Friday, July 26, 2013

Old Age, Death, and Stories

I watched family members take away my great-grandfather's car keys so he couldn't drive across the country alone, watched the local senior center close and take with it his reason to go on a walk every day. I watched him spend more time in front of the TV because he didn't have anywhere to go anymore, and I was torn because I could see both sides.

He was in his eighties, and if he died on a three-day road trip, how long would it be before someone knew? How long before someone found him?

When he was in his nineties his independence was gone, and he was having problems. The family in general chalked it up to "old age" and decided to make him comfortable. My father told him that he should go to the hospital and find out what was wrong because "old age" isn't a condition, it's a life state. He chose the hospital.

He had surgery for a pinched nerve in his back, which had been causing the trouble talking, the clumsiness, the symptoms of "old age." Family across the country came out to visit him, and after a second surgery, he went into a coma he never woke up from.

The few who'd insisted on "old age" blamed my father for my great-grandfather's death, because of the surgeries. I believe that things worked out for the better. He could have died alone in a dark living room, but instead he died in a bright hospital, surrounded by children and grandchildren, some of whom he hadn't seen in years. He got to see people one last time between surgeries.

At his wife's funeral, some twenty years earlier, he left the front of the room to sit with his great-grandchildren in the back rows and told us that she wouldn't have wanted us to be sad, she'd have wanted us to remember her life. He told us stories about her, a petite woman who, in the 1930s, had painted her long nails red and played basketball.

At his graveside, we did the same for him. We talked about things he'd said that had surprised us, talked about the stories he'd told, talked about his life story, which had been read at the funeral, so much of which we'd known nothing about. My daughter, his great-great granddaughter, was there, and old enough to share stories with us.

We could spend our lives feeling guilty for taking away his keys, or for taking him to a hospital which gave him the anesthetic he ultimately died under. Or we could remind ourselves that the last he knew was how much he was loved, and how many generations he'd seen grow during his long life. He got to share stories, got to say goodbye.

Some people spend forever grieving, unable to cope with certain holidays because someone's missing, unable to go certain places because of memories. My memories make me want to go back. They make me want to tell stories and include people, whether they're corporeally there or not. When I drive past the graveyard, I wave to all three of the grandparents I have there. I'm sure every one of them would appreciate it.

This post was written as a reaction to this one, by rantravewrite.

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