The other end of life
It has been a few years since I have seen my grandfather who lives in North Dakota. I have not been able to see him much throughout my life, so most of my knowledge of him comes from stories told by Dad. He still lives, but it is doubtful that I will ever see him again; if I do get to, I still will not get to meet the man that sparse memories and stories tell about.
Years ago, George, Dad’s dad, developed a tumor behind one of his eyes. This tumor, which became the size of a golf ball and caused his eye to protrude unnaturally, was removed surgically. After the operation, all seemed well. But soon he became sick with pneumonia, and his health deteriorated. Slowly, his rational consciousness began to slip, and, eventually, he developed a brain disorder similar to Alzheimer’s disease. Although my family lived over 1,000 miles away, we were affected; we could only guess what emotions were felt at the scene.
When I last saw grandpa, his physical health had returned. He was living in a nursing home not far from grandma and kin. The farm had been sold to my uncle to pay for all the costs, and although family structure had obviously changed, it seemed that grandpa and the family had made well a situation that could have easily been disastrous.
But still, things weren’t the same.
When I walked into the nursing home for the first time, I had the feeling that I was entering some kind of lost, forsaken realm, a strangely disturbing place. Standing behind a counter was a young woman doing paperwork. She looked up and smiled, welcoming us. The walls were somewhat dark, not reflecting light very well, and although art hung on the walls, they weren’t vibrant in this light. Two halls branched off like a Y, and down both I saw lines of wheelchairs. Slumped heads, drooping shoulders, gray hair; wheelchairs and walkers and nurses and doors and walls.
Soon I was walking down one of the halls, hearing things as I went. A nurse told Mrs. Parker to take her medicine; TVs blasted from some rooms; a mumble from behind one door, a cry from another; quiet conversations in the background.
As my younger sister walked by one room I heard the shrill cry of an old woman. She cried, "Annie!" As I reached her door the old woman was struggling into the hallway. "Annie!" she beckoned. "Come back!" She cried desperately, calling after my sister who was not Annie, her body trembling as her strength failed her. My sister did not see the old woman, and she disappeared around a corner. The woman broke into tears.
"Annie!" she wailed.
Disturbed, I hurried to the group.
In grandpa’s room I was greeted cheerfully. He thought that I was his son, my dad. But that was not so bad. I was surprised to see him so active, so alive and perky. He wanted to show us all his cards and pictures of family. Lifting a chair onto two legs, he placed a slipper under one of the legs for no apparent reason. Then he pulled on the curtain string and explained to us that it would make the toy windmill outside his window go. Coincidentally, a breeze sent the miniature spinning, so we all laughed.
Grandpa smiled and laughed and talked in complete sentences. He looked healthy, and it seemed so odd that he would tell us how he had just returned from the fields repairing fences and feeding cattle. Despite the anachronisms, his mind was still sharp. Whenever dad would bring up an incident of the past, grandpa remembered it all.
It was both sad and pleasant to see grandpa. I never knew him too well, but I felt strong affection for him. There was a bond. When the short vacation in North Dakota was over and I visited grandpa in the home for the last time, I was swimming in a pool of emotions. It was hard to suppress the tears; I knew I would probably never see him again. Before leaving, I took a picture of him walking through the nursing home with dad. Playfully sticking out his tongue, he made me smile despite the sadness. He probably was not aware that we were leaving.
It was good to leave seeing him smile.
But from time to time when I think of my grandpa in the nursing home, I can only summon a hollow feeling. What meaning does life give to those people who live unable to lead their own lives? Not all of those souls are as cheerful as my grandpa was. Many are lonely. Their bodies fail them, their friends die, their families leave. Communication is difficult or impossible as their sight and hearing and speech decay. They are trapped in a building, if not their own bodies. In the hollow gazes of their eyes you can just see sometimes that they know their lives are in the past: they don’t feel loved anymore.
Not long ago I walked into another nursing home. I didn’t expect the experience to be so emotional and filled with deja vu. With a group of carolers, I was singing for senior citizens in the community, and the last stop was at a local nursing home. Though bereft of a good singing voice, I still enjoyed myself. But when I entered the home, all merriment left me.
The chorus echoed, and smiles sat on the singing faces. But not many of the elderly wore open smiles, though it was apparent that the visit thrilled them; a type of excitement underlined their faces, and I could feel their sense of joy. But when I looked deeper into their eyes, I did not see happiness: I saw fires going out. I saw hollowness. I felt cold and lonely, and goosebumps irritated my whole body. The feelings were far from uplifting, and I wanted to leave.
To avoid aging is impossible. Growing old is inevitable. Acquiring aches and pains and stiff joints is natural. Physical deterioration is built into our genetic make-up, so we have no choice but to eventually succumb.
