some thoughts on dying


Warning: This is long and tangential. It’s the only way I can write it.

On Thursday afternoon, my mom was helping my grandpa walk to the door, when Grandpa’s legs gave out and both he and my mom went down. He didn’t have a stroke; he just didn’t have any strength left in his legs, couldn’t put any weight on them.  Luckily, my step-dad was home, and was able to carry Grandpa back to his bed. (Even at 102, Grandpa has some heft to him.)

Later, after Grandpa realized that he wouldn’t be able to stand, even with help, he and my mom talked about what he wanted to do, what came next.

“This isn’t the kind of life I want to live,” he said. “It’s not worth it.”

Understand: My grandpa is one of the most active people I know. Being stuck indoors in his reclining chair all winter was difficult enough for him, but he always had the hope that as soon as spring came (and then after his hospitalization and the placement of the pace maker) he would be out, cruising the River Road in his borrowed electric wheelchair. “I can even pack a picnic lunch,” he’d said. And I know he had dreams of finding some other old geezer sitting on a bench, someone he could talk to, someone who could relate.

Thursday afternoon I was at a meeting, and when I came home, D said that my mom had called and they were going to start hospice care. We were there in a half hour, and when we arrived at her house, my sister and nephew were there too. My mom and step-dad. D and I went downstairs to see him.

“Hi Grandpa,” I said, and he smiled, “Well Katy, D., hello.”

I sat down next him and reached for his hand. “Well,” he said, “I’ve had a great life.” His voice wavered. “I had great parents, a great family—Lucille, Nancy.”

“And wonderful granddaughters,” I said, smiling through my tears.

“Ha! And wonderful granddaughters,” he agreed.

I started to cry. D put his hand on my shoulder.

“I’m ready to go. I’m not scared,” he said. “I know what’s going to happen. I’m not in pain.”

How many people get to do this? Grandpa was totally lucid, seemed fine, really, other than not having much physical strength. “I won’t be eating anything solid now,” he said. What he wanted was strained oyster stew—just the broth—which my sister fixed for him in the next room, and which he drank through a straw. (It smelled disgusting to us, but he thought it was delicious.)

Grandpa raised his head from the pillow. “Stella is going to really be something,” he said. “She’s a bright one.” He laughed. “She takes after her grandfather.”

Stella was the first great-grandchild, and she and Grandpa have something special, I think—a connection. When Stella was a week old, baking under the phototherapy lights in the NICU, Grandpa stood above her with tears in his eyes, his hands clutching the edge of the warming table, and said, “Well, she has all her fingers and all her toes.” I think at that point he had thought we were keeping something from him. Maybe he thought she wouldn’t make it. I remember wondering then if his own losses—several miscarriages and a stillbirth before my mother was finally born—hovered close to the surface. Do they ever fade completely?

Now, whenever Stella is at my mom’s, she draws a picture for Grandpa, her Great-Gahgee, and tacks it to his refrigerator. She always remembers to speak loudly when she talks to him, leaning in to give him a hug in his chair. I had hoped that he and Zoë would have time to develop the same kind of bond, but she’s three, and well, that’s all: She’s three, and I’m much more lenient with my three-year-old than Grandpa thinks I should be. I hold her when she whines, let her drag me upstairs in the middle of a conversation, let her run around naked (a battle I’m not willing to fight).

I wanted Stella to understand that Grandpa was dying so she could really say good-bye, but maybe she’s too young? I’m not sure. She first asked about death years ago, after Mimi died. (For those of you who don’t know, Mimi was the woman with whom D and I lived after we were married.)

After Mimi died, I explained that Mimi was gone, but that she would live on in our memory, that we could look at pictures of her and remember her.

“But where did she go?”

“Well,” I said. “Her body just stopped working. She’s not alive anymore.”

What did she say to that? I can’t remember.

“Some people believe that you go to heaven when you die,” I started, not sure how I could make this idea tangible for her.

“But where is that?”

“Well, it’s not really a place.” I paused. “It’s like in Lion King after Simba’s father died, and Simba looked up into the sky and saw Mufasa in the clouds.”

I’m not sure if it made sense then, and I’m not sure if it would help now. Coincidentally, Stella’s spring dance performance was to “He Lives In You” from Lion King. 

I don’t know why I love that song so much, but a couple of weeks ago I downloaded it from iTunes and now, as I run along the river, I listen to it over and over again, goose bumps prickling my skin as I cross the Mississippi and then cross it again in my loop. (I know. I’m totally cheesing out these days. I can just imagine you rolling your eyes as you read this.)

