Because I could not stop for Death…
My maternal grandfather, Edmundo Palacios, passed away at 8:20 PM on December 4, 2007. He was 74 years old.
I’m sad, but I’m not bereaved. I think that he would want all of us to go on with our lives and not let this bring everything to a halt. He died, but we didn’t, and we have to keep living that way. I’m still smiling. I’m still laughing. I can miss him without dying with him.
I like to think that’s enlightened. Possibly it’s just horrible. Judge as you see fit.
My first experience with death was with my other grandfather, my father’s father, Frank Scott. I was three years old when he died. The only memory I have of him is a withered old man in a hospital bed. I remember being struck by how the mucus in his nose seemed to have solidified into two very green plugs. Looking back I think maybe this is a false memory, that he may actually have been on an oxygen tank with two tubes in his nose. But that’s not what I remember, and I really just don’t know.
Though that is the only memory I have of him, I know that I was very close to him when he died. I also know that I had not had any knowledge of death or dying, so it never occurred to me that the time I saw him so sick would be the last time I saw him.
I was with my parents on a business trip to China when I found out what it meant to die. I asked them when I would get to see “Grandpa Scott” again.
I remember the look they gave each other when they realized they were going to have to tell me the truth. My mom took me back to the hotel room and explained death to me.
I remember crying until the sun came up.
My parents tell me that a few months later, I started crying inconsolably, apparently out of nowhere. When they calmed me down enough to articulate what my problem was, it seems I had come to the understanding that someday, inevitably, I would die.
Death and I have a strange relationship.
What it comes down to, really, is I’ve spent 21 years thinking about it, wrestling with it, and, in my own ways, coming to terms with it.
I’ve held imaginary eulogies for my loved ones throughout my life — when I’m alone, I’ll just get it into my head to think of what I’d say if someone I cared deeply for died. So I say what I think I would say in such a situation. I usually end up crying.
I don’t know why I do that. It’s a very strange thing to do. I’d like to say it prepares me for what I know may someday come (assuming I survive any one of them and not vice-versa), and also makes me focus on what I adore about these people. But it’s still a goddamn weird activity. The only defense I have to keep from sounding completely psychotic is that I didn’t do it OFTEN, and I haven’t done it in many years. Still, I did it every now and then, so there it is.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I was kind of ready for this. To say nothing of the fact that my grandfather has been sick for a long time. The guy has had like four heart attacks — but kept on ticking. About a year and a half ago he got some kind of fibrosis — not cystic, but I don’t know what it WAS. Anyway, it fucked up his lungs, and over the last 18 months he just withered away. His bodily organs shut down and his heart, overworked and prone to attacking as it was, finally gave up on Saturday.
For a long time he had avoided going to the hospital near the end. I think he knew that if he went in, they’d never let him back out. And he wanted to die at home.
My grandfather started dating my grandmother when they were 17 and 14, respectively. They married at 21 and 18, and moved to America a few years later. They were married 53 years, and they have lived in the same house since coming to America. I get that he wanted to die at home. I get why.
But he had a heart attack, my grandmother panicked and called 911. And even though he signed a Do Not Resuscitate order, a call to 911 by a spouse or other designated decision-maker overrides that in some bullshit bureaucratic way. Not only did they resuscitate him, but they ALSO put him on a ventilator1, which he ALSO explicitly stated he didn’t want. That if it came to a choice of dying or artificial life support, they were to pull the plug.
I hear he bit the doctor who put the tube in. I say good.
Apparently he had a heart attack yesterday and they resuscitated him again. He was pissed about that.
At any rate, I got a call this morning. “The doctor says if anyone wants to see him, they need to come now. Not in two hours. NOW.”
I rushed down to the hospital and saw him in intensive care. I had seen him on Sunday as well, but only briefly. He was conscious, though he couldn’t talk because of that fucking tube down his gullet. To be fair, he probably didn’t have the strength to talk even without it, but I’m still pissed that it was even there.
I’m lucky. We knew it was coming. They finally decided to honor his wishes and take him off life support. We were told to say our goodbyes.
