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June 4th, 2009

A Tearful Update

I wanted to write this last night, but I simply did not have it in me.   After yesterday I returned home exhausted and spent; wanting to do nothing more than lose myself in a computer game and stop thinking completely.  It was a small relief, but it was something that made me feel a bit more alive.  All of this has been like a waking dream, the last twenty-four hours sliding into a walking nightmare from which I cannot escape.

Anyone who knows me knows how much I adore my grandfather.  I extoll upon his charming eccentrities, praise his amazing cooking (best in the world, as anyone who has dined with my family can attest!), and share laughs about his wily sense of humor.  Friends, new and old, are often asked to come and have supper with us one Sunday - not only to sample some of the finest cooking that may ever pass their lips, but to meet an extraordinary man.   I wanted everyone to meet my Pa-Pa Riley; without fail, everyone who did so was as enamoured of him as was I.

Yesterday, my mother and Tommy, my Uncle Keith (Mom's brother), and my Aunt Lydia, and I met with the pallatative care doctor and his nurse.  While Dr. Kleinpeter - who has been nothing short of wonderful - had wanted to try and fight, Dr. Kanslow informed us that my grandfather was, despite all our best efforts, dying.

The words hit me hard.  Usually strong, I am almost ashamed to admit I broke down right at that moment.  Mom came and embraced me while the kind doctor went on to explain that samples of a certain nutrient from Pa's body were exceptionally low.  It indicated that his organs were failing; that his body was withering away from the inside - even though, on the outside, he looks better than he has since he entered the hospital.  His color is good and the swelling that causes his skin to weep from his under-functioning kidneys has recded from his face.  His beautiful, silky white hair recently brushed by the compassionate nurses, his soft glow belying the fight raging inside of his body.

Today, at 11am, we meet again to dicuss the hardest part of our venture yet; since this all beagn last week when Pa was rushed to the hospital by ambulance with - what we did not know then - was a ruptured colon.  The fact that has not regained consciousness since that initial surgery is telling; the doctors believe he may have suffered a stroke.  His reflexes are normal on only the left  side of his body and, it now seems, his struggling kidneys are the least of his problems.  Though nothing that has been biopsied to date has shown cancer, the doctors believe this prognosis is correct; certain enzymes in his blood indicate that cancer lives somewhere, currently hidden, in his body.  He has been "left open" since that initial surgery; unable to be closed, even through the last few procedures where they irrigated the toxins and infection out of his body, due to  acute swelling.  It is not worth it, Dr. Kanslow says, to even close him up at this point - no need to put him through such an ordeal, as it will only cause him discomfort in his final days.  Out of all we are faced with, I cannot fathom why this bothers me so.  Perhaps it is just the realization that his condition is so hopeless that they don't even feel it worthwhile to stitch him back up; the coldest, hard fact that there is no going back, no miracles left to unfold, no inkling that he could suddenly rally and begin to recover...no hope.

As Amber, my sister, and I lamented together yesterday, it just doesn't seem real.  It does not; as Amber said, "I just can't imagine a world without my Pa-Pa in it."  Neither can I.  He has been the one of the centers of my world since before I can remember.  Most of my favorite childhood memories revolve around my grandfather; picnics under the magnolia tree when I was around Ava's age (three), his tirelessly riding us around the yard in a never-ending circle on the ride mower with the little red wagon attached to the back holding all of us grandchildren, his teaching me to waltz before my first dance, his silly, thoughtful gifts and notes over the years.  He was always such an important part of my life.  He taught me to drive on a long, lonely road that led to the levee that ran behind our small town of Maringouin and, later, he took me to Price LeBlanc Toyota and bought me my first car.

Returning to 11am - forigve my rambling as my mind is so out of sorts at the moment - we will be discussing removing the ventilator.  At that point, it could be minutes, hours, or even a few days of precious time we have left with the man who was so central to our entire family unit.  He meant so much to so many people.  It has all happened so fast.  Just a couple of weeks ago he was getting dressed up in his dapper way, splashing on some Polo Black (which had replaced, thankfully, Elizabeth Taylor's Passion as his cologne of choice), and bringing fresh baked pies to each of the elderly ladies in town (all of  which were a little bit in love with him - how could they not be?).  He would get into his car - the one that used to belong to Lance - and stop by each house, visiting for an hour or two, before returning home in time to watch his much-loved soap opera, Days of our Lives.

