Sun 10 Jan 2010
when my grandmother was in her last years, and failing, she lost everything she cared about.
except my mother and i, who sat vigil at her bedside as her entire world narrowed to those two iron rails. but there was only so much we could do to stem the tide of what slipped from her, day in, day out.
first, the house, the house she’d been born in nearly a century before. the driver’s license she’d gotten only at 68. her card nights. bowling. a few years later, the apartment, independence itself. her marriage bed, her pots and pans, a lifetime of odds and ends collected over 90 years. no more fridge of her own, only a tray brought to a room in a “home”; a tray like all the other trays, a room like all the other rooms. then the health to go for drives and complete her crossword puzzles and enjoy All My Children in the afternoons. the pain began; it wasted her.
through all of it, seven interminable years of relentless, incremental loss, she struggled with despair and shame at her increasing inability to do. when you are ninety and have outlived your spouse by decades and watched your friends weaken and drop around you, your independence and strength become fierce components of who you believe yourself to be.
i suspect the rest, the whoever you might have been in the long life before, has to be left behind in order to survive the foisted cruelties and indignities of old age. nobody alive remembers that person anyway. and eventually, neither do you.
and if you are a relative of mine, it appears that at the centre of your fierce independence is the belief that you are tough enough to simply die in your sleep when you’re good and ready.
my grandmother didn’t get to do that. in the last year of her life, she lay confined to a series of nursing home and hospital beds, little bird bones poking through her skin. i watched her pull herself present through hazes of morphine to meet my gaze. she had blue eyes. in their reflection, i was always beautiful.
let me die, she would whisper. i’m done.
i love you, i would say in response, irrelevant and yet all i had to give. i refused to look away. i’m so sorry.
she was ashamed of being what she thought was a burden. i was ashamed at my powerlessness, my lack of courage to do for her what she could not do for herself.
seven years, it took.
my grandfather, from the other side of my family, turned ninety last month. his wife died nearly 22 years ago; he has lived since in the house they built together in the 1960s. every corner of it remains a testament to the glorious sleekness of the Bungalow Era. moss-green shag blends living room and family room. the space-age proto-microwave in the kitchen wall sits lonely, waiting for an opportunity to unleash the wrath of its radiation. he has not cooked since she died. not using that microwave may be the secret of his longevity.
he was a spy in WWII, a British Secret Intelligence Service agent who worked out of New York and Camp X, the commando training centre in Ontario from which Ian Fleming would later cobble together the mythology of Agent 007. in the middle of the war, he married an 18 year old girl from the farm down the road. she had barely been to the metropolis that is Charlottetown; three weeks after their wedding she found herself in an apartment in New York City. he was called away on a mission – Top Secret – the morning after she arrived. he could not tell her a thing about where he was going – she stayed on alone, in the city that never sleeps. it was six full weeks before he returned.
there has never been anyone else for him.
the war ended. my father was born at Camp X in 1947, while the Cold War took shape. in 1949, the British closed Camp X and burned all the records, and my grandfather turned down the offer to join the fledgling CIA . his wife was done roaming and wanted to go home. he and my grandmother moved back to PEI, bought a little brick house for $6000, raised four kids. he worked as a mechanic from that day until last week. yep, last week. at ninety, he was still going into the mechanic shop a few mornings a week. he likes his routine, my grandfather. he likes to be useful. he has no coping mechanisms for any other state of being.
my grandfather had a heart attack on Friday.
it was a reasonable-sized Cardiac Event, as evidenced by the levels of troponin in his blood yesterday indicating muscle death. he wasn’t in much pain, but his breath short and fast, and his colour gray. he spent the night in hospital. i was there when the doctor came the next day at noon, saying “Lovenox and a few days and we’ll see and you can probably go home then.”
my grandfather heard only the “probably”. and by the time i returned after supper he was high-tailing it down the hall, hell-bent for leather on going home. NOW. against medical advice. with no chance of continuing the Lovenox once he rendered himself an outpatient.
my father arrived. a close family friend, who’s also a nurse. the three of us tried for an hour, together and separately. i made him look me in the eye, said, i love you. i’m worried about you. i know you’re afraid that this is your only way to control the situation. but i’m afraid this may mean you don’t heal enough to STAY independent.
he looked at me like a hunted animal.
we brought him home. and kept him home last night. he couldn’t breathe, he was panicky, having to struggle his way out to the cold air to catch his breath five times in the first hour. in his socks, in the snow. he wouldn’t let me put his boots on. he wouldn’t let me bring him a blanket. he was agitated, shocky, a clear candidate for oxygen and hospitalization and possibly some form of sedation.
i did not let him see the tears in my eyes.
i don’t know if the choice he made, in his own mind, was the choice to go home to die, or the flight reaction of a terrified human being who wants things desperately to revert to normal. his face told me that either way, for him, it was a zero-sum game. there would be no argument. none of us have power of attorney, and i doubt one of us who loves him would begrudge him the end of his own choosing, would that we could only grant it.
he picked his hill to die on, and we brought him home.
but i learned, with my grandmother. life is not always so benevolent, nor ends so final. they can trail out, cutting you down body and soul with a thousand bloody, cruel little scratches. that is what i fear for this man who cannot stand to sit idle, whose heart – damage or not – is big and free, loyal as a labrador retriever.
he is home tonight, breathing a little better. the cigars sit, rejected. he had a little food. he is trying. and i sat beside him today and believed, for a few minutes, that this is not the end, maybe only the beginning of the end. i hope it’s true. i am not ready, never ready.
but whenever that good night does come, i hope it falls swiftly for him. the losses all at once, clean and silent.
ours, not his.