Friday, February 26, 2010

Painful Silence

Phone calls and emails about my grandfather over the course of a week - something about pneumonia, but they say he'll pull through soon enough. He's been hinting about wanting do die for about a year now, so I'm not so sure. I give him a call and he seems happy enough to hear from me, but he also sounds slightly high, I guess it must be the morphine, but I say nothing.

A couple of days later I get a call saying that something's gone wrong, he probably won't pull through so they're taking him off the medicine and allowing him to die. He's had a DNR for a long time now, so this is a simple matter. We'll be leaving in two days to go see him before he dies.

Long car trip, short bursts of conversations I don't remember, and short stretches of silence as well. We arrive and say hello, he seems surprised and happy to see us, but can't maintain anything for long since he's only breathing every other 30 seconds. The dog won't go near the bed, just like before; I think the bars on the sides frighten her. The hospice nurses are friendly like last time, and we set in to wait.

The next day, he still spends half the time struggling for breath and the other half not breathing. The few times he manages to open his eyes or speak, he tries to stand up, tries to leave, but he's just not strong enough. We keep things quiet around his house, we try to make him comfortable and greet him when he wakes up. People keep telling him it's okay if he dies, but they refuse to use those words. I hope he stops suffering soon. Before we leave, he is struggling and saying something about "alone". We stay for a little longer, but he continues, so we leave. My sister thinks he's lonely, I think he wants to be left alone. The dog doesn't want to leave the house. The nurses start talking about how she can tell that he's dying, I think she can tell that we can tell he's dying. I have to drag her to the car so we can go back to the hotel.

The next day, he's barely able to open his eyes at all. He doesn't speak even for the brief periods he appears conscious, and the breathing he's doing for half of each minute is shallower than before. I expect he won't survive the day, but I say nothing. Everyone around is clearly getting more agitated about the situation. My mother is getting sadder, and one of the nurses tries to make her feel better by relating a near-death experience from one of her friends, but I say nothing. People continue to tell him that it's okay for him to die, still only using euphemisms, except for one nurse who thinks he's going to some vague spirit-realm to be with my grandmother. I can't tell if she's speaking literally or metaphorically, but I say nothing.

He's looking more gaunt all the time, like his skin is draped over his skull. I begin to wonder about what's happening to his body - I am plagued by the worry that he recovered from his illness and we are starving him to death in ignorance, but I say nothing. We are told that he may feel better if he hears life continuing around him as normal, so we try. Eating dinner in the next room, I wonder if the smell of food is making him feel worse for hunger, but I say nothing. He wakes up for long enough to take his oxygen tube off in front of everyone, I am amazed he still has the strength. In the evening we leave, the nurse telling us that he's unlikely to survive for more than a few hours. My grandmother died soon after everyone went to sleep, so I spend the rest of the evening expecting a phone call saying he had died.

The next day we arrive to a new experience - he is breathing consistently now, but it sounds like coffee loudly percolating in his lungs with every breath. The nurse assures us that it's not unpleasant for him, only for us. I sit in the rocking chair in the room with him, programming on my laptop. Rocking back and forth, expressionless, silent. I ignore more talk about him being with my grandmother soon. Nobody else wants to be in the room with him for very long, I think the noise of his breathing is the reason. After four hours, it's getting to me too. I begin getting angry at the world for making physician-assisted suicide such a taboo, but I say nothing.

In the afternoon, his breathing gradually slows until eventually it stops entirely. A minute later, he gasps another breath, everyone is surprised, but the nurse says it's just a muscle spasm, that he's gone now. People around are crying, I keep staring at his face. A couple minutes later he gasps for another breath, weaker than last time. Other people don't seem to notice this time. He doesn't breathe again, and his head stops moving to the rhythm of a pulse, which I assume means his heart has stopped. I continue to stare at his face for another ten minutes or so, and I say nothing.

The next few days, everyone is bustling around cleaning, throwing things out, rummaging through his posessions, planning his funeral, trying to figure out how to proceed from here - working through grief by immersion in work, I assume. I help when asked, but otherwise I sit out of the way, programming or solving logic puzzles, just as the days before. I continue to be angry at the world for not allowing physician-assisted suicide, but also I know that he would probably not have taken it even if it were legal. I reconcile this by also being angry at the culture for its social disapproval of the practice, but I say nothing. The uninterrupted noise eventually gets to me, and once I use a volume of voice normally reserved for getting the attention of a large lecture hall. I am briefly chastised for this, and I wonder why I must give leeway to everyone else's methods for dealing with grief though they need not accommodate mine, but I say nothing.

In the calling hours before his funeral, people apologize a lot, people hug a lot, people shake hands a lot. I stand when they do, shake hands when the offer, and sometimes introduce myself. One nurse talks about how my grandparents have new bodies now and are probably sitting on the couch listening to music and tapping their feet and hands. I scream at her in my mind about a hundred different things, but I say nothing.

The funeral starts with a sermon. My grandfather is mentioned twice, the rest is about "Christ Jesus" and "Resurrection" and "Almightly Lord God". Every time she says "will you pray with me?" I mentally reply "NO!" but I say nothing. When the minister closes the bible on the podium, she opens up the notes she took when talking to us a couple of days earlier, and reads them out with a little bit of a filter and almost no editorializing. I wonder why she is even here, but I say nothing. My sister reads the lyrics of a song she finds appropriate to my grandparents, and it is all I can do not to cry - this short, abnormal part of the service is more moving than all the rest put together. The minister finishes with another prayer. Through the entire thing I keep repeating that I am not there for myself, I am there for the rest of my family - they think I would feel badly for not being there. They are wrong, but I say nothing.

We go to the cemetery to inter his ashes. We pick up the dog on the way, hoping she will behave herself there, it turns out she doesn't. After another meaningless prayer, we leave the cemetary. We eat out that night, at a favourite restaurant of my grandfather's.

The next morning, my sister and I board the bus to leave. She remarks that it's a rare thing for someone to die in the house they built. For the first two hours, a man sits behind me speaking very loudly about his friend across the aisle being released from prison recently, and about meeting someone in a casino. I do my best to ignore him. The second two hours, after a bus transfer, a woman sits behind me screaming constantly with her friend across the aisle about their lives, completely oblivious to others on the bus, and never stopping for a breath even when her friend is speaking. She is even more difficult to ignore. Thankfully, the third two hours are relatively silent. Two more hours of local travel later, and I am finally back to my room in Hamilton after 8 days away.

Two days after my return, I can finally begin to grieve for my grandfather. I am glad he's not suffering anymore, but I will miss him.