Grandpa VS The Farm

*This post originally appeared here and has many thoughtful comments from readers that I encourage you to check out.


In early January, when I discovered that only one of my college classes I was scheduled to teach met the minimum number of students registered, I decided to let go of academia for one semester. I was going to write, be highly active here at Grab the Lapels, and I would work out and focus on being healthier. Mind you, this was the first time in 23 years that I would not be part of academia. Who knew it wouldn’t be so easy to just drop school and live “the life”? Things didn’t go well; not only did I not work out, I didn’t write, and my dedication to reading dwindled. The couch and I became good friends.


Photo from God’s Whisper Farm on Facebook

And then I heard about God’s Whisper Farm from a Facebook post advertising a writers’ retreat July 18, 19, and 20. Writing on a mountain?

Photo by Tom DeWolf

With goats and dogs and kittens and chickens? And new friends and camping? “Sign me up!” I thought. I paid my $75 on April 14th and became happy knowing that I had something to look forward to. I borrowed my friends’ tent and practiced setting it up in their yard. I got a sleeping bag and air mattress from my sister-in-law. I put new tires and breaks on my car, changed the oil and transmission fluid, and even fixed the door that hung a bit crooked and let in rain. In total, about $2,000 went into my car in preparation for the trip.

Photo from God’s Whisper Farm on Facebook


On May 5th I was in central Michigan, 200 miles from my apartment in Indiana, at my niece’s 5th birthday party. Chuck E. Cheese danced around, and I sat between my grandma and grandpa at the end of the table, watching children have fun catching tickets the flew out of the rat’s paws and rained down on them. All seemed well, though I had heard grandpa’s stomach hurt, possibly due to an ulcer. We are a worrying, dwelling sort of family, and I could relate to prolonged stomach aches.


Grandpa & Taylor (now 5). Photo by Kristy Cotter

It wasn’t an ulcer, it was pancreatic cancer that had traveled to Grandpa’s liver. Most of the time, I was incredibly torn between my loyalties to my job and looming writing retreat and my husband in Indiana, and my family 200 miles away in Michigan. When I was a kid, I worshiped my grandpa; he was the best storyteller I knew and always had friends wherever he went. When you said “Hi,” he always said “howdy howdy.” If you asked how he was, he would reply, “Doin’ pretty fair.” So many phrases and ways of saying things that I know I still say today. It was hard to find Grandpa without friends, beer, and a motorcycle. But as i got older, I also realized that “party grandpa,” as my cousins and I have come to call him, can be a bit tiresome. I started to back away and be more cautious to avoid what could be unpleasant moments. But this was before he was sick. Now, nothing could stop me from being there. I thought.

Photo from Christy Cotter


To Michigan I went, 200 miles. I sat in a rocking chair pulled up right next to Grandpa on the couch as we watched episode after episode of Judge Judy until we convinced Grandma to turn on the Encore Western channel and enjoyed movies like Duck, You Sucker! We went to the hospital for a test to see if the cancer had spread. When Grandpa went to shake the doctor’s outstretched hand, the doctor took his papers instead, and I felt so awful. I even wore my “fuck this shit” socks that day. Home to Indiana I went, 200 miles.


To Michigan I went, 200 miles. Grandpa was in the hospital. He was so dehydrated that he was dizzy. Things weren’t getting processed correctly in his body. I said I loved him, and his sadness and anger made me cry. Home to Indiana I went, 200 miles.


To Michigan I went, 200 miles. Grandpa was in hospice the night of July 13th. Things were not good, not good at all. But it was also the absolute busiest time at my part-time summer job. We weren’t really allowed time off, and everyone was stretched to the limit on scheduling, each of us at 40 hours a week. Fortunately, I had requested off the days of the writers’ retreat, for which I was to leave in 48 hours. But hospice means the end. Had I said my goodbyes? Was it about saying goodbye? And then my mom admitted that she and my dad needed me. But I thought my grandma needed them. I had never thought about need being a chain, that we are all leaning on each other and could tip over like dominoes.

No one was doing “well” when I got there the afternoon July 15th. We drive right to hospice and visited. The next morning, July 16th, Grandpa was on his bed, propped up a bit. He would take 30-60 second naps while I sat on the couch pulled right up next to his head and waited. He would open his eyes, look over at me, and then a huge smile would appear on his face. To me, it was like a magic trick each time; I might have even applauded in my head. This happened at least half a dozen times. Departure for the writers’ retreat was 24 hours away, and I wasn’t even in the right state. Home to Indiana I went, 200 miles, at 10:30 a.m. We drove directly from hospice to my shift that started at 2 p.m., cutting time ever so close. By now my car was a couple hundred miles from needing an oil change again, one that I didn’t have time for.

