Mon 18 Jan 2010
i went to the woods because i wanted to live deliberately
to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life
to rout out all that was not life
and not, when i came to die, discover that i had not lived.
– Henry David Thoreau. (or Dead Poets’ Society. take yer pick.)
when a part of your life is over, the realization usually comes as a surprise, an after-effect.
i woke up Saturday morning with no deadlines hanging over me. the Ph.D application – or one of them, at least – is submitted. the last day for add/drops for the hundred-plus students who’ve inundated my office over the past two weeks? done. i opened my eyes and mentally scanned the day ahead, blood pressure gearing up to jet speed.
then i paused, remembered. it’s done. my eyes fluttered wide, like an extra in Bambi. i realized i had no clue what to do with myself.
then the kids woke up.
i beamed at them, all amends for my previous busy-ness. we lazed, cuddled. we considered breakfast, planned homemade cookies for the afternoon. it was at this point that i noted that my throat felt rather as though someone had pricked it all over with nails.
after further signs of impending plague, i woke Dave up and crawled back into my glorious warm bed to pass out, still thinking, so what if i’m sick? what a lovely, relaxing day to be sick. i lounged for a brief moment on twitter, drinking coffee with milk i’d taken time to foam – a rare treat – and waxing philosophical about trying to live deliberately, now that my mad rush was behind me.
by the time i woke up again, Dave had put his back out. at a gymnastics class for three-year-olds.
respite cancelled. the rest of the weekend was the sort of tragi-comic blur where you meet yourself coming and going all at the same time. in the dark before sleep i whimpered, bone-exhausted, run down. in the dark before dawn i came alert again, ready to hit the day running, to rise to what i needed to be.
and it occurred to me to wonder if my days of deliberate living were behind me, for the moment, or if being busy and maxed out were simply habit, the hardest in the world to break.
the scion of the local autoelectric shop dropped my grandfather’s last cheque off yesterday afternoon. he came to the house shyly, only a couple of hours after his own father and uncle – who own the shop – left. he walked into a vacuum where words sat, invisible but still shockingly electric. i do not know if the room – the brown recliner, the old leather footstool, the tv reeling disasters beyond our ken – looked normal to him.
i don’t think it will look the same to me again.
i was the one who spoke the words. gently, i hope, but firmly, repeatedly. these are your choices. this or this. only these. your decision. now. i watched my grandfather’s eyes the whole time, drawing him back to me, seeking him. i said, time seems to be strange for you right now. sometimes i know you’re right here with me. other times i can’t tell whether you’re in a different space or just trying to change the subject. his eyes flashed at me, caught. a hint of a smile, perhaps? i smiled back. we are not so different, he & i.
i know. it’s not fair. i’m sorry. but this is what you get to decide. this or this.
the bath or the hospital. he had been in the same clothes for a week. he had been in his chair three days, bathroom trips spacing further and further apart to the point where we began to wonder if his kidneys were failing entirely. he would brook no help, no crossing of the boundaries of personal space. we made up his bed with clean sheets but he would not or could not go the twenty steps. he was soiled, skin breakdown imminent. he slipped out of his chair at 5 am. my cousin on the couch beside him, a geriatric nurse, helped him up. but that was all he would accept.
one by one, we expressed our concerns. he waved us all gently away with a flick of his hand. the flash of white was comical, figurative. bared teeth, that flick told us. he had been holding his dentures in his hands for twelve hours.
my grandfather’s LaZ Boy – in different incarnations – has been in the very same spot for as long as i can remember and longer. it is his throne, almost an extension of him. and so it was that yesterday afternoon in a quiet spell i breathed deep and looked at my father and then, with intention, we took our places at the foot of the chair and laid out our ultimatum. we love you. we can’t leave you like this any longer. we knew and he knew – and we made sure he knew – the consequences of the choice we laid out.
at the end of the dance, he chose the hospital. we emphasized the pretty nurses. and i felt as manipulative and as relieved and as brave as i have felt in my life. i squeezed my grandfather’s hand and met my father’s eye. and then i walked from the room so i could exhale, because i was shaking.
when my sister and then young Charles arrived moments later, my grandfather was still in the LaZBoy. we had turned the tv back on. all was normal.
but the room was different, and i knew it. the lion had given up his throne.
when the ambulance came in, respectfully, quietly, sirens off, he went without protest. my sister rode with him. my father signed him into the hospital this time, so he can no longer sign himself out. he is in congestive heart failure. when i went out last night, he was distant, polite but withheld. at first i thought he was angry with me, and i nodded, understanding. but then i noticed that one pupil was blown, far bigger than the other, and i wondered if that conversation in his chair will be the last i ever really have with the grandfather i’ve known, been loved by.
i do not know. but if it is, i will own it. a sad, proud thing, a deliberate thing. life.
i want to thank all of you for your love & support & comments & tweets. it feels strange sometimes to share it, because it is so personal and so present, and mine is only one lens on this man who belongs to many. and yet it is all too human, this ending stuff that none of us seem to ever quite come to terms with.
i learned, profoundly, with Finn, that there can be privilege in walking with someone towards their death. i fear loss, absolutely. but last night as i left the hospital i stopped on my way across town and drove through the dark, snowy cemetery where my grandmother is buried. i do not go often. i do not talk to my dead. but i laughed as i drove through the ghostly stand of tall old trees glinting silvery, headstones stark against the snow, because the scene was like something straight out of Thriller, and yet…beautiful. i felt peaceful. i do not fear my dead. i love them, hold them in memory. in the private spaces we all seem to drift in at the end of things, memory is all there is.
so for a ninety year old man who has lived a good life on his own terms, i will not fear. only walk beside, and offer him company, and share him while i can.