Today my grandpa died just 33 days shy of his 100th birthday. When he was born, bread was .07c a loaf, ice was delivered to his house in a horse drawn wagon for the family ice box, and an average yearly salary was just over $1000. Since then there has been a dust bowl, a great depression, a Holocaust, men walking on the moon. Zippers earned their name, women the right to vote. The Twin Towers were built and destroyed. DNA was discovered, and there were many wars. The pacemaker that kept him alive was invented and penicillin produced. Handheld computers containing extraordinary communication, storage, computing and informational power became nearly ubiquitous. He had three children, three grandchildren, lost a son, lost a wife, and then gained another. What a time to have been alive.
My 99.9 year old grandfather is dying of heart and kidney failure. I went to Maryland to visit him for a few hours in the nursing facility in his assisted living community, where he is staying for these last months of his life. My step grandmother and her granddaughter, who had also come to say goodbye, and I walked into his room where he was shifting around in his bed. My step grandmother sat down beside him.
"Hello. It's S here."
"I've been looking for you," he said.
"Well here I am," she said.
"They just leave me here. You have to get me out of this trap."
"They just leave you? Well have some patience. Would you like something to eat?"
"They just leave me here," he said. "Get me out of this trap."
"Let's sit you up. Ellen and J are here to see you."
"Ellen and J? I've just been left here and I can't move."
She helped him sit up and supported him on the edge of the bed.
"Where am I?" He asked.
"Downstairs on the nursing floor. You're at home, but downstairs."
"Oh, I am?"
"Your granddaughters Ellen and J are here to see you. Do you have anything to say to them?"
"Who? Ellen is here?"
"I can't see."
"Squint through your right eye," she said, and pulled his eyelid open. She turned his head towards us. He strained to see something.
"I can't see. Where am I?"
"J is here to see you. She's expecting a baby boy this July. Do you have any ideas for a name?"
He paused, his head hung, gaunt on the edge of the bed.
"I don't know. I'd have to think about it."
"Ok. Do you have anything else you'd like to say to the girls?"
"I don't know."
"Well, let's talk about your next book. What are you going to title your next book?"
"I can't think of it right now," he said.
J joined in trying to coax conversation from him. "Harry tell us, what was your favorite age?" She asked him. He paused and grimaced.
"Well, I don't know. I'm confused right now."
I watched with some pain as he paused after each question and tried to search for an answer to questions now distant from his life.
"I'm sorry. I'm very discombobulated. I need a few minutes to get myself together."
I put my hand on his back.
"Don't apologize. You're doing fine," I said.
"I need to get myself together."
"You're perfectly well together. All you need to worry about is relaxing," I said.
"Do you have any advice for the girls?" My grandmother asked.
"No," he said, and turned his head to her. "But you keep saying that as if it might be my last chance."
"Well it may be," she said, and then rushed to add, "because they come from very far away." "Get me out of here."
As his ability to carry the thin thread of conversation he had clung to faded, we stood to go.
"Don't abandon me," he said to her.
"Well, I'm going to, but I'll be back this afternoon," she said. She helped him back into bed. We said goodbye and we left the room. It had been fifteen minutes.
I was not afraid. My grandfather looked as a dying 99 year old does; gaunt, drawn, dry, yellow in places and dark purple in others. He is mostly blind. Bones. He was in only a bed shirt and diapers. A few years ago I would've been intolerably frightened by the vision of actual dying in front of me. I would never have walked into the room, or even the building.
I wasn't afraid now, but I felt unexpectedly angry. My grandfather had received us for only 15 minutes, and then we had left him dying, alone. In the rooms around us were old people alone. An old lady slowly made her way down the hallway with a walker and a blank face. The man next door sat in front of a television with his eyes fixed on the ground and didn't move slightly for my entire visit. A man sat humped over in his wheelchair outside a doorway.
As we walked towards the elevator I asked my step grandmother if I could go back and sit with my grandfather for awhile. She said she thought he'd like it and I could if I wanted to. As I turned back to his room, two nurses entered in front of me. I lingered in the hallway while they changed his diaper, and perhaps my judgment was harsh, but it seemed to me they turned him from side to side as they would an object, not interested in the experience he was having as a person living through the only time they would ever die. The tremendous significance of that experience was striking me.
I went back into his room, where he'd been laid back against the pillows, and sat on the bed near his head. I put my hand on his shoulder and rubbed it lightly, and his hand and chest. He was already moving in and out of restless sleep and its accompanying hallucinations. For the next hour or two, with the walls of decorum and self consciousness gone, and the only work left to do to die, he talked, alternating between nonsense borne from his dreams, words about his past, and moments rejoined in the present.
I sat and looked into his face and rubbed his shoulder. He turned his head towards my hand.
"I don't know what you're doing, but it feels good," he said.
"I'm glad," I said.
He groaned, and said, "Oh wow... Ohhhh boy.. Oh boy," and shifted his head from side to side. I could not tell if his agony was psychic or physical and I did not ask. His eyes stayed closed.
"Go get your makeup and make me look young again," he said.
I laughed. "That would be nice, wouldn't it?"
"What time is it?" he asked.
"Oh boy. I've had about enough of this," he said.
"Are you not feeling well?"
