Tuesday, July 25, 2006

There's Peace In the Letting-Go
My grandma is 97 years old. She spent her life in a rural region of Pennsylvania, toiling on the farm and raising five children. Thanks to decades of hard physical labor, her body is tough. Her mind, on the other hand, is not. In fact, her mind has already left her behind, and I think she's on the brink of catching up to it.

Gram broke her hip a couple weeks ago. Surgery has repaired the bone, but the after-effects on her mind are troubling. I last saw her in June. She had no idea who I was, but she sure thought my kids were nice. She expressed a special appreciation of my daughter's beautiful hair. I didn't have the heart to tell her that hair was situated on the head of my youngest son, Tucker (and, to her credit, even people with full mental capacity often mistake Tuck for a girl; he could care less). All her life, Gram's wanted a head of thick, luxurious hair. The two strands remaining on her head are not exactly what she had in mind. I vividly remember her affinity for the country band Oak Ridge Boys, not because of their music, but because of their long, curly tresses.

Gram is just a little wee woman, never having been exactly Amazonian to begin with. She lies in her nursing home bed, refusing to eat. She chews on her bottom dentures like they're candy, and she keeps removing her own catheter tube, not without damaging her already-frail body. At night she calls out to her husband and son, both of whom left this world many years ago. And she reaches up for them in her sleep. Maybe she's seeing them. Maybe they're calling to her. She has missed them so profoundly these last decades. Imagine how angry and frustrated she must be when she awakes only to realize she's not only with them, but connected to machines via tubes and tape. The situation seems almost criminal to me.

Gram is my mom's mom. In the recent past, in her more lucid moments, she understood that her oldest daughter had died. Two minutes later, she'd ask again why Mom wasn't coming to see her, but clarity was hers, even if only fleetingly. Now...well, she doesn't remember anyone but Pap and Uncle Bob, and it's plain she wants to see them. She spends her days with a nasty disposition, being feisty with my aunt, her daughter, who spends hours with her everyday, trying to get her to eat and making sure she's bathed. Gram's never been big on the sponge bath thing, and it annoys her now more than ever. Yet my aunt continues to care for her mom in ways I mercifully never had to care for mine.

I know this is an instance when others in my position might drop to their knees in prayer, calling on God to help Gram recover. I'm not a prayerful person in the traditional sense of the word. I don't have daily conversations with God; I don't ask for much of anything except wisdom to guide my children so that they can learn to blossom in a world that sometimes seems hell-bent on kicking kids in the ass. Even when my own mom died, I didn't ask God "why?"; I didn't wonder what the bigger purpose of her death was. That grief, which many of you shared with me through this column, was so mind-numbing, I had trouble stringing together three-word sentences. No, I didn't pray in the way one thinks of prayer.

For me, every act of kindness is a prayer. A kissed owie, a door held open, a tearful farewell...each act is an appeal to the hopeful side of human nature. Turning on the bathroom nightlight each evening, I am aware of how thankful I am to have made it through another day, to have had yet one more chance to be a good mom, a supportive partner, a friend. Likewise, turning that same light off each morning gives me pause to take a deep breath, look in the mirror, and hope that I end the day having done something worthwhile. Awareness itself is prayer; acting in accordance with that awareness is nothing short of evangelizing.

So I can only hope my intent is understood when I say that I do not wish my gram's life to be prolonged. Her life is over; all that's left is her failing body. As my aunt struggles to see her mom like that each day and still keep her spirits uplifted, I have to admit to my belief that death is not the worst fate one can experience. Gram has had a full life. She gave birth six times and buried three of her children. With nothing more than an elementary-school education, she raised a family and kept a farm during some of the most trying times our country has ever known. She was active in her church and extended her loving kindness to anyone who needed it. This existence she's experiencing now is not life. She breathes, but she does not live.

If this is all she has to look forward to here on earth, I want Gram's body to let her go. I know it's not up to me, and I appreciate that. But a body without a mind that can recognize loved ones and familiar places is nothing but a shell. Just one month ago, Gram could smile. It was a vacant smile, backed up with empty eyes that could no longer see the world they loved. I knew then that she was on the final glidepath, as Mom used to call it. And her descent sure picked up speed.

We aren't supposed to wish death on people, I know that. Our society is messed up when it comes to death and dying. We're so afraid of it. I don't think Gram is afraid; I think it will bring her peace. And though I won't pretend to know what's going on in that head of hers, I definitely know what's not going on. And that's all I need to know.

I love my grandma fiercely. And I want her to go home.


Cactus said...

I agree. Let's keep it painless, but let them go when they want to. I am not afraid of death, but I am afraid of doctors trying to keep me from it when I am ready. Why is that controversial? I do not understand why anybody would want to be kept "alive" via tubes and machines. I believe, everyone's life leaves it's mark whether it is a small child or a ninety year old person. Every "spirit" leaves behind a memory that is passed on or affects how someone lives. I know some cultures respect death. Ours seems to fear it and prolong the agony of it. Why? Is it because those of us "alive" are being selfish and can't "let go?" Let them go and carry on their memory by living a good life.

Mary A. Shafer said...

What a wonderful thought, Cactus. I agree with everything you said. I, too, fear that some political idiot who smells political gain might someday be allowed to keep me from exiting this life with dignity in the way I choose to. Here's to the Hemlock Society.

I'm just baffled that anyone still even has to fight this battle. I remember 15 years ago, listening to the CBC (Canada's version of NPR) discuss this at length in a week-long series. And yet, here we still are: Most people can't even seem to decide how they want to LIVE their lives, much less depart from them. It's a sad, sad commentary on the spiritual evolution of the soul of a continent.