The business of living and dying - Part 3 — Family
The day before I was to leave to fly back east to be with my family my mother called me with news that my grandfather had been moved to hospice care. I needed no explanation of what this meant, I knew that hospice care was the last stage and that his 85 years of life would be, at any time, coming to an end. I started to worry that I wouldn't make it in time. I had had to wait two days between deciding to go to Michigan and actually catching my flight there and I was hoping that those two days weren't going to cost me and my sense of urgency tripled.
I arrived at Bishop airport in Flint, Michigan on Thursday afternoon. My mother didn't want to leave her father's side so she sent my uncle Ralph and cousin Jamie to pick me up and give me a ride to the hospice. My cousin Jamie and I are roughly the same age. As a kid, if I wasn't spending time with my cousin Robert fishing and catching turtles and crashing through the woods, then I was with my cousin Jamie, playing for hours on end with our massive Barbie collection or, later in life, sneaking out to meet boys. Growing up she was like a sister to me and by far one of my favorite people. But our relationship didn't weather the storm of life after 16 and like the rest of my family I hadn't seen her in 15 years.
When I stepped off the plane I didn't see anyone waiting for me. Jamie is tall and thin with long curly red hair and impossible to miss. I knew she wasn't there so I continued to walk to the escalators that led down to the doors outside. As I approached the balcony that looked down to the floor below I saw her standing next to my uncle and aside from her being a little taller they both hadn't changed in all the passing years. What was new however, was her mini me. Jamie and I had been friends on Facebook for over a year and so I knew that she had a daughter named Kylie who was 11, a son name Clayton who was 14 and a fat boy cat they called Tina. I had seen their family snapshots and could pick any one of them out in a crowd. But to see Jamie's daughter standing there, looking exactly like Jamie had when she was 11, all knees and elbows and red hair and a big smile, well, it was surreal. Kylie was standing there next to her mom holding a big sign above her head that read, "HEATHER". I was home.
As we drove toward the hospice I became increasingly nervous. My entire family would be there, how would they receive me? I felt like a small boat rowing into an oncoming tidal wave, my only beacon of light was my mother, for I knew she was as eager and excited to see me as I was her. The drive seemed endless as we traveled through the barren landscapes of Flint and the surrounding areas. Compared to the lively, thriving, green city of Portland, Flint felt like a decomposing planet that its inhabitants refused to evacuate.
Pulling into the hospice I suddenly recognized where we were. My father lives in the neighborhood of condominium houses that was nestled in the land behind the hospice. Since the divorce in 1996 my parents haven't seen each other, so it was strange to have both of their worlds, that are usually 550 miles apart, so close to one other's and yet still never colliding.
Walking down the corridors of the hospice, making my way to my grandfather's room, I was struck with the reality of where I was - in the land of the dying. Room after room housed a waifish elderly lying limply in their bed. Some were asleep, mouths open, head bent awkwardly, thin claw-like hands grasping at blankets and twisted sheets. Some were sitting upright, staring out the window at the beautiful sunny day that they could not be a part of, or watching the TV with the volume so low it was impossible to hear. Their rooms were filled with remnants of their lives, crocheted blankets, ceramic knickknacks, family photos in ornate picture frames and vases filled with flowers. This was it. What a long full life boiled down to. Being trapped inside your weak shell, tended to by strangers as you drooled and soiled and voided yourself. Seeing loved ones faces droop in a sadness that reflects your poor condition, suffering and loss and barely even a shadow of what you ever were. Death comes in so many forms and colors, sometimes it's quick and painless and bright like a flash of light, sometimes gory and horrific with sticky reds and seeping blacks, and sometimes it's slow and debilitating and riddled with gray tones that hang in the cracks. But whatever the size and story of it, you die alone, no matter the company.
I approached and entered my grandfather's room and, crash, the tidal wave enveloped me. Familiar faces smiled and greeted me, arms snaked around me in hugs, lips pressed to my flesh in kisses and all around I heard the voices call out in what was a chorus of my past. Parts deep within me bloomed for the first time since childhood and I suddenly remembered something I had forgotten long ago, I loved my family. As the sea parted my grandfather saw me standing at the end of his bed. As recognition took hold he began to cry, no, weep. He wept in a way that I've never seen any man weep before. And it was for me. I learned a grand lesson in those short moments that I watched him weep into his hand as it covered his face, as I sat down beside him on the bed and rubbed his arm and his shoulder and he told me through a cracked voice that he thought he'd never see me again. I learned that despite differences and wounded souls and bad attitudes, communication and forgiveness and compromise were braver and more admirable qualities than stubbornness, old grudges and silence. I knew that I wasn't a person who lived a life harboring those latter things, so why was this the exception to the rule? It made no sense to me, it was like wearing a pair of shoes that you've long outgrown but you refuse to take off. And just like that, I shed it all.
