How is it that I am so unprepared for death?
Sitting in the straight-backed hospital chair, I feel the silence of the moment compressing my chest like a two thousand pound weight. No less stunned than the rest of my family to hear the doctor pronounce that grandpa is dying. No one moving. The floor fascinating to me, even as dad intensely studies a speck on the far wall and mom analyzes a crack in the ceiling.
Grandma seems unable to look away from the empty hospital bed; sheets pulled back, the imprint of a frail man’s body still evident on the mattress. I can read her mind; wondering how on earth she’ll tell her husband of fifty-two years what she knows when he returns from his walk.
Off in the distance, someone coughs. Machines are beeping all around us; some operating respirators, others signaling an IV bag has run low, and others still monitoring heartbeats. It’s the strange music of a hospital.
And all I can think, over and over again, is I shouldn’t be surprised.
He’s eighty-four years old. He has cancer. He’s human. And humans are mortal beings. This is natural. This is the way of things. The progression. The circle of life…
I guess that’s what I’m supposed to think.
In reality, all my brain seems able to do is short-circuit on the thought: “I’m not ready…I’m not ready…I’m not ready…” Though what exactly I’m not ready for, I’m hard pressed to describe. Maybe it’s the reality that death has never before touched me; not like this. And I’m not ready to face it. Because to face it means facing my own mortality in ways I’ve been ignoring all my life.
The doctor clears his throat, and we all return to reality. I tear my eyes away from the recently waxed floor, and look to dad. Dad always has the answers. Except he says nothing, hands shoved into pockets as he rocks back on his heels in a gesture I know means he’s uncomfortable.
I turn to mom…and just as quickly turn away because there are tears in her eyes. This is a father she is losing.
Again I look to dad, this time in a different light. A terrifying truth in my head: Some day I’ll lose him too.
Some day I’ll talk of him the way he talks of his father. Pointing to photographs of his smiling face while describing to my grandchildren what he’d been like. How his eyes crinkled when he smiled. How the Boston Red Socks were his favorite baseball team, ‘The Quiet Man’ his favorite movie, and Steve McQueen one of his favorite actors. I’ll try to fill in the gaps a picture will leave, but it won’t ever be the same. Some day he’ll just be gone.
Hell, while my brain is on the subject, I realize that some day I too will be nothing more than some dated photograph on a mantle. Some footnote on a family tree for people to study and wonder over. Meghann, daughter of David and Nenice…sister of Keith…wife of…mother of…grandmother of…and so on, until I am long forgotten.
I think of the family tree we have in a dusty leather-bound book back home. All those names. All people. All come and gone.
Finally, unable to stand the silence a moment longer, I unfold myself from the chair. Moving to put a hand on grandma’s shoulder, for the first time I notice just how frail she is. I can feel the bones just beneath her skin.
How is it up to this moment she seemed so invincible? Why is it that now she doesn’t? How can a few words from one doctor so thoroughly change my life and my perception of the world?
“He’s been through some pretty rough times,” I hear myself saying. “So maybe he’ll pull through again.” Grandma nods; I think it’s just out of habit. I don’t think anyone really believes that. Not this time. This time, the bank account is overdrawn. Nothing left to take.
We’ve done three rounds of chemotherapy. Four surgeries. Two experimental treatments. Studies at the medical school. And endless trips to the Veteran’s Hospital to beg for cheaper prices on prescriptions so he can afford his medications…so very many medications…
Testosterone depravation to fight the prostate cancer…estrogen replacement to fight the hot flashes brought on by too little hormones…nausea medication to treat the effects of too much Estrogen…pain medication for the cancer in his bones…laxatives to fight the constipation brought on by the pain medications…steroids to help improve kidney function, as the kidneys are stressed from the daily laxatives…diuretics to help with the fluid retention, caused by too many steroids…
…and so the list goes on.
Running through it in my head, it certainly sounds like I’m describing a man who’s been through hell. A man who has lived well into his eighties. A ripe old age by most standards. Who has fought and survived through two wars, the Great Depression, and lived with his cancer at least five years longer than people had originally expected.
So why does death surprise me?
Eventually it all has to end, doesn’t it? Eventually it all will end. And the only difference between grandpa and the rest of us is he now has his ticket to the other side, while we’re still waiting in line to get ours.
I hear grandpa’s voice out in the hall, and panic seizes me by the throat. I can’t face him. Not right now. And so I cowardly duck out of the room so fast no one has a chance to even ask me where I’m going.
On automatic pilot, I move down the familiar halls of Tuality Hospital; the hospital where I was born. Where dad has worked as an Obstetrician and Gynecologist for thirty-five years. The hospital where I’ve known so much joy; tagging along at dad’s heels as a child, his self-proclaimed ‘assistant’ as he would round on patients or check on newborns in the nursery.
But that’s all on the second floor. The Labor and Delivery department. A happier place. I’m currently on the fifth floor, which is reserved for more long-term care.
I just want to get away. Get out of here. But where can I go?
Without really thinking, I step into the elevator and punch the button for the eighth floor. Feeling butterflies as the elevator lifts me up to the top of the hospital. Stepping out into a mess of construction (they’re remodeling) and gingerly moving around the plastic and the sawhorses to the door leading into the outdoor garden on the roof.
The fresh air hits me with a shock; it’s spring, but here in Oregon that doesn’t mean it’s warm. At least it isn’t raining.
Moving to a bench, I sit down and stare straight ahead. Hands helplessly splayed open in my lap. Empty. Unable to do a damn thing to fix this problem we now face, because it’s a problem no one can fix. Not even the most skilled of physicians.
