My grandfather is dying.
Not in the active, immediate way that signals that this is definitely, within days, hours, minutes, the end, but the slow way that involves Hospice and doctors giving statements in months rather than years. Because of this, I’ve been thinking about the nature of grief and loss, and I’ve come to a conclusion: I have no idea how to deal with this, and by “this” I mean this specific death, for this specific man.
To paint a clearer picture of what I mean, I have to paint a picture of my grandfather. My grandfather is the type of man who, when working at the paper mill that eventually gave him asbestosis, cancer, and COPD, would volunteer for shifts that left him on his feet for twenty-four hours. He’s afraid of heights, but as a paramedic he climbed a utility pole to bring down a worker who’d had a heart attack while fixing the wires. He delivered two babies in the back of that ambulance, using softball metaphors to talk himself through it. He values hard work the way other people value money; if it could be translated into currency, he’d have a fortune in the bank.
He loves infants more than any man I’ve ever met. He personally carried each of his six children to the nursery after their births. When I was a colicky baby, up all night screaming, he walked circles around the dining room table, singing to me. My own father never stepped up to the challenge, so my grandfather let me be his seventh child. Now that I’m grown, he takes my son for rides through the back fields in a golf cart, looking for wild turkeys and deer and stopping to let him pick up feathers. He calls my daughter “Punkin” and says how much she looks like me.
My grandfather is a man who will admit to past failings of the most major kind, but who won’t admit he’s wrong when arguing over the little things. He’s a man who isn’t the best singer, but who sang the loudest, until cancer took his voice box. He gets cancer the way other people get the flu, and shakes it off just as quickly. When undergoing radiation treatment for prostate cancer in 2000, we joked about the super powers that would result, and had a huge laugh when his “super-strength” caused the rusted-out door-handle on his minivan to break free.
He has known poverty, and never throws anything away because of it. His garage is a horror show of too many tools, too many golf clubs, too much clutter, too many things that will be useful “someday”. That garage was until recently, also home to the many stray cats he adopted. The first one to live there was thin-haired and scabby, missing an ear and in possession of a weeping, dead eye, but he would pick that cat up and let it tuck its head under his chin while he scratched it.
My grandfather is my super hero. Who else would roust a six-year-old with chicken pox from her bed and smuggle her under a blanket to watch a helicopter land in the B.P.O.H. parking lot? Who else would quit cigarettes cold turkey? He’s always been as tough as the cowboys in the westerns he loves to watch, but he reads Women’s World. He read my first book, but not my second because it was “too slow.” But he cared enough to call me and tell me that a vampire movie on television had stolen my ideas. It was Interview with a Vampire, but hey, he cared.
He’s usually honest, he has faith in God. He had a stroke that left him lying paralyzed on his lawn for hours, and the next day he showed up at my birthday dinner.
And now he’s dying.
Grief is a funny thing. I can recognize all the stages as I go through them, but there’s no road map to what I’ll be feeling next, and the entire process will reset when the day I’m dreading actually comes. I’m not sure if I prefer this kind of grief or the kind that happens with a sudden phone call in the middle of dinner. Certainly it would be more easy to enter into deep denial and trick myself into surprise when it happens.
I don’t know how to approach this kind of death. It’s the elephant in the room. Do you mention it? Do you act like everything is normal? Do you let the person you love die without acknowledging the fact that when they go, a huge chunk of your life is going to break off, and you’ll never be the same?
For all I can write about death, with the blood and gore and violence, sometimes it’s a quiet, expected death that wreaks the most horror and loss.