I don’t have much experience with it. Until this last Christmas Eve, I’ve only see it twice in my family.
The first was when my Uncle Gary died. He passed in a hospital bed with my aunt and cousins at his side. I loved Uncle Gary. Very much. And I was proud to see that his funeral procession was one of the longest Portland, Oregon had ever seen. But I was 20 then, too new at life to think hard about death, dying, and my own mortality.
The second time was soon after that, when my great grandmother died at 103 on Christmas day. This happened almost 7 years ago. It was a small holiday that year because everyone else had the flu. Me, my grandparents, and my one well cousin had a cozy, informal Christmas eve, then slept in and nestled around the breakfast table for some Christmas morning French toast. That’s when the phone rang. It was the call we knew would come. Mimi had passed way. My grandmother’s mother was gone. I ached for Grandma, sure, this was after all her mom, but I’ll admit that once again I didn’t mourn the way I do now. Mimi was one of those periphery relatives you see once a year. She had been deaf since I was 10-years old and therefore unable to communicate effectively with me, a kid. My deepest of memories include her watching, if you could call it that, Animal Planet on mute from an uncomfortable looking care home bed in a room divided by a yellowing white curtain. I was 22 when Mimi passed away, and beyond a misty eyed moment or two I didn’t think much about death at all. I thought about partying and college and boys, but certainly not death.
In 2013 though, I thought about it more than I’d have liked to.
There was the miscarriage, that heart struggling to beat, those cells failing to properly divide, that life dead, but not yet gone, being sucked from me as I lay asleep on a hospital bed of my own. There was the death of my step grandmother thousands of miles away, her funeral, pictures of her young, and so much more alive, set out for all to see. And then there was my maternal Grandma and Gramps’ failing health. AGE. A worn out heart for Gramps along with legs that stopped working. A spine compression issue for Grandma that saw her confined to bed until surgery after surgery finally got her limping along with a walker. Both in their early 90’s (but still with shining youthful eyes I’ve always loved) it was time they “relinquish some independence.” It was time they move from their sprawling ranch style home, adorned with Asian antiques, into a “luxury” assisted living facility, leaving behind their beautiful “things.” It was time they lighten the load and get ready to die.
I drove up to Northern California (where most of my family lives) one weekend, around the time my morning sickness was fading from daily vomiting to persistent nausea. I had come to help my mom clean out that house. About a month before, various relatives had entered before me hungry for treasure, as if Grandma and Gramps were already dead – their children getting the first round pick like it was some sort of bizarre NFL draft. I’m actually, at this moment, looking at a lovely clay lamp base that didn’t get scooped up by my mother or aunt or uncle. Even though all that scrambling for objects made me nervous, I got sucked in anyway, scouring their home for vases I remembered from childhood, pictures I wanted to hang in my new home, mementos. I wanted some of their “stuff” too. I wanted tangible pieces with which to remember them always. Then I realized there’s no such thing as always. And looking at the lamp now I’d most definitely trade it for 5-more years with Gramps. I’d trade it all. Aren’t I greedy that 33 years wasn’t enough?
My Gramps died on Christmas Eve, around 8:30 PM, about two hours after he arrived, via wheelchair transport van, to my Mom’s house for the type of Christmas Eve celebration that is typical in my family: loud, chaotic, and fun. It wasn’t going to be a quiet night with just a few us like it had been years before when Mimi died. No not at all. And clearly, it was too much for Gramps. He died at 93, a few weeks shy of his 94th birthday, about 15-minutes after the annual White Elephant gift exchange. He probably wasn’t in pain – not the type that cancer or an accident brings anyway. Though I can’t stop thinking about it. Did he hurt? Was he afraid? Did he know what was happening? Did he want us to fight harder to save him?
Gramps lived almost 100 beautiful years, most of which were spent working hard building his real estate firm, or tending his Japanese garden, or making unsuspecting waiters miserable with his high maintenance demands (Gramps’ wasn’t always nice to everyone, but he was ALWAYS nice to me). Gramps was the kind of person that expected people to do their job because he did. He was also a man’s man who had a soft, tender side. He wasn’t afraid to cry, like the time we watched The Black Stallion together when I was 7. He bawled like a baby when Alec freed his horse in the desert (I did too. Obviously). And now that he’s gone, it still doesn’t seem like there was enough time. Like I said – I’m greedy. I’m sickeningly, despicably greedy for life and I know it.
I had visited Grandpa and Grandma many times since they left their residence of 35 years and moved to their new home. But this time seeing Grandpa was different. His big blue eyes weren’t quite as sparkly. His face was almost as white as his hair. When they wheeled him in to my Mom’s house, my stomach dropped. I had known death was coming, but I could tell it was closer, grabbing at his blood and his breath in the ugliest way. Gramps was the best looking old man I’ve ever known until recently.
I tried not to think about all that as I helped him get comfortable, propping pillows behind his head and tilting a cup of water toward his cracked lips. I tried not to think about that when I showed him my baby bump; when I teased him for needing to touch up his make-up, Christmas music blaring behind me, my Mom babbling something about overcooking the pork tenderloin. Gramps laughed feebly, no longer loud and deep like once before, but I could see the spirit it in his eyes. He still knew me. He still loved me. He was still very much there, despite a body that so obviously wasn’t.
For the first 5-years of my life, I lived 10-minutes away from my grandparents, but then when I moved away because of the divorce, I’d see them every summer. There were birthdays and family fights and tears and laughter. There were all the things you’d hope for from your grandpa, especially when your real father failed miserably to measure up.
Watching Gramps die was heartbreaking. I saw him struggle for his last gasps of air and it chills me to the bone to remember it. Intellectually, I know it was his time, his heart was done, his lungs were done, his body, all of it, was done. That night he even came equipped with his hospice kit, the one they give you to make the end of life more comfortable. He’d been anointed by a priest a few days before. He was as prepared as he could be which meant we should be too, right? And Christmas Eve was as good as any night to go.
My brain knows we were so very lucky to each have our moments with him: a last holiday supper, a final kiss on his still warm cheek, one more wise crack. And in so many ways it’s wonderful that he died surrounded by children and grandchildren, his wife of 67 years just yards away. It’s wonderful that he died with us and not alone. It’s wonderful that he had 93 fruitful years of life, when so many are claimed far earlier and in far more violent ways. We’d all be so lucky to live to be 90. Intellectually I know all of this. But my heart still hurts.