The astonishing way I prayed holding my dying grandfather’s hand

I grabbed my keys and rushed over. Time stood still. My dad called moments after I finished recording a podcast to tell me my grandfather had fallen. He’d landed between the toilet and the vanity, his neck and back at an awkward angle.

But he was awake when we found him, conscious. We could talk to him. My father covered him with a towel, so as he waited outside for the ambulance, I crouched beside my Papa Gus and reached for his hand.

What do you say to the toughest guy you know? A stubborn Puerto Rican-born, Broolyn-raised Air Force veteran who went from the military to an electrical engineering career to crumpled on the ground before you.

Courtesy photos

I knew he was scared. I knew he was uncomfortable. He needed to know he wasn’t alone. I needed him to know that we had the time to say what needed to be said.

“Papa, can you hear me? Are you okay?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m okay. I just want to go home.”

“You are home, Papa. How did you fall?”

“Oh, I don’t know, I got dizzy. I need a haircut. Can you take me to get a haircut, Katie?”

He knew who I was. I hadn’t told him it was me, and I didn’t think he could see me fully with where his head was tucked. But he heard my voice.

“I love you, Papa. We’ll get you a haircut soon. Are you okay? Does anything hurt?”

“I need my ladder. I left my ladder out. I was on my ladder. I’m getting dizzy. I need to go see your grandmother, where is she? I love you, you know?”

Our conversation continued broken bits of sentences here and there, with many “I love yous” from the both of us, as he asked about all his people. He wanted to know where his grandsons were. He asked about my daughters, his great-granddaughters, whom he fondly called “my girls.” He knew he’d just spoken to my postulant sister on the phone the previous Saturday. He knew his son and daughter were on the way. And he wanted to see Libby, my grandmother who passed away in 2020.

We sat there on that bathroom floor for what couldn’t have been longer than 10 minutes. It felt like an eternity, though, as holy moments often do. Time stood still, and I just held his hand, and we talked. The bathroom floor, between the toilet and the vanity, seems like an odd place to encounter the Lord, but there he was, comforting us both as we knew, deep down, what was to come.

Jesus was there in the physical suffering of my Papa Gus, his legs and arms twisted, his heart already beginning to beat too fast as he had crashed into the tile floor. He was there as I knelt beside him, keeping vigil beside his growing cold body, trying to keep him talking and conscious long enough for the EMTs to assess him properly. He was there as we said “I love you” a dozen times in just a few moments, the phrase put at the end of every sentence of the idle chit-chat to try and keep him awake.

We said nothing that was all that important, but we said what needed to be said. Papa Gus knew I was there. He knew he was loved. And we both felt Jesus there, on the cold tile of that bathroom floor.

The EMTs arrived, and he squeezed my hand as they entered the room.

“Go get me my rosary, Katie Bug. And don’t let them take off my rings. Let me keep my wedding ring.”

“Yes, sir. I love you, Papa. I love you.”

“I love you too.”

I rushed to grab the rosary on the end table next to his easy chair. I teared up. He hadn’t called me “Katie Bug” in years. Not since I was a kid. Maybe I still was one to him. I didn’t mind. Maybe he was in a different time in his head when I was just a seven-year-old girl waiting for him to come home from summer days at work so we could go fishing out at the camp. I could be there too if that’s the time he was in. I handed him the rosary as they brought him to the ambulance, squeezed his hand, and told him I loved him once more. He said it back with a gargle in his throat.

It’s the last thing he’d ever say to me.

Taking time to say goodbye

Two hours later, I was beside him again. No longer were we on cold bathroom tiles, his limbs twisted, and his neck turned. Now, he was intubated and sedated, covered with a warm blanket, clinging to his rosary. From his house to the hospital, he had coded twice, and after two rounds of CPR, the prognosis had shifted from “Let’s just make sure he didn’t hit his head” to “This is a life-ending event; how can we make him comfortable?”

And so, on the Tuesday of Holy Week, I sat beside the bedside of my dying grandfather and felt the heavy presence of God and the tender warmth of our suffering Lord as we walked my Papa Gus home. I held his hand, where we kept his wedding ring on as he’d requested, and told him I loved him, we’d get him that haircut, and I’d go put away the ladder. I told him I’d always loved the trips down to the dock at the fishing camp when I was his Katie Bug, and we’d sneak off to get frozen cokes at the corner store.

I thanked him for letting us live with him during hurricane evacuations and giving up his bedroom so we would have space to bring home our secondborn between the two storms. I told him I admired his faith, how he’d returned to the Church in his 50s, becoming the most devoted Catholic I’d known, even to the end, when he asked for his rosary. He knew he wouldn’t be returning to his house after his fall. He told me he wanted to go home. And home, he would go. With his rosary in hand.