As mortal beings with a ticking clock from the very first moment that proverbial sperm connects with the egg, you’d think we could do a little better job of preparing for the inevitable. At least pack a hypothetical suitcase and leave it in the corner for when our time comes. But we don’t. Those commercials on television urging us to plan for the sake of our loved ones always fall on deaf ears. There’s always a tomorrow to see a lawyer about a will. And we’re always too busy with life to see a priest until the very last instant, yanking the poor man out of bed and demanding he absolve us of our sins just before we step off the boat and into eternity.
No, usually death sneaks up from behind, and we’re left sitting on the roof of the hospital contemplating the meaning of it all while our grandfather is being told three floors down that he’s not long for this world.
I feel tears threatening the corners of my eyes, but furiously push them back, knowing once the tears start I’ll never get them to stop. Instead I force myself to sit in silence.
The door behind me opens, and I hear a foot land on gravel. I hear the sound a second time, and a third, and realize with a little jolt that I know who it is even before he speaks. Dad has a very distinctive walk. A little hitch (some might call it a limp) in his step from a long-ago knee injury sustained during an intramural softball game.
“Are they wanting me back downstairs?” I ask after he stands behind me for several minutes, sharing the space.
“No…I just wanted to make sure you’re okay.”
A smile forms at the corner of my mouth. Dad can always do so much while saying very little. He hasn’t even touched me; put a hand on my arm or pulled me into a hug. Yet hearing his voice and knowing he’s behind me offers a level of comfort I rarely find anywhere else.
He is my safe harbor. My sanctuary. He always has been.
My earlier thoughts attack my mind viciously, and I’m forced to fight back tears all over again. What will I do when he’s gone? Who will I turn to?
When you get old, are you even allowed to have safe harbors any more? Or are you just supposed to support everyone else? Is it a luxury only the young get to have, kind of like believing in Santa Claus and never having to worry about paying the bills?
Again the questions flood my mind, and again I force my brain to go numb and quiet. Looking around for a distraction. Finding it in the shape of a beautiful little rose bush, a perfect white rose starting to bloom. Three small buds just beneath, ready to follow suit.
Looking around the garden, I see many budding leaves and flowers. It’s only a matter of time before the garden will become what it is during the summer months: a place of loveliness. I’ve never been much of a gardener myself, but I can appreciate a garden’s beauty when I see it.
“Penny for your thoughts?” Dad’s voice interrupts my study of the white rose.
Crossing my arms over my chest in a universally protective gesture, as though by sheer force of will I’ll ward off all negative thoughts and depressing feelings, I stand up a little straighter. “It seems wrong that grandpa’s going to die in the springtime.”
Dad doesn’t respond at first to that; although since I’m not facing him, I can’t tell if it’s because my remark surprised him or if it’s because he’s trying to come up with a suitable response. When he does finally speak, I decide it must have been a little of both. “Why exactly do you say that?”
I shrug. “Spring is a time for life. Even you notice how many more babies you deliver in the spring than in the fall or the winter. It just seems…wrong somehow to die in the spring.”
“Better to die in the winter?”
I bite my lip. Bite it before I say something really stupid and childish. Something along the lines of how he shouldn’t have to die at all.
Dad puts his hand on my shoulder. “There’s no good time to lose the people we love, sweetheart.” His fingers curl a little into the muscles of my neck before beginning to massage the tension away. “And who knows? He could still live a long time yet. With prostate cancer it’s hard to say for sure. All Dr. Stone is saying is there’s nothing left to treat him with. Nothing left medically to fight the cancer.”
“I know.” And I do. Chemotherapy would kill him if he does it again. The steroids he’s been taking are ripping his insides to shreds. And even if they weren’t, the diuretics to help with the steroids are giving him chronic urinary tract infections. I know it boils down to this: can’t treat a body if the body can no longer respond to the treatments. Which is the point grandpa has reached. Nothing working right any more. And any new medication to treat one failing system would inevitably put too much stress on another. “He’s dying.” I don’t know why I feel the need to say it. But I do.
Dad’s fingers stop massaging briefly, and then start again. “Yes. Yes he is.”
“How long do you think it will be?” Dad is always my sounding board. The one I look to for answers.
He sighs. “I’m not an oncologist, Meghann…”
“But what’s your best guess?”
“I think he’ll still be with us for the rest of the year, at least. He’s declining…but declining slowly.”
My eyes return to the rose bush. “One more year.” What would I do if I only had one more year? What would I want people to do for me?
I wouldn’t want to miss a single moment.
Glancing again at that perfect white rose, I’m seized with sudden inspiration as I get to my feet and move forward, grasping the little stem in one hand and snapping it with the other. Feeling the soft petals on my palm as I walk past dad in silence. Heading back to the elevator, cradling the rose in my hand with all the tenderness of something infinitely precious.
Some day soon, my grandfather will die. I will drive over to the condo he shares with my grandmother and see only an empty chair. Life will change forever.
Death is suddenly very real, and I am mortal just like him. Seeing the wheel of time starting to leave him behind. Knowing some day it will leave me behind too. Roses blooming that I will no longer see or smell.
But not yet. I am still here. Here to love him. And this thought comforts me.
Grandpa can’t walk up to the garden any more, but I can at least bring a piece of the garden back to him. So I do; and the tears that well up in his eyes when I give him that little piece of spring mirror the tears in my own. Crying together over a single white rose, and knowing it’s a good day to be alive.