With a Grateful Heart: Photographing Gratitude

Photogrief / Photogrief : Eleanor Haley

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by Cayci Jai Lefebvre

Photographing gratitude

I remember waking up on a cold November morning and rolling over to a voicemail.

“Poppy just had a heart attack, you need to come to the hospital”

I've never jumped out of bed so fast in my entire life. My whole body started to shake and my breath shortened as I ran to my car. I drove teary eyed the entire way to the hospital.

I walked into Poppy's room, not knowing what to expect, and I wrapped my arms around him and started crying. He said “It’s okay! It’s okay! I’m alive, I’m alive, don’t cry” and he rubbed my back to comfort me as I sobbed with fear. I whispered, “You are alive” and in that moment I felt immensely grateful that my great grandfather was still with us.

That day was the beginning of a long five months. His suffering was the hardest thing I have ever had to witness. I prepared for his death several times throughout the months, even though I knew that I couldn't truly prepare. I didn’t know when it was going to happen and I knew, either way, it would hit me hard like I hadn't known it was coming, so I decided to use every day with him wisely and cherish every moment.

He was admitted to the hospital for the whole month of November. I sat by his side every day that month. He introduced me to every doctor and nurse by saying “This is my great granddaughter, she was born on my birthday and she is a very smart girl.” He was always so proud of me. He took on the father role in my life. He was truly the definition of a dad to me. He was the only one who told me to go after my dreams and accept nothing less, to do what I loved so I wouldn’t feel like I was working a day in my life. He raised me and taught me to have good morals.

He taught me how to paint and we shared the same passion for creating things. He sat by my hospital bed when I was sick, he never left my side when I needed him and I felt called to do the same thing for him. I got to listen to him tell stories from his horse riding and shoeing days, his sense of humor never faded, he knew how to make light in every situation.

I held his hand when he forgot where he was, and I explained to him everything that was happening when he was confused. I was grateful for all the time I got to spend with him. I cherished every moment like it was the last. As I left there every day, I’d hope for another day with him and every morning I arrived he’d say “there you are.”

After that month, He started to become very weak. He lost a lot of weight and most of his muscle function. While his Alzheimer’s got the best of him, he developed multiple infections, underwent rocedures, was poked and prodded everyday, and refused to eat, but he was still here. This man was the strongest man I had ever known. What he endured in those months at 83 years old, I could not fathom.

He was then moved to a nursing home, where his wife of 57 years, (my great grandmother) continued to get up every morning at sunrise to sit by his side until dusk. The love they had has always inspired me and watching them during these months was the most beautiful yet heartbreaking experience. I strive to love like they did.

The nursing home was not a good experience, my family and I had to take turns spending the night with him there. He was declining rapidly, I realized I was grieving him before he was gone. I spent the night sitting behind him hugging him, trying to calm him, telling him I was there, that he wasn’t alone, that he was free to go when he was ready. At this point he wasn’t talking very much, he mostly screamed for help and it broke my heart.

That night I was holding him, was the last conversation we had and I will never forget the words he spoke to me. He said,

Cayci, you know I love you and I am proud of you. I want you to know a good man is going to find you, marry you, take care of you and I will be here with you in another way. Right now you are taking care of me, and I am supposed to be taking care of you”

I reassured him that it was his turn to be taken care of and little did I know a wonderful man, my current boyfriend, showed up in my life shortly after.

The week of March 14th 2016, Poppy was moved to the Vermont Respite house, where the care was phenomenal. As this point he was unresponsive and the doctors expected he only had a few days. My whole family filled the room every day that week, remising in that peaceful place.

The photo featured above of my hand on my Poppy’s heart was a profound moment in his last days. He was so small that I could feel his heart beat clearly. I’ve never felt a heart beat so strong. It was the only indication that he was still alive and with us, as he didn’t show any other signs. That was the last time I felt his heart beat.

My great grandfather passed away on March 19 th 2016. He rode off on his horse, free of suffering. He was the most kind- hearted man, He’d give you his flannel shirt right off his back, he would create and make you anything out of wood, he could fix anything for you and he would help any human being in presence with his unconditional love. I strive to be like my great grandfather. I live to be just like him.

His death left me with great sadness but he left me with gratefulness. I am grateful to call this wonderful man my great grandfather. I am grateful to share a birthday with him. I am grateful to say he raised me, for all that he taught me, for all the support and strength he’s given me. I am grateful for the time I got to spend with him, and for all the time he spent with me growing up. I am grateful for the love he provided me, and for the way he taught me how to love.

And on the days that I feel broken and lost without him, I place my hand over my heart and feel him in every beat.

In Loving Memory of Carl E. Carleton, my great grandfather. I love you poppy, “me too” he would say “me too.”

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for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible,
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After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible, real-life book!

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