Photo by Tom DeWolf


To Ohio I went, 252 miles. I left for God’s Whisper Farm on Thursday afternoon, July 17 and ended up in southeastern Ohio where I checked into my motel. I thought about my family. I thought about my husband. I thought about how I selfishly chose the money I spent, the items I borrowed, and the words I had created over my family and husband.


To Virginia I went, 406 miles. I arrived at the writer’s retreat and met Andi Cumbo-Floyd, who embraced me as if we were old friends. I set up my tent like a pro and waited for the others to arrive. We were from all over: Pennsylvania, Indiana, Oregon. I read two stories around the campfire, “The Girl Scout” and “The Crissy.” I shared that I was hesitant to be at a retreat where people would probably cry and tell personal stories; that wasn’t my style. I told them I had worked with experimental writers for so long. That I wanted something new, and I hoped they were it.

Up and down the mountain Photo by Tom DeWolf


Up and down the mountain I went. Every time I had to use the outhouse, go to my tent, get something out of my car, get a drink out of Andi’s small farmhouse, it was up and down the mountain. We workshopped and did exercises. We wrote. We talked. We ate. A singer/songwriter came Saturday night and played music and told us about his writing process. Did I mention my grandpa died late Friday night? Up and down the mountain I went.


On Sunday, the group was incredibly close. We were friends, we would remain friends, and we were thankful for each other. We did goal-setting activities to make sure we didn’t lose momentum or become writerless writers. One activity included making a list of things we were obligated to do or responsible for. I assumed we were thinking of things that got in the way of writing.

My list:
Be with Nick
Run Grab the Lapels
Virtual book tours
Pay bills
Dishes, dusting, sweeping
Nurture mom
Write a syllabus
Finish reviews for JMWW and TNBBC
Pet cat, who throws up/gets wacky if I don’t

I finished my list before everyone else. Life must not be too hard for me, I thought. I do have lots of time to write. In fact, I have very little to give up in order to live a full-on writing life! It was simply that I didn’t know how to live differently, to take care of my writing self. After everyone was done, Andi explained that if writing didn’t make my top-five priorities, I would never do it. What? Writing wasn’t even on my list! I had given up my whole weekend—abandoned my family while my grandpa died—so I could find out I was not a writer. I felt awful.

One of grandpa’s favorite photos. Placed on his casket at his funeral.

One of grandpa’s favorite photos. Placed on his casket at his funeral.
From Virginia to Ohio I went, 406 miles. And then from Ohio directly to the funeral home in Michigan, 309 miles. It was all really real, and only after 2 months. Grandpa had a red casket, which matched the last motorcycle he bought. The funeral procession had over 80 motorcycles, with my dad, mom, grandma, brother, and me at the front. I didn’t care that I was wearing a dress. “Fuck ’em,” Grandpa would say, and I knew I would say it too, if I had to. Riding with my brother, I noticed in the side mirror that the color of his arm, his wedding ring, the way he shifted the motorcycle, and his white sleeve and leather vest all looked just like Grandpa’s. I couldn’t stop crying. My brother said he noticed it too. 18 miles we went to the cemetery. I felt like I abandoned my grandpa again, leaving him there at his last stop.

Photo by Tom DeWolf


It took me a day or two to come to what I now know: writing has to be in my top five priorities, not that it should be, but that it is. If it isn’t, I never would have made that trip to Virginia, wouldn’t have left my family and husband behind during such a difficult week. The $2,000 I spent on my car were repairs that it needed anyway, trip or no trip. Borrowed items are easily returned, had I decided I should cancel my spot at the retreat. It was only $75 to register. But I wanted so badly to go that I convinced myself that all that “money, time, and effort” couldn’t be recuperated. Silly me.

Then again, grandpa was always traveling.

Photo by Jamie Thren

He had more miles on him than anyone else I know. He would have loved the mountains, loved the fainting goats and friendly dogs, the bonfire and singer/songwriter. He would have whistled in perfect pitch, added some vibrato. He would have looked around for Sasquatch; he was funny like that.

I’m not going to say I went to the writers’ retreat in honor of my grandpa, or because he would have wanted me to go, but I don’t believe he would think too shabbily of me and my decision.

Dale Keith Cotter & Me (May 30, 2009)

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