The body of a tick encased in wax lies in a candle in my bathroom where I set it aflame after picking it off my son. A mouse got trapped in my car engine and I can smell its little death whenever I’m after some fresh air. The demises those of pests, those of health threats and nuisances, guilty only of trying to survive.
There were times during the four years I cared for my grandfather that I found myself wishing for the reprieve of his death, his failing body becoming a burden to my own health, to the well-being of my husband and sons. Which is why, when faced with a death that felt as if it never would come, I was surprised at the depth of my sadness.
My grandfather moved in with my family when my children were still small, and we cultivated an easy dance of caregiving that gave me purpose, income and a close friendship with the charismatic, hilarious man who occupied our basement apartment. My parents weren’t in the picture, my sister had served her fair term as primary caregiver, and a facility was more than we could afford. I’d dropped out of nursing school to care for my babies, so I had the requisite background for the job, and he paid me a monthly stipend for the hours I spent preparing his food, helping him in the bathroom, taking him to doctor appointments, and making sure he never missed “Wheel of Fortune.”
“Meee-reeeee,” Bill’s Southern lilt called my name over a baby monitor, and I’d come running down the stairs wearing my younger son in a carrier, the 2-year-old at my feet thrilled at having an extra somebody in the house to play with until the novelty of his presence became an annoyance that stole Mommy’s attention. We breakfasted together, gathered around a small table eating cereal and bananas and orange juice at Bill’s request, my older son’s chubby legs swinging, milk dripping from his spoon as he grinned at the old man across the table.
At the end of each day, Bill’s voice heralded “Ten o’clock pill time!” to mark my final duties and dismissal. A former Army man, he kept me on a tight schedule, and it was a gift for a disorganized mother.
“Where’s my chocolate?” he would ask several times a day. He demanded chocolate cake and milk instead of a proper dinner.
“When you live into your 90s, you get to eat whatever you want to eat,” I’d tell the grocery store cashier in explanation of my cart-full of candy bars and chocolate cake.
We’d visit the V.A. hospital together for checkups. They treated him like royalty, being one of the few remaining World War II vets. We put on a show. We’d sit in the waiting room and quip to each other. “Where’re you from, Bill?” I’d shout in his ear, serving as a megaphone for a question one of the other patients had posed.
“My mama’s womb,” he’d say, and the waiting room lit up with smiles.
He rounded a turning point so slowly I almost didn’t notice until I was drowning.
Hospital visits became more frequent as his Parkinson’s advanced like an unhurried predator. The emergency room staff knew us well due to multiple falls, vomiting and more pneumonias than I can count.
His dementia took him all over the country; he’d relay his adventures to me as he careened around his apartment throughout the night, eschewing sleep. Peeing, which he needed to do frequently, became confounding, despite instruction from an exhaustion-addled granddaughter. “Just pee for me!” he’d implore.
Sleep deprivation made me sick. A host of neurological symptoms — numbness, tingling, vertigo and fatigue — bound me to a reclined position. My husband then had his ailing wife, our preschool-aged children and my grandfather to care for.
I didn’t see an out. We still couldn’t afford a facility. Our family was in constant crisis, and I felt entirely responsible for a man who no longer knew how old he was.
But even through his worsening confusion, he reserved love and recognition for his granddaughter. He would look at me in the midst of a delusion and say with consistent clarity, “How you doing? Boy, you look tired. How are Nate and the boys?”
When my compassion lay in tatters, his remained intact. No matter how vacant his expression, I felt bolstered by his underlying paternal resilience.
Fueled by desperation, I secured a bed at an assisted living facility with the faith that we would find a way to cover the expense — we managed, but not without accruing outstanding bills.
Six months and several hospitalizations later, we met with a hospice care team. His swallow reflex was weakening, allowing food and drink into his lungs, causing repeated pneumonia. He was on a special diet that included thickened liquids, which he hated. And he wasn’t responding well to treatment anymore.
The morning after the meeting, I sat with him. “I sure would enjoy a Coke,” he said. What could it hurt at this stage? I thought, and after running it by the hospice nurses, I brought him a large soda. He savored every sip.
Later that day he took an immediate, rapid turn. The director of the facility sat with me in vigil and told how the nurses had suctioned the Coke from his lungs. How he’d coughed relentlessly in the hours after I’d left. I ran from the room sobbing. The hospice staff informed us we had hours to days.
The deaths of our eldest aren’t meant to create turbulence with their finality. They signify the end of a life well lived. So when the tears came on with such strength, I was thrown. And it wasn’t simply the guilt I felt for almost accidentally killing him, I was also terribly sad to lose my longtime companion in caregiving. A sadness that eclipsed entirely the relief I’d anticipated when the caregiving was hardest.
Because grief, like death, doesn’t adhere to our constructs. The wished-for deaths of ailing loved ones doesn’t make them any less loved. It only means we hoped for an end to suffering, on both accounts. And deaths that are supposed to be small can sometimes feel big.
But Bill’s spirit wasn’t going to let go that easily. After a period of non-responsiveness that looked like imminent death, he started to improve on his own. He ate meals and carried on jovial conversation. His tenacity carried him forward.
The encounter with death illuminated a love that transcended our struggles. When he passed on his own terms in May, I found myself able to succumb wholly to grief without judgment and appreciate the four years we’d spent together in a close caregiving relationship. The funeral commemorated a life that spanned nearly a century, putting those four years into a birds-eye perspective. They were sometimes burdensome, yes, and sometimes beautiful, but only a small portion of a rich and varied life: of his and mine both.
Before they closed Bill’s coffin, one final act of caregiving: I slipped a candy bar in next to him to enjoy for eternity. “Got to have my chocolate,” he’d say.
Mary Pembleton is a writer and mother in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.
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