But of all the dark aspects of aging, the social aspect is the most frightening. Becoming isolated and losing touch. Being unable to communicate ideas and experiences and feelings, not being able to comprehend those around. Not all old people are deprived, but it must be among the most horrible states of existence to know only loneliness as a close friend and companion.
There are so many older people in this world. I often think about all the stories they could tell. How many adventures and struggles and dreams and loves are locked within the minds of the older generations? I wonder what they would do were they young now. What were they like in their youth? What can they say about life from that end of it? It’s sad that they don’t tell us more.
Growing old is one of the fears of many people. To me, it seems strange that someday it might be exhausting to sit down and write for an hour. It’s hard to believe that someday I won’t be able to play basketball; that this strong, healthy body will weaken: someday this body will die, and the person inside will no longer exist. But I can accept that, I guess. What I can’t accept is being old and alone. I only pray I won’t be crying after Annie.
When speaking of old age there is little escape from speaking of death. One way or the other, we all die. And unless we become hermits, we all experience death as observers. Most of us will see our parents die. Many of us will see our relatives die. We will see our friends die. When our time comes, others see us die. It is good that this is not a constant thought on our minds: it would overwhelm us with abysmal hopelessness. Death is a passing occasion that has no need to consume our thoughts. But when death comes into the house, or even just knocks on the door, there is a necessary shock, a frightening revulsion. We cannot help but realize our impotence, our brevity. So much is it our nature to feel secure and safe that we hide ourselves from our fate and our inevitable losses; we act as if there is no death until its ugly face forces itself into view.
When my Dad had a stroke, my whole world seemed to blur into a dull fog. Seeing him in the hospital bed, pale and tired, only the greatest strength of will kept my panic and dread hidden. Here was my father, the hero who raised me, lying there in pain. The abominable thought kept creeping into my mind that he could die. The horrible possibility that my son would lose his Pa Pa before he could develop lasting memories caused me to grieve terribly. My stomach twisted, and the whole universe seemed so cold and mean.
My Dad survived his stroke with no lasting damage. He is healthy. The experience is not over, though. It has made me painfully conscious of the fact that someday I will lose my Dad. Although I’ve always known this to be true, that knowledge was not enough to prepare me for the emotions that accompanied this close encounter. Life becomes that much more sobering when it is obvious that our self-imposed delusions of security will not hold up forever. Despite this dismal portrait, there is at least something good that can be learned from this. Before my Dad’s stroke, I always wanted to get closer to my Dad; but I was never able to let him know how I felt, and it was very difficult to spend time with him alone. I do not know why this was the case, why I have felt so uncomfortable around my Dad—I have always loved him deeply. After his stroke, though, I had no choice. It was all too clear that irrational discomfort was not worth the loss in the relationship with my Dad.
Before I would have the greatest difficulty giving my Dad a hug or taking a walk with him. Now it is not so hard. In fact, now it seems like I’m missing something if I don’t at least see him every other day to tell him a bit of what I’m up to. I want him to know how I am and how I feel. And I want to know what he is doing and how he is feeling. Part of the purpose of writing this is to let him know how much I respect and admire him. Mostly, I want him to know that so long as we are alive together, he does not need to ever feel lonely.
I have only had to face death once, so far. It was when my mother’s father died. While I have been too distant from Grandpa Olson to be very close, I grew up around Grandpa Himes. I was very close to him personally, emotionally. Although I always knew that he was old and approaching the end, his trek towards death ended all too suddenly. It was a shock even though I knew that it would happen.
I know that Grandpa was not lonely or physically alone when he died. He left knowing that he was loved, and that his family would miss him sorely. He did not leave without assuring his family of his love for them, and he expressed gratitude for having lived and loved.
But when death does come, there is so much lost that cannot be brought back. There are things about my Grandpa I wish I could know , but now I can never find them out. Many aspects of his story are forever gone. While I had recorded him talking about his life a couple years before he died, there is much more that I want to know. Many things never seemed relevant before he died, but they now seem necessary in understanding his life. What were his motives, and what pressed him on in life? Especially, what drove him when he was younger? These, I cannot answer. I wish that he had kept a journal and that he had written an autobiography. I did ask him to write an autobiography, but he told me that he could not write well—and that he would not be able to write much anyway. Somehow, though, I feel that whatever he would have written would have helped me learn about him and better deal with his loss. I have written a small biography on him, but I am so conscious of the fact that there are too many facts without much insight. I know that he did certain things at different times, but I do not always know why. I believe that the lesson here is that we should all try to leave enough stories and explanations behind so that those who love us might more fully appreciate us.
Grandpa Olson died on July 18, 2001. He was 89.
- Life and Death
Essays about life, old age and death.
- Stories from North Dakota
Some stories and thoughts related to North Dakota.