Monday, January 31, 2011

Sunrise Sunset

"Sunrise, sunset
Sunrise, sunset
Swiftly fly the years
One season following another
Laden with happiness and tears"
--Sunrise, Sunset --Fiddler On The Roof

My Grandpa is dying. Alzheimer's Disease has him moseying down a very long gradual slide back into mental infancy. After my Grandma died in 2005, Grandpa lived on his own in a little Florida community full of old people until he couldn't take care of himself. Then he (was) moved to my parents' house in Boulder. Over the next few years, my family struggled as it became clear that the man we were caring for now bore increasingly less resemblance to the Grandpa we'd known before. About two years ago he moved into a "retirement community" ironically called Sunrise. With Amanda's gentle persuading, she and I visit him once a week or so. At Sunrise his meals are fixed and his every need is attended to. He is lucky to be able to afford something like this. He is pretty out of it but appears to be happy. 

Now his descent is steepening. For me, it's gotten very hard to watch. On the best of days, my Grandpa has the faculties of a three year old. On Friday when Amanda and I went to see him, he could only communicate certain needs by pointing. When he was able to speak, dinner "conversation" consisted of him telling me repeatedly that "food is good" and that the female employees at Sunrise are all his girlfriends. He needs help performing all life functions and I worry about his dignity, even though that's a concept he can't comprehend anymore. 

I don't begrudge my Grandpa his death. He's eighty-eight and he's lived a wonderful life. At 17, he walked away from the coal mines of Ohio to build a better life. He served in the Pacific Ocean Theater in WWII and then moved to his family including my mother to Tennessee to open a factory. Decades later, when the factory closed he found jobs for over 1,000 of his employees. Together he and my Grandma bootstrapped this family into the middle class. They traveled all over the world and once square danced on the Great Wall of China. 

I am lucky that I made it nearly three decades before experiencing the (imminent) death of anyone close to me. I'm finally discovering that, to state the obvious, death is really hard. My mother has helped her Dad take every step down this path and she reminds me that easing a loved one's passing is a "joyful obligation:" a task that helps everyone. Although it's really difficult to watch him decline, I know that she is right. Seeing him slowly lose the ability to remember, walk, and even talk provides a visceral reminder: We are all going to die someday.   

I didn't learn much from Grandpa before he began dying but he's taught me a great deal since then. When I leave Sunset each week, I do so in tears. But seeing Grandpa also leaves me hungry for life, resolved to do a lot of the things that I've let slip to the back burner. I'm not going to fall into the daily morass of work, tv, shitty food, and low expectations. I'm going to treat people well, play hard, love passionately, and appreciate what I've been taking for granted.

If he could understand the question, I think he'd say that looking back he has no regrets. I'm resolved to be able to say the same thing when it's my turn. 


Amanda said...

I've only gotten to know your grandfather during his decline, but I agree that he's had a fulfilling and happy run of it. Over the last couple years I can't say I've ever seen him grumpy.

Great post, glad I'm getting to spend this time of "joyful obligation" with both of you.

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written Truman. I think its wonderful that you and Amanda have made visiting your Grandpa a weekly priority. It's a very hard disease to watch and but I think its great you are taking the opportunity to spend time with him.


Anonymous said...

Touching. I have nothing more poignant to offer. Your writing is a gift.