Monday, December 14, 2009

Me, On Death

My last living grandparent, my dad’s dad, has congestive heart failure and is not expected to live much longer. His heart is working at 25 percent its capacity, and is unable to keep his lungs from filling with fluid. My dad flew to Arizona a week ago Saturday with my uncle, and my aunt joined them there. Together, they heard the news that their father was not responding to antibiotics, and that he was being sent home for his last days.
My grandfather is a very proud and stubborn man, who insists that he feels as if he’s dying, but rallied today and surprised the nurses by having improved. He is at once aware of what’s going on and has a great appetite, and weakened and unable to stay awake. While I am always glad to get good news, for his sake and for the sake of the rest of the family, this sickness was not unexpected. My grandfather is 90 years old, has survived two open heart surgeries, buried my grandmother 15 years ago and has been married to his second wife for 14 years. He is nothing if not a fighter, but a part of me is struggling with the idea that this is a fight he cannot win.
We talk about death using words like, “tragedy,” “unexpected,” “sad,” and “unfortunate.” Granted, most of these words are not applied to the death of someone who has lived a long and full life, but we manage to be surprised by death all the same. Our survival instinct, the one that can send us bursts of adrenaline when our life is in danger or allow us to surpass the impossible to survive, makes it impossible for us to be able to expect death when it comes knocking. Lately, I’ve been struck by how absolutely ridiculous this is.
A friend of mine has a quote on her Facebook page that says, “Don’t take life so seriously - no one will make it out alive." It is one of the only things that we can count on in life; one thing that never changes: you will die. Despite the fact that this will happen to each and every person alive, those simple words sound brutal and rude; they sound pessimistic.
Some part of us, I know, is fighting to live. Some part of us wants another day, another sunrise, another smile, another meal. Even people who would not call themselves happy do not necessarily want their lives to end. And yet, despite this innate urge to continue, we will all die. How is that okay? How can we go through life knowing that ultimately none of this will really matter? How can someone that has been diagnosed with something terminal, like cancer, gather the urge to fight with every fiber of their being, knowing that ultimately they are not escaping death per se, simply lengthening the amount of time before they meet it?
Well, we can’t. We cannot actually go through life remembering that we’re going to die. If we did, none of us would be so quick to move away from teetering ledges; none of us would wear seatbelts, or guard ourselves from the cold, the intense heat or the dangers of overindulgence. If we could accept the idea of death, there would be no funerals, no wakes, no need for a belief in the afterlife. We are not programmed to accept death, so we choose to ignore the fact that it is there, like a huge dead elephant in the corner of room, permeating the air with its stench. Instead, we pretend like there is nothing that can end our small existences, and even when we are old, and tired, and have lived a full life, we aren’t necessarily ready for it to end, even if we always knew it was coming. And this, I think, is what makes us human, because although animals fight death like we do, I doubt they have an awareness of its inevitable existence.
You have to die of something. Even when they say that someone died of natural causes, they are dying of something. You cannot always pick your death, and certainly many are better than others, but in the end your death will be mourned because we cannot ever be ready for this inevitability.
Although my grandfather’s death will not be a surprise, that knowledge doesn’t lessen the pain. I don’t remember the grief being more or less intense when my grandmother died unexpectedly after complications of what was considered a low-risk surgery. She had lived through much worse and more taxing surgeries and cancer treatments, only to be taken from us at the last minute by a lung infection contracted in the hospital. However, the expected outcome of my grandfather’s illness at the end of his long life doesn’t make it any easier. If anything, the extra time we’ve been given since he rallied is a kind of torture: will it last, or will he leave us tomorrow? Will he ever be able to get around on his own again? Will he be short of breath for the rest of his life, however long that will be? Does he want to get better?
I find myself not wanting to talk about it, but feeling like I need to share, because deaths are a hard thing to face. I can’t help but feel, however, that they shouldn’t be. That part of me wonders why we are here; what is it all for if it’s all going to end? A bigger part of me, though, cringes every time the phone rings, and hopes it’s not the call I’m expecting.

Love and denial kisses