Cheryl and I are dreading these last few yards―so easy to know the right thing, so hard to do it. We’re here to pay our respects to an aged friend. We’d had word that he’d been in the hospital for a couple of days, and had been released so he could come home to die in peace. Cheryl had inquired discreetly: he’s seeing visitors. We breathe in, breathe out, suck it up, and knock on his front door. Though he’s supine in a hospital bed in the sitting room, at least it’s not a coffin, and he hasn’t the faintest look or sound of a man whose death is presumed imminent. The atmosphere is more like Thanksgiving than a premature wake. Family, friends, and a black Lab circulate, especially the energetic Lab; laughter and bright talk filter out of the kitchen, the default gathering room of many a house. We chat with him about his travels, his Navy career in the war, where he’d grown up, and make encouraging bald-faced lies about expecting him to be at church on Sunday. His manifest deafness keeps the seriousness at bay; repeating questions at a shout leavens a conversation.
On his ear, I observe Frank’s sign, the deep earlobe crease that may or may not signify heart disease. Tenuous as that correlation is, it prepares me to believe that this might not be a false alarm. His young granddaughter stands near his bed, beams of obvious doting passing between them. This touches me, having once been a grandchild, and now a grandfather totally at the mercy of his granddaughters. There will be tears if I’m not careful. I permit my attention to drift inward from the conversation.
He is of a faith whose fundamentalists are apt to disparage medicine and pride themselves on cultivating ignorance of it. I consider his belief to be at best indulging in the post hoc fallacy good and hard, and his checking out of the hospital reckless. I judge harshly, even savagely, because it seems unforgivable to me that he’s frittering away his life and his family’s love. But I do not know his prognosis, let alone know his mind, and it would be impertinent to make either my business. People do incomprehensible things under the God spell. People do incomprehensible things, period.
My brother remembers the time our grandfather juggled for us. Dismay and ricocheting remonstration from Gramma, Mom, and Dad, who worried that the exertion was too much for his failing heart, of which we kids understood nothing. I don’t doubt that afterward angina clawed at him and he had to fight for his breath, but, knowing more than I used to about grandfathers, I’ll lay odds that if he had deathbed regrets they didn’t include performing for his grandchildren.
On the ride home after one visit, the final time I saw Grampa, Mom commented how terrible he looked. Maybe I picked up something of foreboding in her tone because I contradicted her with some heat―I had seen no such thing and could not believe she had. Of course, she was right. My perception was flawed. I had discerned only his delight in seeing his grandchildren and failed to recognize the physical face of impending death. This blindness was merciful for a ten-year-old, but hard experience cures it.
During that last visit, Grampa lay in bed, hardly ever a good sign. I remember Uncle Bob telling us, years later, how hard it was for him to see his vigorous father―who had roamed the Berkshire foothills, fished, and golfed―inexorably wither. One April day in 1960 the phone rang; Dad shut the seldom-closed master bedroom door. I’d swear it happened on a weekend, but he died on a Wednesday, coincidentally the same day of the week on which he was born.
For a long time, so it seemed to me, I could not say the words “Grampa died” straight out. I thought that a reminder of his absence would offend his other survivors. Such overtness disrespected him, it was disloyal, an accusation, as if the power of saying it made it so, a curse that consigned him to oblivion. Oddly, I could say he was killed, keeping to myself that a heart attack was the blunt instrument; passivity and beating around the bush were OK. Although I can’t prove it, I believe I more than once said, “this grandfather is defunct.”
A child’s model of death is not much better than a dog’s and doesn’t necessarily improve as he ages. A child senses the loss and pain, and probably realizes that others share it with him, but he cannot understand that death is his own fate. Eventually, his parents will teach him that all living things must die―oh no, dear, nothing to worry about right now. He will parrot that as fact, but what he will believe is that he is exempt, indeed that he is invulnerable. After repeated bodily insults of the Nietzschean kind, we might begin to shed our delusions of invulnerability, but we do not give up until near the bitter end our desire to evade the draconian law of our mortality.
The handwriting for Grampa was on his dining-room table, had we children but known: salt substitute and margarine served with Gramma’s warnings about the evils of cholesterol. The late 1950s saw new and impressive blood pressure drugs that caught on quickly, and increasing knowledge of the importance of blood pressure control; however, I have no idea how Doc Taggart was treating Grampa. For him, it was too little, too late, but I’ve slithered through some profitable pharmaceutical and surgical loopholes in mortality’s Byzantine and confiscatory tax code, eking out a year more of life―so far―than Grampa did. This good fortune in medical technology spurs me to remember him and to remember that the day will come when big talk is at an end and all my weaseling is to no avail.