Interestingly, it has only been since my grandpa started to die that I have felt like a runner again. In the last months, my heart and head haven’t been in it (even though my running injuries have mostly healed…) My legs have felt heavy, my breathing strained. It’s as if, having made it through what has been a very stressful and often-difficult year, my body was worn down. But how could I, at 39, be worn down when my grandpa, at 102, was not?

As I ran yesterday, I felt strong for the first time in a long time. My mind was trying to make connections between my thoughts, which are all over the place: My grandpa, whom I love, is dying. A couple of friends, whom I love, are trying desperately to conceive. My mother, who has cared for her father for years, and who is fully in charge of helping him die, is exhausted, resigned to his death at the same time she still feels glimmers of hope for a recovery (even as she realizes how ridiculous that is). Death, life. Death, life.

Thursday night when I put Stella to bed, my eyes red and puffy from crying, I told Stella what Grandpa had said about her being really something, and she smiled. “You know that he’s dying, honey, right?”

Tears started to run from her eyes, catching on the bridge of her nose, dripping into her hair. “You’re making me sad,” she said, her voice accusing.

“I know. I’m sorry. I just want you to be able to say goodbye to him.”

“I want to catch him one more fish,” she said, the tears coming faster.

Last summer, Stella caught a bass that D cleaned and filleted, and my mom and I breaded and fried with butter and lemon. Then Stella and Grandpa sat across from each other eating, contentedly absorbed in their meal.

“Oh honey, that’s so sweet,” I said, hugging her close.

On Friday, my grandpa was still so lucid—he seemed fine, really—that my mom asked him whether he had made his decision to die in haste. “You don’t need to do this now, Dad,” she said. But he insisted: “I’m ready to go.” Friday was the twelfth anniversary of my grandma’s death—they were married for 67 years—and I think part of him wanted to go then, on the same day. But he didn’t. He talked about the memorial service we’d have for him. He gave my brother-in-law his golf clubs.

And on Saturday he was much weaker. He insisted on saying his goodbyes, telling D and others to “have a great life.”

“I’m ready to slip away,” he said.

I wanted to tell him what? That I wouldn’t be who I am if it weren’t for him? That he will live on in each of us? I would have loved to say that soon he’d be reunited with my grandma—how comforting would that be?—but my grandpa is a life-long atheist, and he would have told me I was full of crap. I was able to choke out only this: “You know how much you’ve meant to me, Grandpa, Right?” He nodded.

When he slept, I sat next to him, reading, giving my mom a break. I started Rae Meadows’ new novel, Mothers and Daughters, on Friday. Rae sent it to me a few months ago, and I had been anxious to start reading it, but I couldn’t have anticipated how perfect it would be for me right now, as I sit next to Grandpa. It’s a story of mothers and daughters—a story about connection, grief and letting go. (I hope to have Rae as a guest here at Mother Words in the next couple of weeks…)

Yesterday, Mom took a walk and then a nap, and as I sat beside Grandpa, I read, and then I stared at him, and read some more. I fed him a sip of water through the straw when he was thirsty, but his eyes were closed most of the time. He wasn’t interested in talking. When he fell deeply asleep, his cheeks puffed out slightly with each exhalation. But his breathing was labored, and there were more and more long pauses between breaths. With each of these, I looked up from my book, holding my own breath, thinking, Let this be it. Let go, Grandpa. And then: Oh Grandpa, I love youBut his chest always stuttered into action again.

Something is clearly going on in his lungs—filling with fluid maybe? When he breathes it sounds like the fizzing of a newly opened can of soda.

I tried to commit him to memory even though he wouldn’t want to be remembered this way: with sunken cheeks, the tendons visible in his neck, straining when he swallows. He would want to be remembered as a young man, all early-century swagger, or next to his love Lucille on their 50th wedding anniversary—my Grandma dressed in her teal dress, Grandpa next to her, his frame solid, smiling in his gray suit, his hand on Grandma’s lower back—or on the golf course, yes on the golf course where he spent thousands and thousands of hours perfecting his game.

During a break yesterday, when my mom was sitting with him downstairs, I stood at her kitchen window and watched the neighbor across the street mulch her garden. I listened to the sputtering hum of a mower down the block, the steady ticking of the clock on the mantle, the birds chirping in the tree outside. The sweet juice of an orange filled my mouth and I felt oddly content. This—these small moments, loving everything fully—are what make up a life, no?

I lay down on my mom’s couch and picked up Meadows’ novel again, and this is what I turned to (from one of the chapters in Samantha’s perspective—she is the daughter in the novel):

In a span of months she had been present for birth and for death, the wondrous first breath and the horrible last. But wasn’t it an honor to be there at the end of a life as well as the beginning? To mark the extraordinariness of a lifetime, to bear witness to its completion? Could she ever convince herself of that?

I’m convinced.



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