I miss my grandson, who died last year at the age of 23.
It was not as if death was a total stranger to me – far from it. It was something I have encountered several times during my life.
Be it those I considered friends, which is not a term I use very often, relations including close ones, and even my parents, but nothing prepared me for the death of my grandson Richie.
He was someone I had gotten to know when I first came to America. He and his brother were fostered and then adopted by my daughter and son in law.
As I was living with them at the time, I got to know the boys well. Once I met Donna and moved out, both boys got to know her, as well. They stayed with us, and we would go out for meals together.
Richie and his brother would call me Grandpa and Donna was Nanna – terms that we grew to cherish.
Richie and I often did things together, including go-karting, visiting places, and generally hanging out having coffee discussing the world at large.
He was someone I grew to love and admire, as he would not let his cystic fibrosis and diabetes prevent him from doing some extraordinary things. Every few months, he needed to go to the hospital to have a ‘top-up’ as he put it.
I often either collected him from the hospital or picked him up from the train station and drove him home. We would talk about all sorts of things on those journeys. They were the special times we shared.
During one of his frequent hospital visits, he was told he should think about his bucket list and do some of those things while he still could.
He surprised everyone by announcing he wanted to visit Angkor Wat with his mum.
For those who don’t know Angkor Wat is a temple complex in
Cambodia and one of the most massive religious monuments in the world. It is also ancient, having been built in the 12th century.
So he Eleanor set off on their trip to the other side of the world and had a great
adventure together. The fact he chose his mum to share this with is something extraordinary.
Sometime later, he announced he was going to work over the summer at Yellowstone National Park. He drove across over 2000 miles the US from Pennsylvania to get there.
What I did not realize until later was that this is some 8000 feet above sea level.
But Richie dragged his oxygen tank with him, including up some of those mountains. At one point, he called his Mum and Dad to tell them not to worry.
When asked why he calmly revealed he was being evacuated by helicopter due to some breathing difficulties, but it was no big deal. A few days later, he was back at Yellowstone, continuing his duties.
He eventually drove back to PA.
It was not long after his return that he decided what he wanted to do. His health was deteriorating, and he decided he did not want to be on the transplant list anymore for new lungs.
He then decided he would tell everyone in his life personally. He talked with his mum and dad. He spoke with his little sister and his brother. He then spoke with his grandparents, including Donna and me.
At the time, I remember thinking how much courage it must have taken, both to make such a momentous decision and then to make a point of telling everyone himself.
While I was sad, I was full of admiration for the way he was dealing with it all.
He and I would still go out for coffee and chat. Then I remember I was going to take him out for a meal, but I was unusually busy.
He and I met at a school function for his sister, and I said I could not go out for a meal that week and would have to put it off until the following week. No big deal was his response.
Except it was. A few days later, he went into the hospital for the last time. I saw an incredibly brave young man of 23 pass away surrounded by those he loved and who loved him.
I had incredible sadness at losing my grandson and was struggling with all that meant. But that was not all. I saw the devastating impact this had on my daughter and son in law.
I saw how distraught his little sister was at losing her big brother. I saw my other grandson struggle to come to terms with his brother passing away.
As a parent, you desperately want to protect your children, but in this instance, I felt so helpless. I had to try and be strong for them, but inside my heart was breaking, not just for Richie, but for them as well.
Nothing prepared me for that. Even today, a year later, I still struggle with it.
Fortunately, I have many memories of Richie that I will cherish. I remember his smile, his sense of humor, and how he would often wind me up from time to time.
I remember our times together talking about anything and everything. I am honored that he called me grandpa. That was a gift I will always treasure.
Thank you, Richie.
I also have one very special memory regarding his friends. I had traveled to the hospice to see him and discovered he had a group of his friends with him.
Even though he was unconscious, they stayed with him telling him stories, joking about things they had done together, holding his hand, and generally being incredible mates.
Such was the love for Richie; these young men spent 8 hours with their friend.
That says so much about them and Richie. It is another memory I will savor.
I live with the regret that three times in my life, I did not do what was in my heart because I was ‘too busy.’ It has been a harsh lesson, but one I will try hard never to repeat.
I would urge anyone reading this to cherish those around them and do not hesitate to tell those you love how important they are to you.
Richie’s Mum and Dad set up a foundation, Richie’s Wish.
I am a Board member and Treasurer. We work on projects in Richie’s name. The first major one fitted out a room in the Life House, which is a place where foster children meet their biological parents.
As Richie discovered, this is not easy for a teenager. He described the types of things he would have liked, so we refurbished a room in precisely that way. I am glad to say it is now extremely popular with the people using Life House.
We aim to go back and do a second room for young children in 2020.
We also have the Angel Tree project, which was incredibly successful last year. When he was in foster care, Richie received generic gifts from such programs.
Unfortunately, they were often not suitable. So once again, based on his ideas, we seek foster parents and ask them what they need and what their foster children would like. Then we put those tags on the trees.
Last year we had an overwhelming response. A lot of foster children got gifts they wanted for Christmas, and foster parents got some help with suddenly expanded families.
One story stands out. A mother arrived with her foster son. She apologized but said she had suddenly had several of his siblings be fostered with them.
The young boy was given his three gifts and then did something that brought tears to the eyes of the people around him. He asked if he could put two back
and select some gifts from the generic set for his siblings.
He was not allowed to do that. Instead, he was able to keep his three and choose three for each of his siblings. His foster mum went away with a gift voucher for the supermarket so she could buy them all the food for their Christmas meal together.
I think that would have made Richie proud, and his memory lives on with this foundation.
On my wall above my desk in my home office, I have a photograph that Richie took at Angkor Wat and a photo of him during his trip to Yellowstone.
Every day I say hello to my grandson, who I miss desperately.
Love you, Richie.