My grandfather turned 91 last week. Born 4 September, 1918. He was quite an interesting fellow. He joined the Navy in the 1930s and saw the world. He was a Chief in the Navy and as a navigator helped guide ships including the USS Intrepid during World War II.
He had a long career in the Navy, moved to San Diego, where my father and mother would later meet. For a few years he worked in aerospace and eventually worked as a letter carrier for the US Postal Service until he retired in the 1980s.
He was a man of the old school. He had the capacity to bring home strangers to dinner, he was not afraid to talk to people and ask how much they paid for their house. He kept a well-stocked freezer. He was a democrat and though he would say things about certain persons of color that were retrograde, in the last election he voted for Barack Obama.
He was married to my Grandmother Jean for 65 years. In the last 30 years that partnership was closer still after my Grandma’s stroke in the 1980s made her unable to drive or see right or get around easily.
He was committed and steadfast to his family and those he considered family.
In the last month he had begun wasting away, eating almost nothing, less fluids, less able to get around in his own home. As a man who would mow folks’ lawns and spent lots of time outside, he he has had small cancerous and pre-cancerous growths for years. But the diagnosis of chronic lymphocytic leukemia/small lymphocytic lymphoma took a serious toll.
Last Friday, just 3 days ago, I got a call from my mother early in the morning saying that he had made a turn for the worse. He was being given narcotics for his severe pain, and they had ordered a hospital bed for him at the house, where my aunts and uncles in San Diego had been taking care of both he and my Grandmother for a few months. He was declining.
I was on my way to work, but I was compelled to change my plans immediately. I was drawn to San Diego to an extent I now find hard to fathom. Instead of going to Glendale to work, I went to San Diego.
When I got there I was greeted by my three Aunts and Grandmother, and later my Uncle.
I used to work in Intensive Care Units and experienced a lot of deaths and terminally ill people. My Grandfather had that look. His body had burned through Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs downward to the basic needs: safety and biological. The poker playing, the grilling of delivery people about their families and jobs, the friendly offer of a soda pop to anyone who came by — these were all gone.
I spoke to him and clutched his arm but I don’t really think the body I saw before me could hear me or feel that touch. I like to think there was an aspect of him hovering as a presence there. The scientist, the Respiratory Therapist in me, does not see the Holy Spirit and Mother Mary, but the artist in me can. These aspects of myself were both there, seeing how reduced he was and also that he was moving close toward a transcendent plane, beyond his body, beyond the physical world.
His breathing was labored. His skin blotchy and clammy. His body temperature varied.
I saw many people die while I was working in hospitals. Sometimes I was part of the team withdrawing life support. Sometimes I was part of the team providing artificial respiration with a bag attached to oxygen. Literally blowing air into people’s lungs. Sometimes I would do chest compressions, with the lockstep rhythm working to jump-start someone’s body to life. Whomever was running the Code Blue would call out orders: “Charge to 200 Joules.” “Clear.” “Shock at 200 Joules.” “Pulse?” “Continue compressions.” Sometimes a code was a fraction of an hour. I was witness to some codes which lasted much longer.
But for my Grandfather, there would be no heroic measures. His body was too spent, too weathered, to survive. There was no resource to draw on.
I never felt a sense of magic or grandeur when a death happened in a hospital. There was only bleak pitiless emptiness. The body, when dead, was simply inert. I don’t know what I expected. Perhaps something like an Assumption into Heaven, with heavens parting and a white light. Or perhaps something like an extra presence as the soul left the body and rose and left the body. Whenever I saw death and dying, I would look for it. But nothing came.
I think in not seeing that, I lost my faith. A huge part of me was torn away. I could not reconcile my experience with what I was taught and taught myself about spiritually.
My Grandfather did not suffer such doubts. He went to church dutifully with my Grandmother for as long as I can remember. He never talked about faith, and I don’t really know what he believed. I suspect he knew that church was part of what stable families do. He knew because he grew up hard, in the depression, and his family had hardships early on. His love of life I’m sure was simply being glad he had come so far from that hardship.
In High School in Omaha, he played sports. He played Football and Baseball, at least. I think he may have done more. He joined the Navy and in the Navy he wrestled. He won competitions. He was doing push-ups at least into his 70s. He could do better push-ups than me when I was in my teens and he his 60s. This was a fact that I recount with some pain. I’ve never treated my body as well as he treated his.
The day went on, and more family members came and saw and spoke to him. Spent time at his bedside. The hospital bed was delivered. A hospice nurse came. My family took care of him. A baby monitor was there and was lit with his labored breathing. We got set up for family dinner, a tradition in the family in San Diego for several decades now. Everyone comes, more or less, for dinner Friday nights. When I lived in San Diego we did this.
My Grandpa and Grandma would make spaghetti, or tacos, or meat loaf, or whatever, and we would share our weeks and months. Living away I have missed many for several years, but it is an important tradition for the family.
It always happened at 6pm. When you were late my Grandfather’s greeting was something like “You’re late — salad’s ready.” Usually with something of a grin on his face. When I was in my teens I don’t really remember hugging him, but in the last 10 years usually I would hug him too.
At a little before 6pm, my Uncle Lee indicated that he couldn’t feel a pulse, and he couldn’t see him breathing. My aunt Jackie felt for a pulse. Others did too. Carotid. Brachial. I immediately felt for the femoral artery. When the heart is working poorly, you want to feel the best possible pulse. The femoral artery is the one you want, and I felt nothing. His feet were cool to the touch. His color even worse. The only thing like breathing in the room was the fans that were used to keep the room temperature okay. My Grandfather was dead. We cried and cried and saw to him. Words cannot do justice to the feeling of this time but it was intense and chaotic and familial grief at its strongest. I do not remember feeling like this for any death. I had never been so present for a death. I had never had to confront my emotions during a death and it was unfamiliar.
Though I drove to San Diego knowing I would likely see death, this was not what I thought I would feel. It was a melange of the experience of the scientist-me and of the spiritual me. I didn’t recoil from the prayers said. I did not think it hypocritical when the Lord, or the greater beyond, or my Grandfather’s new Journey were spoken of. I do not seek out cynical dismissals of claims that spiritual events were happening. And neither did I miss that the practical and physical aspects were rather simple: his life is gone. Rather, I saw a middle way. Something I didn’t expect because I didn’t expect anything other than to see my dying Grandfather before he died.