He was wholly independent and, we thought, healthy.  God only knows how long he silently suffered after his colon had ruptured; stubborn to the end in not wanting to bother any of us with his pains or troubles and never wanting us to worry.  His family was always his greatest passion; a stout and almost cold-hearted German man who choked on his own sobs if tears dared to even wet his eyes - which they did, only rarely, only when he saw one of us crying.

Though all of us know, inherently, that he would not want to be kept alive artificially - mostly because he would vehemently oppose anything that burdened us - it still troubled us some that it was a conversation none of us could ever remembering having with him.  Then, like a flash of lightening, as I sat with him yesterday - alone - in his room, holding his hand and asking for a sign, a memory washed over me like a douse of cold water.  It was a holiday, and we were joking baudily and loudly - as we often do - in the kitchen as his house.  I cannot remember what the conversation was exactly that had us on the subject of life support, yet - as clearly as a bell - I remember him announcing to the room, but directed at me, "If I were on life support, I'd want you to be in charge of making the decisions for me."  I asked him why, and he responded in that half-serious, partly mocking, and mostly teasing voice with a hint of a smile, "Because you'd be the only one strong enough to pull the plug!  The rest of them are  too weak!"  I assured him then, smiling myself because I firmly believed my grandfather would live forever, that - were the situation ever to arise - I would, without hesitation, "pull the plug" rather than let him suffer on indefinitely.  "Good," he told me.  "That's what I'd want."   The conversation was all done mostly in jest, but that was his way of dealing with something serious he would rather not discuss.  His health being what it was, the possibility seemed so remote that none of us thought of it again and it was not until I stood there next to what will, I suppose, become his deathbed and holding his hand that I remembered it.  I realized that in that teasing treatise was a serious message; he had, without my realizing it at the time, imbedded a seed in my mind that told me exactly what he would want done in such a terrible situation.

"I promise, Pa," I told him then, squeezing his hand and brushing back his bone white hair from his forehead, "We all agree and want the same thing.  None of us want you to suffer; it is agreed.  As much as we don't want to lose you, we want you to be okay."

I put on my gentle scolding tone that I use only with him then.  "Listen to me, you stubborn, old goat.  Do not stick around just for us; do not let yourself suffer for us.  We want you to be okay.  We will be okay, I promise - don't I always take care of the family?  I will and we've got Tommy.  Mom will be okay; she has Tommy.  I have Baret, Amber has Blake, and Mom has Tommy.  Johnnie has all he needs in Ava, if he'll just see it and Robby...well, Robby has Chastity.  We will all be okay, and if you want to fight, we'll fight right alongside you.  But if you're ready to go, please do.  We want you to be okay, do you understand?"

I said it a few times, just to drive it home.  He's nothing if not stubborn, and he would be all too willing to hold on - regardless of his own suffering - if he thought we still needed him; especially for his little girl, my mother.  Their bond is the stuff of magic and fairy tales - they have always been so very close, even without much outward affection for that is not the stuff of which either of them were made.  Rather, it was an unspoken and unyielding bond; an affection that, without word or action, held more power than any other father-daughter relationship I have ever encountered.

Needless to say, this has all been literally heartbreaking for my mother - who I worry about more than any of us.  While it will destroy us all to lose this beloved patriarch and amazing man; though a piece of each of our hearts will, now, forever be cut out leaving them irreparably broken, it is my mother who will never fully recover from the loss.  A piece of her will die along with my grandfather, as a piece of her did when my beloved grandmother left this world over ten years ago.  Our small family will grow closer after this loss; closing in on ourselves to hold each of us up and together.

We will go on, but none of us will ever be the same.  Our lives were touched by something almost otherwordly; my Clark Gable-ish grandfather...forever the dapper gentleman, the sly prankster, the irrasciable flirt, the studious bookworm, the quietly passionate family man, the multi-talented craftsman, the unfailingly generous charitor, the quirky eccentric, the slightly chilled heart that could excise someone from it's small warmth without ever a glance back, the infamous chef and able provider.  He was all of these things and, oh, so so much more.  Riley Claude Prestenback made have made only a small mark on this world, but the mark he left on the lives of the people he touched is as wide and deep as the Earth itself.  Every one who has ever met him has simply fallen in love with him, charmed to their very core by a man like no other.

Saying goodbye to this man I love with more than all of my heart will be one of the most difficult tasks I have ever faced in my thirty some-odd years.  I ask that you all send your graces, thoughts, prayers, and affirmations to not only my grandfather for a smooth and soft passage, but to my family, who is nearly buckled in our grief over a loss that is almost too large to comprehend.

Thank you.

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