We spent the day with him. Decisions were made. Care was given. Comfort was the priority. And time stood still.

What felt like a chaotic morning on what should have been a full Tuesday of the busiest week in the Church’s year suddenly felt slow. The minutes ticked by slowly, and as the hours passed and Papa held on, it felt like the clock no longer mattered. We knew people were praying for him and us. Our priests came, no questions asked, to anoint him, pray for him, and be with us. We knew he could hear us, so we continued the idle chit-chat with each other and in his ear and walked down memory lane.

There was no urgency or rush. We watched monitors beep, tubes inflate, and his eyes flutter. We held his hand and told him we loved him. And just like on the bathroom floor, time that could’ve sped by with decision-making and confusing conversations with providers and calls and texts to family to keep them posted instead stood still, and Jesus was there. Time that could’ve been stolen had we found him minutes too late, but time that we suddenly had because we’d rushed him to the hospital where they stabilized him so we could take our time to say goodbye. Time we’d somehow gained, a luxury of riches we never expected to have.

Holy moments are held in God’s hands, and minutes that should feel fleeting are blessedly slow so we can savor their sanctity.

We left for the night, the nurses saying they’d call if his vitals weakened. When the call came at 3:15 in the morning, a mere 4 hours later, I rushed back to the hospital for what I knew would be the final hours of my Papa Gus’s life.

Final ‘I love you’

I was the first to arrive, my mind jumping back to just 18 hours before when I was holding his hand alone with him in the bathroom. For the third time, the clock stopped. The holy moment was held. I had time with my Papa Gus, just him and me again. I knew he could hear me. I needed him to know, again, that he wasn’t alone. I held his hand. He clung to an Our Lady of Guadalupe holy card and the rosary.

I told him my husband had gone and handled the ladder. That we’d take it home so we could use it at our house, and remember him every time. I told him he wouldn’t need a haircut here anymore, that grandma would take care of it when he saw her again. I told him he had on his wedding ring, and that he was holding his rosary, and he’d have them when he needed, and that of course, I loved him.

You can’t say that too much to the person who’s dying. Nothing else matters, even if they’re the ones who brought up the mundane. The ladder, haircut and rosary were just the starting words to the wind-up of “I love you.” Earlier in the day, when he’d fallen, and earlier in the day when he’d coded, and now in the final hours, we had the time to say it. We were given the time to make sure he knew it. We were invited to step outside of time, the clock not mattering. As we entered the sacred timelessness with Papa Gus, we felt Jesus there.

Jesus was there

It’s a thin veil between heaven and earth, and as the morning sun poured into the ICU room in the hour before he breathed his last, his children hugged him tight; my sister from the convent called to tell him goodbye over the phone, our priest prayed the litany of the saints, blessed him with water from Lourdes, and we held his hands as his heart slowed. It was a holy moment in the middle of Holy Week. A holy death as we entered the holiest days of the year.

They told us it would take a minute or so when the ventilator was turned off. It felt like an hour. I think it was about five minutes, but there was no stopwatch. Just us, holding the moment with him. He breathed deeply. His hands squeezed. He smiled twice, his lips turning upward in a grin I’ve seen so many times, usually when he was pulling a prank or chasing us around the room.

We told him it was okay to let go. We told him he’d been good to us. My husband reminded him we’d take care of the ladder. Maybe he was climbing it, after all, to get home. And as he took his last breath, and we felt his pulse slow and watched him drift into paradise, I told him I loved him.

Holy Week’s quiet moments

Time stands still during Holy Week, or at least slows down. A long Gospel on Palm Sunday leads to Tenebrae services, chrism Masses, foot washings, and quiet moments at altars of repose and venerations of the Cross and holy fires and baptisms and confirmations and stones rolled away. So much is jammed into a mere seven days. We do more during this time than we have all year.

But Jesus entered Jerusalem with a countdown hanging over his head, knowing Good Friday was imminent. He spent his Holy Week patiently and slowly saying, “I love you,” repeatedly. He spent Holy Week and is amid our own Holy Weeks, by giving us time to rest in his presence and be mindful of the sacred, to invite stillness and quiet so we can contemplate the thin veil between this life and the next.

I didn’t expect to feel the clock stop in what was the final 24 hours of my grandfather’s life. I knew his heart would stop. I did not know that time would, so I could gently walk with him to those final moments of his earthly life. But Jesus, in the holiest week of the year, gave us a holy day where time was spent, slowly, walking my grandfather up the ladder, to get home and go get a haircut.

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