My mom, being a fatalist, made sure to tell us every time he got sick, since the very first heart attack, that “this could be the big one.” So in a way, to me, my grandfather has been dying since I was 14. I’ve had to think about what that meant. I’ve had to come to terms with it. I was prepared.
I held his hand and looked in his eyes. I told him I loved him, that I would miss him, and I said goodbye. I kissed his cheek. He squeezed my hand.
Through all of this, I was fine. It was only when I returned to the waiting room and saw my grandmother crying that I broke down a bit. My grandfather was ready. I was ready. She wasn’t. I had never seen her cry before.
She’s always been a very practical woman. She also kind of lives in denial of unpleasant things. I don’t think she had really allowed herself to consider the ultimate consequence of my grandfather’s sickness. She had finally accepted that she had said goodbye forever.
That’s what really broke my heart today.
Times like this I almost wish I still believed in God. I think that moment tested my “faith” as an Atheist more than it would have as a Christian. It would have made it easier just to relapse and put it all in the hands of a higher power. I wish I could give the “better place” platitude, but I can’t, because I don’t believe it. I don’t believe he’s anywhere. He’s gone.
But I can’t say that to my weeping grandmother. And I can’t lie to her about what I believe. What the hell COULD I say? The “his suffering’s over” line didn’t feel right either — it was TRUE, but just felt inappropriate. I just sat with her and let her cry.
I was close with my grandfather growing up. My grandparents helped raise me. My father was often out of town on business and my mother couldn’t handle me on her own. We lived 3-4 days of the week at my grandparents’. 2
In high school I kind of withdrew from everyone for reasons I don’t need to go into here, and that meant everyone. That period of my life did a lot of damage to my relationships with my family, some of it forgivable (and since forgiven) but much of it irreparable.3
I then went to college and carved my own life out even more. Part of it was being stuck on campus, without a car until my junior year. And after that, my habits had changed. It’s not that my grandparents had done anything wrong, but I was living a different life and I just didn’t get around to seeing them much. None of my family saw me much from then until, well, now really.
Would I do it differently? I honestly don’t know. Selfishly, the life I was leading made me happy and I had to pursue it. They say they understand. I really believe so. I certainly hope so. Ironically, my grandfather’s feelings upon dying were, according to my grandmother, not anger at me that I hadn’t been around as much, but anger at himself that he wouldn’t be around for me if I needed him. They’ve just always been ready to be there if I needed them.
My brother thinks that I’m not upset now, but it’ll hit me sometime later. That may be true. All I know is what I said before. I’m sad, but I’m not devastated. And maybe it’s because, all things considered, I’ve been more ready to let him go, more used to not seeing him as often. My sister, by contrast, is a total wreck. She visited almost every day. I hope she’ll be alright but I just don’t know what to say.
But like I said. For my part, I told him I would miss him, that I loved him, and I said goodbye. I meant every word, because even though I wasn’t around, I was always thinking of them. He heard me and said it back as best he could. I’m one of the lucky ones.
One more thing, and I saved it for last because I want it to stick with you the way it stuck with me.
As I held my grandmother, as she cried her broken heart out, across the waiting room a man was playing with his infant daughter. She couldn’t have been more than 18 or 19 months old. She was born right around the time my grandfather started his final, long decline.
Her dad was doing that thing where you pretend to throw the kid up in the air without really letting go. She was in one of those funny little jumpsuits, her wispy toddler hair done up in a “ponytail” that stuck straight out the top of her head. She was looking up at the ceiling with a huge open-mouthed baby smile, almost laughing but not quite.
She was so beautiful.
- You’ve seen it in the movies — it’s that accordion-thing. It’s attached to a tube that is forced down your throat, and it breathes for you when your lungs/diaphragm don’t have the strength.↩
- They have a lot of stories they tell about me, describing, with great and inexplicable affection, the type of child that ought to be smacked ’til it puts him right.↩
- For example, my younger brother never had the support of an older brother that he should have through his formative years. I wasn’t there for him, and he needed someone. I think he put a lot of trust in me because I was very much there when he was little, then suddenly I closed myself off and the bottom dropped out. Changing it now doesn’t change it then. Him forgiving me doesn’t change it, either. I have to live with it.↩