I have a lot to say here, so I'm sorry if it seems like a maelstrom of thoughts.
Last Saturday I flew out from Seattle bound for San Francisco. I was going to meet up with my dad, who flew down a day before, and my mom, who has been down there for three months now and counting. My grandmother is dying.
I've never been that close with my California side of the family. My parents are alone up here in WA, and we semi-yearly take flights out to the East Coast to see my Dads side, or go to Cali to see the large gang that is my Moms side. I'm and infrequent guest at best, especially with school and skiing. But my grandmother is on her last legs, so I figure I should go down there and visit one last time.
The flight out of Seattle was beautiful. The light was just fading, and as the plane swooped from north to south, I got a full view of the Olympics, with the peaks outlined in a colorful red and orange. I traced the landscape down, across long beach, grays harbor, Astoria and the mouth of the Colombia, until it was too dark to see. Then I delved into my book, putting off my thoughts and worries of this trip as I joined Paul Theroux's journey around Pacific Islands.
Paul Theroux is a difficult writer. Hes a travel writer, but for some reason seems to despise every location he travels to. Not with these islands though. He revels in kayaking around atolls and white beaches, stays with natives and talks to people, discovering their story and what life is like for them, a people removed from the business of modern life. Its wonderful stuff - you can tell he loves doing it. It made me wonder "What do I really love?" and left me wondering if I could be spontaneous and self assured as he is, wandering at whim around the Pacific.
I land, get some In-and-Out with my dad, and drive two hours up the 101 to my Grandmothers house, which is home base till Tuesday. We get in late, aroudn 10:30, and after deliberation, decide that I should announce myself to my Grandmother. Shes pale, collapsed, deep in a armchair, hooked up to a oxygen machine that pumps pure oxygen into her nose so that what little is left of her lungs can supply the rest of her body with air. The machine makes a horrible puttering sound that can be heard throghout the entire house, and it runs 24/7.
She perks up when I come in, and smiles. I give her a hug, and try to make small talk. What do you talk about with a person who is going to die? Conversation drifts away and is passed between the handful of relatives I have in the room with me. I later realized why it felt so wrong; any kind of conversation in the room always seemed to leave out the hunched over figure in the corner. I went to bed soon after, and read about Pacific Islands.
I had thought a little before about waht I would try to do with my grandmother, what experiences we'd retell, maybe have a deep long talk or something (it would be a first), but after that first night, I knew we couldnt do it. Dry heaves kept her and my mother, the caretaker, up most of the night. My mom has become a frail and diminished figure. Shes become physically and mentally exhausted from taking constant care of her parent. I think everyone else in the family has given up hope and just wants it over with.
The next day we made a little dinner and had everyone over. My three older cousins, who are all married, most with children on the way. My younger one, who's 6'2 and still growing. Everyones dissapointed my sister didnt come. She usually stays down in Cali the entire summer with them, but school and sorority life made her cut her trip to just a few weeks. I think I'm regaurded as the semi-failure Seattle punk, that strange cousin that doesnt associate with us much. Dinner is a potluck, and everyone grabs plates, and eats it around the house. I only saw at most three people in the living room near the frail creature.
The next day, my Dad and I take a walk in Muir woods north of Tiberon. Mostly as an escape from the silence and stillness of the house. My dad and I recently read "Wild Trees", a book about the first people to climb redwoods, and we're captivated by the tallest organisms on earth. The walk was short, in and out of measly redwood groves. I picked up some dead needles and a sprig with a cone on it. I think I was planning to take it back and show my grandmother, going into a long, and hopefully heartwarming 'moral of the story is' sort of tale about how old the world is and the amazing facets of life. I just showed her the cone instead. "Thats nice dear."
The last night was the toghest. My grandmother has been a prolific smoker her entire life. Once the oxygen was started, she took up the patch and drinking to stave off her nicotene cravings. I guess my mother has been trying to wean her off alcohol as well, so that she can take pain meds without as many complications, but the withdrawlals of detox started giving her hallucinations. Dementia. Numberous times she would try to get up from her chair, grabbing at invisible objects. My mother spend the night on the couch next to her yet again. I could hear her trying to control her incoherent mother the entire night.
I left this morning. Flew back with my dad. My mom was planning to go with us, but cancelled her ticket after last night. We sat next to an empty seat for the two hour flight. The morning before we left, I was torn. I felt that I should at least try to spend some time with my grandma. I sat on the couch. I couldnt think of anything. My grandmother finished a magazine (looking at the pictures in Khol's kept her occupies) and I asked her what she wanted to watch. When it was time to leave, I went and hugged her, telling I would miss her. She told me to bring my friends next time.
Death. Sometimes you can see it miles and miles away. Our family knew this would happen, and that this was the way she would go. Not quickly, like the way my Grandfather did, from metasticising lung cancer (two weeks notice, from healthy to the grave). This has taken years. My dad remarked on the plane today that he's seen is great grandmother last in that state for a full year. We might have much much more to go. Seeing someone like that really makes you think fo your own morality. You really question how you want to go. Doing something you love but having your lifespan cut short? Or living a full life, seeing your grandkids get old and then lose it in front of your entire family. I truly do not know what I would choose, had I the finger that could decide my fate.
What would you tell a person who was dying? Would you try to console them? Make it seem as if their life mattered to you? Would you play it strong, make everything to be alright and better than it actually is? Would you try to remind them of the past, reflect on their life, and make it come to a conclusion, like a good story does?
This story is kinda a downer, but you learn life from the good and the bad.