When FMLA Met National Pancake Day

Both my parents lost their mothers young. My mom’s mom passed when she was four; my dad’s mom passed when he was a 21-year-old newlywed. Both grandfathers remarried, but after 34 years it’s clear that the most grandparent I’ve ever had is my dad’s dad. Lushly coiffed at 85, prickly but funny, deeply literate but verbally brief and matter of fact, brusque but devoted, that would be Grandpa Tom.

He’s only ever asked me for one thing. On Saturday. After a lifetime of his evasive and economical brand of affection, I was happy and focused in my desire to deliver the goods he had asked me for three times: a photograph of me, my husband and kids with Bill Clinton.

Of course this is the picture.

Of course this is the picture.

Don’t Forget

“Don’t forget that picture, Angie.” Really, the man can go one year without getting personal on you, so his insistence on something so sentimental really struck me. By the time he had asked, though, his hands were cramping badly and his fingers were beginning to curl together like small, ivory-tipped claws. Watching him eat a cup of orange sherbet, I wanted so many times to grab the plastic spoon from under his clenched thumb and feed him myself: deftly and fast, no drips or ice chips to navigate on my watch. I didn’t.

So as I prepared to leave his ICU room in the hospital where he– widowed two years at age 51– had presented my mom with a dozen peach roses on the day I was born, I asked how he wanted the picture. His fingers couldn’t manipulate a framed photo safely, and I wasn’t sure he could see the photo if I tacked it on the wall.

“How do you want the picture, grandpa?” I asked.

An economical conversationalist nearly always, he answered without hesitation: “Maybe in an envelope. So it doesn’t get wet. You know.”

And I do know. It’s been snowing abundantly and beautifully in Milwaukee this week and being in the ICU is messy business.

The picture could have been ready the next day, Sunday. We just had to print it at Walgreen’s, right from my husband’s laptop. I would place the order just after dinner, then put the kids to bed, then go to Walgreen’s, then drive the 20 minutes to the hospital.

But I didn’t. I was exhausted, the snow was falling again, the kids were rattled from a busy weekend of family, friends, iPods, indoor soccer. My dad, the second-born of my grandfather’s three sons, called. He explained how disoriented my grandfather was as he decelerated from a reasonably healthy and independent old age to full-system failure after three days in ICU. I gratefully accepted my dad’s gentle encouragement to stay home, get rest, avoid seeing my agitated, elegant grandfather restrained and sedated in his hospital bed.

Monday passed as Mondays do. Kids in school, I’m at work, husband’s in D.C. I had nearly forgotten about Grandpa Tom until my mom facebooked me at 10:30 p.m. My grandfather was doing worse as his condition cascaded from stubborn pneumonia down toward his bladder and kidneys. Lucidity was random and fleeting, but he had asked about me.

I called my husband. He dispatched the Bill Clinton photo file to Walgreen’s from D.C. I messaged my manager. Tomorrow, more than 24 hours after “Don’t forget, Angie,” I would deliver that picture.


On Feb. 5, 2013, I rose after four hours of sleep. I turned on NPR and made breakfast as my first child groaned himself out of bed and creaked his way down the stairs. I don’t know what story was on. I heard just two sentences of it: “The single thing Bill Clinton is thanked for most, he says, is the Family Medical Leave Act. When people stop him in the airport, or on the campaign trail…” I gasped. My father continues to work full time though he’s now nearly 60. His job can be painfully physical. But he does it even now, sometimes six days per week. Since my grandfather’s sudden hospitalization last week, my dad has been using FMLA.

I got the kids to school. I drove home, stopped at the Walgreen’s. “I loved him as president,” the photo manager tells me as she rings up my order for two prints and slides me an extra cardboard envelope. “Thanks,” I smile. “I liked him, too.”

The hospital is 15 minutes away. Before I even reach Grandpa Tom’s room, my dad and uncle tell me that my grandfather is beyond recovery at this point. We are a small family, but within minutes nearly all of us are there. Both my brothers, my dad, my eldest uncle and his wife, my mom.