My grandfather and I talked for a while. I sat next to him on the bed as he absentmindedly fingered and toyed with the bangle bracelets on my arm. He asked me about my life and about my husband. He said, "Is he good to you?" Yes, grandpa, he's good to me. "Does he treat you right?" Yes, grandpa, he treats me wonderfully. "He's not mean to you is he?" No, grandpa, he's never mean to me. Though sometimes I mean to him. He shook his head and said, "You haven't changed a bit, have you?" For most of the day I stayed near his side and he was like a proud new grandparent all over again. With every new arrival of guest or nurse or doctor he would point to me and say, "That's my youngest granddaughter, isn't she beautiful?"
As he napped or visited with other family members I began to reacquaint myself with my cousins and their wives and all of their children. Seeing Bill and Robert's children was like seeing 2 rays of light split into 6 prisms. Each shard contained something solely unique yet utterly familiar. A smile, a look, a laugh, a gesture, they were all bits and pieces of the two boys I grew up with. And once all the kids had warmed up to me, since I was the new shiny toy, they began to buzz around me like busy little bees. Despite my never wanting to have children of my own I do love being around them. They are silly and funny and full of energy and adventure and they will run and play and reward your participation with their friendship and affections. Later in the afternoon I took them outside and we played tag (I was always it) and duck duck goose (I was always the goose) and took a hike through an overgrown path where they would throw limp weeds or small sticks at me and yell, "SNAKE!". They thought it was hilarious. At one point Kiley hid in the bushes and as I noticed she was missing from the pack and I started yelling out for her she jumped out into the path a really freaked me out, I screamed, and she giggled uncontrollably.
The day was long and full and by nightfall I was exhausted. My mother and I went back to my grandfather's house where she was staying and once again I was struck by remnants of my past. The house was full of familiar furniture and photographs and knickknacks and the smell, unmistakable. I went to bed that night in the guestroom where I used to sleep when I was little. The night light in the living room illuminated innocent stationary things and made them large and looming and wavering and as I drifted to sleep the ghost of my grandmother drifted through my mind.
Friday was family picture day. We arrived at the hospice to see my grandfather in good spirits, joking with the nurses and visiting with guests, he had had a full breakfast and a good night's sleep and said he was goin' dancin' later on. The day wore on much like the previous one had, family and friends arrived 2, 4, 6 at a time and soon the small room was overflowing with conversation and smiles and boisterous children. By later in the evening all of the family had arrived and we all gathered around my grandfather's bed for a group photo. This photograph was one of the last requests that he had. He said he wanted it taken and, "put in my box with me before they slam the lid down".
My grandpa had been recently waking up in the middle of the night disoriented and confused. He said sometimes he didn't know where he was and had a hard time finding the button to call the nurse. So my mother wanted the family to start taking turns staying the night with him so the next time he woke up confused and in the dark, he wouldn't be alone. Robert and I decided to take the first night together. After a long day full of visiting my grandfather was feeling exhausted and unwell. He was asleep by 10:30pm, resting peacefully, and my cousin and I set up the cots that we were to sleep on. Changed and ready for bed we sat down on our cots and Robert said, "Tell me everything and start from the beginning." And so I did. I started 15 years prior and took him along the journey that has been my life thus far. And then it was his turn. We chatted and laughed and sympathized and before too long it was 4:30am. We finally shut off the lights and lay in the dark and it soon became apparent that we were not going to be sleeping anytime soon. So we continued to talk, in the dark, while my grandfather's breathing and light snoring was the music of our night. Around 5:30am we were beyond tired and began to giggle about absurd things. And for a brief moment in time we were there again, children of youth, sharing parts of ourselves that we kept tucked inside the folds and pockets of our suits of armor.
