Monday, February 15, 2016

How Do You Die?

As we hear more over the next few days about how Justice Antonin Scalia died, it brings to my mind deaths in my own family. Most memorably, it brings back to me how my grandmother died.

Wedding Day
She always said that my grandpa “had it easy.” He walked into the house one February day, after supervising the snow shoveling, and put his hat and gloves on the table. He turned around, and fell straight to the ground – a fatal heart attack, dead before he hit the ground. Rather neat, if you think about it. No long hospitalization, no decaying of dignity, no endless prolongation of a life well-lived.

Apparently, that may indeed have been the issue with Justice Scalia. Go to bed one night and simply not wake up. How sweet is that, really? I mean, given the all-out efforts some people endure to live a life that is not filled with quality, but only an extension of pain and suffering – thanks, I’d take the fatal heart attack.

Grandma lived to age 95. It’s a habit of the women in our family: we don’t like to leave. After Grandpa died, she was very angry. God had messed this one up badly, she thought. They were married just over 60 years, not quite 61. She was supposed to go first, in her mind - though it's a good thing she didn't. And the longer she lived, the more wrong God had it. She was mad. She was furious. How DARE God NOT take her? And don’t give her that old sop about, “God’s not ready for you yet.” By Heaven, SHE was ready. So just open the blasted gates already and let her in! As she hit 90, all the filters were off - she even said, "I'm 90 and I want to die so I can say what I want." 

It took a lot of chutzpah for us to remind her that, 90 or not, she had to be nice to us. Many of us just stopped visiting - and I was one of them. Who really wants to hear, "God you've gotten fat" every single time you visit? Every. Single. Time. I tried to be patient - Lord knows I tried. But I couldn't, and that bothers me to this day. 

50th Anniversary (Married 60 years)
Right after this picture was taken, my grandfather had his first heart attack. Due to circumstances well beyond ANYONE'S control, he ended up having a touch of dementia after that. We suspect that there was a slight delay in the ability to revive him - he was always the sharpest knife in the box: a builder, a mechanic, an inventor, a maker. But after that heart attack, his light dimmed somewhat and he became a little slower; a little less talkative; a little less himself. 

Even though Grandma had plans for how their life was supposed  to work, it ended up being a blessing that she didn't die first. He died when she was in the hospital for a bout of digestive trouble. As it was, we had to remind him to eat, to take a bath, to get dressed. He never in his life had to cook or prepare a meal for himself. He didn't choose what he wore. He never had to do laundry. Grandma was the typical housewife - she manage the house and everyone in it. He would not have functioned had she not been there to oversee the remainder of his life. At 75, he died, and I think in a way, she never forgave him - or God - for that. 

She died in a nursing home, not in a suite in a palatial ranch (though the fees charged by nursing homes are palatial to many). She died with family surrounding her, and nuns praying the rosary in the hallway.

But it wasn’t a peaceful death. Her body, in the end, betrayed her. As her mind left, as her organs failed, her heart beat strongly on. There’s nothing you can do to quell a heart that refuses to stop. We can only guess at the unfinished business that might have been part of the plan of the Universe. She was always afraid that she would not die peacefully in her sleep. How much of that fear played into what really happened, we’ll never know.

The day before she died, I was there with my mom, my aunt, two cousins and my sister... We all were saying our goodbyes and my mom popped a CD in the player. I’m the family cantor – I started singing. My grandma visibly relaxed when she heard the hymn, “Here I am, Lord,” one of her favorites. After a while, she seemed uncomfortable, so my aunt and sister, both nurses, asked us all to leave. They turned her onto her side – facing the window. They opened the drapes, cracked the window up, and told her it was ok to go. We left her then, with her two daughters, as they wished. She died about 4 hours after that.

I remember this clearly. And as we read more about the Justice, I contrast the public scenario of his death (including all the attendant hysterical conspiracy theories and press intrusions) with the private deaths that take place every day. The deaths that aren’t in a luxury ranch. The deaths which are not simple. The deaths that happen among each and every family, each and every day.

Fame brings a peculiar sort of aura to a death. Fame brings a microscope. My granny wouldn’t have appreciated that microscope, especially since she was a prim and proper church lady who always had her lipstick on and her hair done. 

Her death was ugly, it took too long (which would have been her opinion, and I don't even want to imagine the conversation in Heaven!) and only prettied up for the obituary.

But in the final analysis, death comes to us all. Grandma railed and ranted about wanting death more quickly. I don’t know – is this a common thread? Does the 106 year old want what he or she may see as the ultimate comfort of death? Does the 80 year old think it’s time? Does anyone? Do we all fear the “last sleep” that is (it’s cliché to say) the great equalizer?

In the final-final analysis, though: does it matter at all? We all die. Every single one of us will face this, and we’ll face it in the sure and certain knowledge that we have no control over it. What we can control is what we do before we die. How we live. What we embrace. What we refute. What we say to those we love; what we say to those we encounter every day - the non-family folks who we either work with or deal with in our daily lives.

What we can control is all the attendant paperwork: having “the talk” with the family about what we wish for, how we want our death to be medically managed, having our living wills and durable powers of attorney in place. Making our doctors aware of DNR requests (do not resuscitate). Being brave enough to speak early and often to our loved ones about the safest bet: that we’ll all die in time. 

We won’t likely make the national and international news, but we’ll all die. All we can do is our best to make it a good death.

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