22 October 2007


I'm staring my own mortality in the face these days. The last time I thought this much about the end of life was the same year that I got married, when my surrogate grandpa died. He was the father of my Dad's best friend, and I always called him "Grandpa." Likewise, my Dad's buddy has always been "Uncle" to me.

We were standing in the church where funeral services were held, Uncle J was talking to my father and I. I was so disappointed that Grandpa L had passed away just a month or so before my wedding, and we were talking about gatherings of families, weddings, funerals.

Uncle J looked at my Dad and said, "You know, WE are the older generation now."

I looked at him closely, and for the first time ever in my whole life, I thought he looked old. This strong and vigorous man, who had let me help him manipulate the controls on a backhoe, (one of my earliest memories) helped me out of an adolescent jam or two, (stories which will never be told) was looking every day of his age. Grandpa L's last illness was a long and painful struggle for the entire family, related by blood or not, and it had taken its toll on his son. I noticed his hair, nearly entirely white, and the lines on his face, and I thought, wow, he really looks a lot like Grandpa. If Grandpa died, so could he. So could my Dad!

That was hardly the first time I'd realized that sooner or later, we all come to the end of life. Nor was it the very first time I'd thought about my own mortality. When a high school classmate died the year after we graduated, I'd realized that I wasn't invincible. In the way that only an all-knowing 19 year-old can.

This time, it is a blood relation. I've spent some time sitting by her hospital bed, holding her hand, and talking to her about memories I have of her and her children from my younger days. Sometimes she recognizes me. Sometimes not. She slipped in to a coma a few days ago, and then the very next day was awake and talking to us again.

This seems like it is happening both so slowly and so quickly. A paradox, I know, but one common to death and dying. It seems like we go from active and healthy people one day to the end stages of life the next, and at the same time it seems that every moment of a loved one's suffering is ten moments too long.

One of us is at her side at all times, a ritual that isn't soothing for all its familiarity in so many cultures, the family gathering by the bedside. There are tears and laughter, lots of "do you remember?" But spending time at the hospital is exhausting, emotionally, physically, and mentally.

She knows she's dying. She isn't in pain, we've given the nurses and doctors explicit instructions on that front. I have no problem charging down the hall to the nurses' station and badgering them about her. But I've only needed to do that once; the professionals taking care of her have impressed me with their compassion, their empathy. The RNs astonish me with the amount of responsibility they carry; most of them seem so young to me.

I have no idea where I'm going with this post, or how to end it neatly. The weaving in of loose ends that I was writing about a week or so ago is completely beyond my abilities after spending the entire night at the hospital. Life's kind of like that, isn't it, with loose ends not tied up neatly? Messy, complex, and sometimes not very dignified.


John said...


Embrace these moments. They are desperately hard and emotionally draining but they are among the most lively moments you will ever have. As pastor I have held those hands as the last breath was drawn. I have stood by as families grieve. I have seen beauty that would shame the best Yosemite has to offer. I have experienced grandeur that dwarfs the most majestic of mountains. Death gets our attention and sharpens our awareness of life largely because we know somewhere deep inside of us that we are next.

My prayers go with you.


Lucy Arin said...

John, thank you. Beautifully expressed, as usual too. I take comfort from your comment. Thanks.