Most of what happens next is my family’s story, belonging to all of us. The rest of them are more private than me. By a lot. I show Grandpa Mac the picture through his barely-open blue eyes. I feel silly and showy talking about Bill Clinton, how he’s kept off his weight with a vegan diet. I explain how we saw him stumping for Obama at UW-Green Bay in October 2012. My family doesn’t really like Bill Clinton, and I’m phrasing this conservatively. But they love me and they love Grandpa Tom and he asked and, my goodness, what else should I say? It’s all he’s ever asked me for.

Within minutes my brother assumes control. He’s a priest and he’s there to administer Last Rites, Extreme Unction. Just two days ago my grandfather had told my Fr. Brother to call the Archdiocese. “Those Communion wafers are so dry. It got stuck in my throat.” Fr. Brother and I both laughed at that, and at Grandpa’s suggestion that whiskey be offered to ease Christ’s body down the throats of the sick and suffering.

The Rites give those moments in the room momentum and meaning. One passage is a litany of names, all of them saints, that my brother recites to Grandpa Tom: “Perpetua, Joseph, Augustine, Felicity, Mary, Francis.” I feel certain my grandfather is trying to remove his breathing mask and I start to say this, shattering the list, before I remember that these are not just words I’m interrupting. These are Last Rites. My grandfather’s stirring eases as Fr. Brother places his hands on Grandpa’s head of black and grey hair. His waving arms still. My mother says “Look,” in a hushed voice, but we don’t really need to. We sense and see his stillness, instantly.

National Pancake Day

Ninety minutes later I am sitting at IHOP with my brothers and the girlfriend of the one who is not Fr. Brother. George is our server and he tells us that today, Feb. 5, 2013, is National Pancake Day. Short stacks are free for everyone. “I can’t believe Grandpa Tom died on National Pancake Day,” I say, mostly because I did not know National Pancake Day existed.

We place our orders. George leaves. Fr. Brother asks me what I was saying during Last Rites. “I couldn’t understand you,” he says, looking relaxed and almost ready to laugh. “Were you saying it was too long?”

Of course not, I explain. I apologize for the interruption, explain that I should not have said anything. I feel like I’ve been exposed for being briefly, awkwardly intolerant, disrespectful. I don’t think Fr. Brother sees it that way at all, however. I hope not.

We talk about books and movies. Grandpa and our parents. National Pancake Day. FMLA  and Last Rites are behind us for now. I know more about both after this week. I won’t forget.

15 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. acorporatewife
    Feb 06, 2013 @ 12:36:20

    You’re the best granddaughter. xoxoxo


  2. acorporatewife
    Feb 06, 2013 @ 12:40:17

    Reblogged this on Diary of a Corporate Wife and commented:
    She’s stellar, this granddaughter.


  3. Chutney Challenged
    Feb 06, 2013 @ 12:55:08

    Thanks, CW. I tried. My mom read this and actually said “I think I might … love Bill Clinton.” I know it’s just spill-over love for me she’s talking about. But sweet to hear nonetheless!


  4. Mary Ann Neevel
    Feb 07, 2013 @ 20:23:29

    Thank you for sharing these poignant moments. I’m certain that you will never forget them! Nor want to.


  5. sharifah
    Feb 08, 2013 @ 01:38:08

    I am going to celebrate national pancake day every year. What a perfect comfort food with memories of loved ones.


  6. Trackback: Gratitude and Grandpas: A ‘Thank You’ Note « Chutney Challenged
  7. Kate
    Feb 08, 2013 @ 15:43:15

    XXOO, darlin. Wish I could deliver them in person without fear of infecting you with some insane cold or flu.


  8. B. Flad
    Feb 09, 2013 @ 22:29:57

    Gorgeous reflection, A.! The love is palpable in your writing! Peace and prayers to you.


  9. Trackback: An Obit Writer and an Essayist Walk Into a Church… « Chutney Challenged
  10. Erin
    Feb 11, 2013 @ 03:02:51

    A., I’m just catching up and am sorry to read about your grandfather’s death. But that you for sharing your experience. So much here …


    • Chutney Challenged
      Feb 11, 2013 @ 03:59:05

      Thanks, Erin. I’m so grateful for that last talk with him, but regretful that I didn’t break dietary restrictions and sneak him the pizza & beer he really wanted Saturday afternoon. I’m sure they’ll be a next time to get these final moments right for someone else. But I’m in no rush, of course!


  11. Trackback: When FMLA Met National Pancake Day « Chutney Challenged

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