghetti noodles, and blow straw wrappers off of restaurant straws (my first attempt at this landed my straw wrapper in an old man's ear). She also taught me a lot about food and let me cook alongside her with my own Fischer Price kitchen. To this day, some of my favorite recipes come from her. Goulash. Chili. Zucchini stew. Perfect winter meals.

Grandma also instilled in me my earliest business skills. We, of course, did the classic lemonade stand in the front yard. But before long, we progressed to door-to-door fingernail painting and later, my personal favorite, rock selling. The value add for the latter was that I had custom painted the merchandise with watercolors. Not to be diminished among these early introductions to work life, however, is the fact that Grandma introduced me to my first computer, an Apple II. On it, I admittedly played Frogger and Wheel of Fortune, but I also began experimenting with the command line and used Typing Tutor to learn to type. Grandma encouraged a goal of 55 words per minute with 100% accuracy. I practiced fiercely every weekend.

Never one to be too serious, Grandma also exposed me to some classic entertainment. She introduced me to Lily Tomlin as Edith Ann, watched I Love Lucy with me, and told me about Evil Knievel and Cheech & Chong. She harassed me about my Madonna obsession ("I don't know why you like her so much; she's just wearing her underwear.") and had me convinced for several years that her car radio could only play country music. She gave me my first novel, The Hobbit, and told me about some of her own favorite "books," like Under the Bleachers by Seymour Buttz.

These are just a few of my favorite Grandma memories from the first 8ish years of my life. There's so much more nestled deep in my heart and mind. I cannot wait to spend the weekend with her, uncovering it all and reminiscing about what a wonderful life she created—not only for herself but for our whole family.

Stay tuned, friends. I don't know what these blogs posts are going to be like just yet, but I hope they will be a treat for anyone who knows our dear Beverly.