"I want to look in the mirror to see what you've done to make me look beautiful again." He laughed, as if he simultaneously fell for and saw the silliness in his half-dream. I laughed too. I rubbed his arm.
"I don't know what kind of hypnosis you're practicing on me, but it feels good. Thank you."
Quiet, as he drifted through the space he spends much time in now.
"I've never really stopped wondering about how things might have been different in my life," he said.
"What kinds of things do you think about doing differently?" I asked. He didn't answer.
"What kind of hypnosis are they practicing on me?"
"I don't know. What does it feel like?"
He tossed his head for a few moments.
"A hundred years old. I've had a good time. A pretty good time."
I sat quietly with my hand on his hand. I did not know if he knew who I was, but I wanted him to know at every moment despite his blindness and his drifting that there was some other person with him who would hear anything he needed to say.
"I can't stand any more trouble with women," he said. He laughed again. "Actually, I haven't had much trouble."
"You haven't had much trouble? You've mostly had a good time with women? Well that's good!" I said.
"I've never stopped thinking about my early romances. There was a girl in college... a lovely girl. I never forgot her."
"What was her name?"
"Oh... her name? What was her name? Well, I can't remember anymore," he said, wrinkling his forehead.
He delved into his past, then flew forward, traveling all along the span of his many years.
"I can't take much more of this. Just let me go."
"You can go anytime you want."
"Never pass up the opportunity to enjoy yourself, without harm."
"That's good advice."
"I tried marijuana once or twice. It was interesting to feel outside of my mind."
"I guess we all need to get outside of our minds sometimes, huh?"
"Yes." I sat quietly. "Do you smoke cigarettes?"
"Good. Never pass up the chance to have a good time as long as no harm will come."
"Oh boy. I can't take much more of this."
We continued this way for a time, drifting in and out, up and down, to and fro.
He opened his eyes very suddenly after awhile, with an alertness in them, though he can no longer see very much.
"How is your father? He must be getting old now himself."
"Yes," I said. "But he's doing very well."
"Does he still play golf?" he asked. My father has never played golf.
"No, he isn't golfing."
"Oh, he isn't anymore? Ken has had some real trouble with one of his daughters. Some health problems and a divorce I think." He was speaking about me.
"Yes," I said. "That's right. Ken is my father."
"Ken is your father? Well I'll be damned. I'll be damned."
"Yes. I'm Ellen."
"And your sister? How is she?"
"She's living in Europe and very happy with her new husband."
"You two were such beautiful little girls. Do I have any pictures of you two? I'd like to have some."
"Yes," I said. "I'm sure you do." "How are your men? Are they good to you?" "Yes, they're wonderful men."
"And your charming mother? How is she?"
"She's as charming as ever!" I said.
He rested for a few more moments.
"I always liked Anne," he said, about my mom, his daughter-in-law.
"Well she's a wonderful person," I said.
"What time is it?"
"Oh boy. Only eleven thirty?" He had journeyed through so many places; it must've felt like much more time had passed.
I stroked his arm and he reached his up and put his hand on my hair.
"You're a nice lady," he said.
"I'm glad I've seen you today. I was feeling pretty miserable."
I waited as he seemed to fall more peacefully asleep.
"Do you want me to stay and keep you company, or do you want me to leave you to rest?" I asked.
"Yes, why don't you leave me to take a little nap for awhile."
"Ok. I love you."
"Oh, that's very kind, thank you very much."
I kissed his forehead and I left. As I walked the halls to the exit I felt angry and exhilarated and as close as I ever have to feeling as if I'd found my calling. I felt that nothing had ever come as naturally to me as sitting with him riding through this singular experience of his and its travels, with my hand on his shoulder. And I know unequivocally that it was important to him. He is already far away, yet human warmth still easily pierced through and had meaning to him. It was obvious that it's nearly never too late for compassion to matter.
I witnessed only 3 hours of his dying, which had already been in process for months, and which continues two weeks later, and only slices of the dying of the residents in the rooms around him, but I left with the total conviction that we must re-learn how to usher each other out with dignity and compassion and touch. We need midwives for the end. We need to remember how to ride along the waves that our kin, ahead of us in dying, ride, keeping them a distant company as they go.
What I saw my grandfather experiencing wasn't beautiful or happy, but it was intense and profound and clearly meaningful work: It was an evaluation of the life he's lived, a travel through the dying dream world, an expression of the words he wants to leave with other people. As I watched him in the place he is now it felt undeniably true that this act of dying should be witnessed and acknowledged just as every other significant life event is, because it is a significant life event. I felt and feel deeply sad that we leave our people unseen, frightened, alone.
I know that I will be there one day, too, lost in the world of dying, trying to understand, finally, the life I've lived, trying to leave behind what I can in words, dragged through a new confusing psychic plane, and I don't want to be afraid. Nobody will be able to follow me completely through that final journey, but I don't want to travel there without a compassionate anchor or a kind witness. I don't want the profound importance of what I am experiencing to be meaningless to the people living around me. I want warmth and comfort and dignity; surely we all do, we all must.
The dying and the elderly are not a separate class. They are US. Every one of us. We are all going there. Thus we need to re-learn how to die, not only for the sake of the humanity of our fellow humans dying now, but that we may receive dignity when we die too. Surely it is as important to be given the gift of compassion in that primally unique time as it is all the rest of our lives.