Tuesday, May 19, 2009

On someone the world doesn't know they'll miss

Okay, so Doug has already said more, and better, than I ever could about the passing of our Granddad this weekend. I think that, as he said, the biggest shock was how it happened; he was old, his body was breaking down, and a lengthy or not-so-lengthy illness would have been sad but not unexpected. That sort of thing gives you a chance to prepare, to the extent that anyone can prepare for such a thing. There was none of that with this. It was regular life - not really thinking about anything, planning a visit "when I have time" that I probably wouldn't have bothered to make, fully expecting that I would have a window to make time and plans before I'd lose the chance entirely.

Life lesson: Waiting until "when I have time" will screw you all the way over.

There will always be the memories. The several times that my grandfather has made it down to visit my family in the Southeast, I've had the opportunity to sit down with him and just let him talk. As with many people who have Alzheimer's, his memory of the distant past was still sharp and vivid, and the stories of his time in the Navy and all of his adventures afterward were fascinating. It was also a time to get close to him that I usually didn't have; family gatherings on my dad's side tend to be fairly crowded and bustling, and being able to sit down at the kitchen table and drink the Scotch he wasn't supposed to be allowed to have and hear stories and talk about his favorite Gilbert and Sullivan shows was a gift. His more recent memory was waning, so I'd sometimes hear those stories two or three times in a sitting, but it was always with the same enthusiasm. And during not one of those retellings did I have a recorder on hand to commit it all to mp3.

Life lesson: Eventually, we'll all just be stories that someone remembers.

There's a selfishness to grief. Situations like this one are always all about supporting others, of course, and kind of mentally prioritizing the stricken-ness of the grievers and assigning appropriate responses and support efforts accordingly. But when the top-tier grievers appear composed and fairly level, when you're in the car and nobody's talking, when you're by yourself right before bed, those are the times that the selfish grief comes in and "this weekend isn't all about you" fades away. My future husband and children will never have had the opportunity to meet my awesome granddad. When I go to family gatherings, he won't be there in his big green chair, sitting quietly and pretending to listen to what was going on but really catching little to nothing of it because he was too proud to wear a hearing aid. The part of him that touched my life won't be there anymore, and because he slipped out of my life so quickly and suddenly and without warning, it's hard to process it all, because there's nothing to add permanence to it. It's easy to pretend that he's just taking a nap or out for a walk and will be back any minute to complete the cast of characters so that a family gathering is exactly as it's always been. There's also the self-indulgent guilt - that I didn't make it up to visit, or even have best intentions, before this happened; that I'm not sure how I'm supposed to be feeling and that some of my feelings are certainly wrong; that all I want to do is talk about my feelings when Granddad's own children are hurting, I'm sure, far worse than I am.

Life lesson: It's not all about you.

Doug mentions that someone with Granddad's resume deserves a better passing than he got, and to some extent, that's true. We all talk, and sometimes joke, about the kind of death we'd prefer to have. Usually, preferences fall into either the blaze-of-glory category or the peacefully-in-my-sleep category, assuming that the latter would involve some measure of health, vitality, and self-sufficiency that dignity would be preserved. I don't have any statistics on the matter, but I'm willing to bet that very few people actually get to go that way. If you're lucky(?) enough to live that long, longevity inevitably outlives bodily integrity, and you're bound to end up with tremors and aches and loss of memory and loss of control over bodily functions, not to mention the attitude society takes toward people who have those things. In that respect, I think Granddad could have certainly gone out worse; from what I'm told, his suffering was no more than a groan and a fall, after which he was never revived, and I like to think he never really had a chance to appreciate pain or fear before it was over.

As with some others, I'm not afraid of dying. Moving from the state of being-here to not-being-here appears, on the surface at least, to be a fairly simple process. My fear is what happens before that. I'm afraid of that breakdown. I'm afraid of things like Granddad's loss of mental acuity. I'm afraid of being in pain for a long time, or a short time, before I go. I'm afraid of watching my friends and family grieve (should I be lucky enough to have those) and knowing that, once I'm gone, they'll continue to hurt. And as silly as it sounds, I'm afraid of all of my history that is likely to come out in the aftermath; not that I have a whole lot of dirty secrets, but I hate the idea that the idea of me that people will carry might be marred with something that wouldn't be comforting to them. Not that I'd know at that point.

I'm not sure what the point of this was. I think I intended it to be a bit of a salute to Granddad's life, and then it evolved into my own self-indulgent ramblings about my feelings on his death. So I'll close with this: My grandfather, even when he knew little else, knew all of the words to "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General" from Pirates of Penzance. He loved his wife dearly. He was indescribably proud of his kids. When he got grandchildren, he learned to hug. He adored and was adored by my great-grandmother, who could be a difficult person to like. He loved children and was always talking to little kids in carts at the grocery store, even when their mothers started looking at him sideways. He used to have the world's sweetest golden retriever, named Happy because when they were first bringing her home, he asked my grandmother, "Are you happy?" and she said yes, and then the dog poked her head between them, and he asked, "And are you happy?" and she licked him. When they lived in Virginia, his license plate read "Fiz Pop" because my dad's plate used to read "Fam Fiz" (family physician), and I never even figured out what it meant until I was probably in college. He used to brag about not having a "captain's belly" that hung out over the top of his pants, when the only difference was that he wore pants big enough to go around his belly and needed suspenders to keep them up. Those suspenders were actually braces, though, because suspenders were what men used to use to keep their socks up. He was left-handed as a child, but his teachers forced him to write right-handed, and my dad says that's why he now has a bit of a lisp. He lost the heel of his shoe when he was in the Navy because he was hooking up the catapult to a plane and the pilot turned on the engine, nearly taking more of Granddad than just his shoe. He always, always wore a flat cabby cap when he left the house, thus the loaded hatrack Doug has at the top of his post.

It's so easy to throw out cliches - it's not how you die, it's how you live; you'll never be truly dead as long as people remember you - and to some extent, they're true. Once you're done with your life, it belongs to other people to do with as they choose. But memories of a good life lived often underscore one point: There will be no more of them. The fact that the memory factory is now closed and all models are out of production is unfair and painful. But my plan is to keep the ones I have shiny and well-maintained, out of direct sunlight, with a coat of wax on the paint and a coat of leather conditioner on the seats, so that when I bring them out and show them off, everyone will remember how great they always were and get nostalgic about the glory days. Because that's what Granddad deserves.

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