Around 6:30am I finally started to drift to sleep just as my grandfather started to become agitated in his. He developed a rattle in his chest when he breathed and his breathing was labored and in gasps. He started to moan and softly cry out. Sleep deprived and in the dark room with my dying grandfather I suddenly felt like a scared little girl as the horror of the situation and the symphony of his struggle began to cover me like a death shroud. At 7:00am my grandfather started saying, "Get me up, get me up, get me out" and Robert and I shot out of our beds and over to his. Grandpa was trying to get out of bed, tugging the covers off of himself and struggling upright. Robert grabbed grandpa's hand and my grandpa looked up into his eyes with a glassy scared plea and said, "Please help me, Robert." We pressed the button to call the nurse as Robert tried to console my grandfather and keep him in bed. Just at that moment my uncle walked into the room and I got my cell phone to tell my mother to come right over. Soon after, my mother and uncle were at my grandfather's side trying to calm and reassure him. He remained agitated and confused and we hadn't seen him in this state before. The nurse came and gave him his first shot of morphine and he drifted off into a deep sleep that he would never wake from.
After being at the hospice all day long with family and guests coming and going, listening to my grandfather sleep, the rattle in his chest echoing in our heads and hearts even after leaving the room, my mother, stepfather and I headed home around 8:30pm to grab a few hours of sleep. At 10:30pm we received the phone call that my grandfather had died, and the relief coupled with grief and devastation enveloped us like a fog.
The days that followed were filled with making arrangements and spending time with family. We had a barbeque and a Native American pipe ceremony, I went on a tour with my mother and uncle of the town where they grew up and for the first time in my life saw the house, "the farm", where so many of the stories I was raised on came from. I saw the barn where my father, coming to pick my mother up for a date, entered and saw her eating a sandwich while sitting on a pile of horse manure as he stood there clad in shiny penny loafers and pressed slacks. I saw the house down the road from the farm where my parents moved to when they were first married.
With so many reflections of old age, dying and death, past lives and current ones, I felt young and unseasoned. As though I were lost on a journey through someone else's story, completely outside of myself and not sure how any of it related to me. My life, my sense of self, was alive and maintained in a place that was not connected to this one. And yet that was untrue somehow. I could feel the child version of myself within feeling like it all mattered very much. I've come to learn in my travels that distance not only takes you away physically, but spiritually you blossom elsewhere as well. I was two sides of one coin and it was compelling and conflicting.
The funeral viewing day was long and difficult and it struck me again how odd it was to have the dead body of a loved one filled with chemicals and packed with cotton and covered with makeup, laid out for everyone to approach and grieve over. I know that it makes it easier for some to say their final goodbyes that way but I personally find it grotesque and barbaric and would never want to remember anyone that way. It was especially interesting to see the young children view their first dead body. Some of them couldn't bare to look long, others lingered, some touched, others talked. I remember touching a dead body when I was a child, it was so stiff and cold, a mocking semblance of human flesh and I hated it. I've never done it again.
Not long after the funeral was over my stepfather and sister when back up north, leaving my mother and I to spend my last days in Michigan alone together. We spent a day taking our minds off of things with shopping and antiquing and having dinner with my cousin, Robert and his lovely family. We spent a day sifting through piles of boxes of old photographs and memorabilia from my grandfather's 85 years of life. And then all of a sudden it was time to fly west again.
I learned a lot about love and about family on my trip to Michigan. I observed the lives of others and felt in my heart what I was missing out on by living so far away. I realized that I regretted not speaking to my grandfather or my cousins or my aunt and uncle for all these years, and knew that I would make changes to rectify that as best I could. But most of all I knew, without a doubt, the lengths I would go to to help my mother, to be there for her no matter what the circumstance, that my love for her was limitless and unwavering and deeper than anything that I thought I'd known. I suppose love like that exists, for the most part, quietly and unassuming. And it's not until it's called upon that you gain any insight or glimpse of it, and when you do it arrests you.
When my plane descended in Oregon I felt like I had never seen such a beautiful place in all my life. The sky was clear and blue, the sun was shining, the trees were plentiful and a shade of green that is rich and vibrant. Our plane flew low and passed by Mt. Hood and I had never seen a mountain so close from the air before. It was reach out and touchable. Breathtaking. Huge and natural and of the earth, like our little lives in a way but epic in duration. When the plane had landed I deboarded and spotted Adam waiting for me in the terminal and I was never so glad to see him in all my life. He was my heart and soul and breath and blood standing right there, and I ran to him, and we embraced tightly. It was good to be home, again.