Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Fear: Witnessing Death Then Rejoycing

I've told the story of my grandfather's death to my friends for the last few days. Recounting each moment, remembering each second and everyone's faces and words. But I thought it would be important to document what happened. I want to remember a passing such as this. I need to be able to recall such a powerful lesson.

When anyone asks us what our greatest fears are - we know. Snakes, spiders, being mugged, cars, etc. For me it has always been the fear of the unknown. It has crippled me in areas of my life that I am now moving sluggishly through; but I'm moving. The ultimate unknown is death.

No one can come back and tell you what happens. None of the living know for sure what the dying are seeing or where they go. Everyone has their own idea but it's just that; an idea. For me, I feared one thing in perticular about death... the afterlife. I have always slept closest to the wall with my back to the room. I never wanted to open my eyes to see a ghostly figure standing there. The oddity of my fear is that I can pick up on presence quite easily and my senses are just sensitive to that kind of energy. Which I had decided a while back, was a curse to me. I wanted to leave it all unknown.

So about 5 years ago, I came home to smell something burning in the kitchen. My Pop was trying to cook a hamburger but he forgot to put the pan between the burger and the stove. This was the begining for him. Progressively over the years he unlearned all that he had throughout his lifetime. Even adjusting the shower was too complicated. His end came when he forgot the importance of food and could not remember to swallow.

I lived with Walter Ray for 17 years of my life. My childhood was spent in the house that he built with his own two hands. I watched him at his healthiest when grandma dragged him to square dancing and I watched his decline; when he dreadfully pushed a walker. Then I watched him forget his life, his friends and his functions.

I'm sure watching the decline has helped a great deal in overcoming the loss of his spirit in this tangible world, though I'm not pleased that he had to decline so slowly as he did. But he was a man of great honor and respect. He felt he was put here on this earth to care for the crazy woman that is my grandmother and until death did they part, he hung on to make sure she was cared for.

When we moved out of his house a year ago this month, my grandfather and his wife were taken to my aunts house where they were promised fast construction on an inlaw apartment. Seven months later, barely hanging on, Pop got to see the finished product. I think he needed to see that his wife would have her own safe place, if it wasn't going to be his house.

February 6th, a Friday, we got a call that Pop wouldn't open his mouth to eat and that he was dehydrated and been brought to Farmington to stay in the hospital for a few days. What we thought would be 36 hour observation, turned very quickly.

A family that had constantly bickered about his care couldn't finish their own arguement.

I stayed calm and collected for my mother. I drove her to Farmington that following Tuesday for the discharge family meeting but by then we had all realized that this wasn't a discussion of nursing homes anymore. It was a discussion of the end of someone's life.

We sat in his room for an hour, talking to him instead of each other, waiting for the doctors to meet. When the family left to talk about his discharge, I moved to his bed side to talk to him. I squeezed his hand and told him to pinch me. He could not open his eyes so I got a cloth to wipe away the sleep.

His hearing aids were gone and his teeth were at home. He looked like a little old man if I ever saw one. Not my little old man of course. I hardly recognized that man. But he had good color and he was fidgetting as I spoke to him.

I leaned in close and told him what I thought everyone else had forgotten to. I said, "you're kids are in a meeting with your wife. They are all being nice to each other, you know. Everyone's getting along right now. And we're all thinking it's time for you to take a vacation. You've worked very hard and it doesn't seem like you've relaxed. We all just want you to relax now. You know Linda and Lorraine haven't always gotten along, but you know that Linda will take care of her. She has always taken care of your wife whether she liked her or not. I know you're worried about your wife but I, Carolyn, and Linda, will watch out for her. We want you to go to the beach and sunbathe. We want you to go fishing and driving. Don't you think it's time to do that?"

He started to snore a little and playfully I responded, "hey! Are you snoring? I'm talking to you! I'm not that boring, am I?" For a quick flash, he smirked at me. I laughed at him and said, "well, you know I'm being serious. You need to stop worrying so much. Everything's going to be okay."

When the family came back in, he settled down. It was explained that they would remove the IV and he would be released to my aunt's house where hospice would be there to care for him for his final days. It happened so quickly, I feel that we were all just trying to keep up. I touched Grandma's shoulder as the doctor explained what was going to happen.

My mom got close to his face and said, "I'm going to let you get settled in tonight. They're takin you home to Susan... I'll see you tomorrow."

And he waited. Because he was brought home that night and Susan sat up with him. We both went to work, expecting we had a week or maybe two left with him. Susan called looking for more sheets and things to make him comfortable. It proved that in these hours, there was just no room for animosity. We took longer than expected, getting supplies and my mom had told them all to wait until she got there to change his bed. She wanted to show them an easy and comfortable way to do it.

This was one of many small things that just happened to fall into place that week. We got there late - around 7pm. They were just changing him when we came in, saying "we tried to wait but you were taking so long." The disturbance of moving him around made him aggitated and his breathing was heavy and his eyes were open wide but there was nothing behind them. This is what I saw when I walked into the room.

My mom tells me that her sister looked at her and asked, "what's happening?" My mom answered truthfully, "he's stroking. This is it." Without another word Susan and Brian both laid on top of their father while my mom held his head. This is how I found them when I came back upstairs.

Brian wanted to straighten him out and I watched them uncurl him and pull his blanket to his chin. 7:26p and the room was silent for a minute. The surrealness of it all couldn't have been harder to grasp. I stared at him waiting to see his chest rise and fall but it never did. I felt like my eyes were playing tricks on me. Susan and Brian stroked him as if to send him off to sleep, but I knew he couldn't feel them.

We sat in that room with him for an hour. Something I thought I could never do. Something I thought I could never see. Something I felt more strongly than ever about though, was to stay there. Through it all I remember thinking, this is a lesson for me. I must witness it all. There is too much I do not understand or know. I felt compelled to be there for every moment. And I was.

It turned lighthearted faster than I expected. Zach made coffee and offered me some Captain Morgan but I passed. They all started reminiscing and soon realized the kids were awake, and they knew. Susan let them see their grandfather and Olivia cried the hardest, I'm not sure the rest comprehended, though Olivia was the youngest.

We sent them back upstairs and when the nurse and funeral home guys showed up, I saw the gurney come by and soon joined the kids upstairs. They had waited for Jessie and I took her daughter Emma up with the other kids. But not before saying goodbye. Everyone bent down and kissed his head. My mom went right before me, kissed him and said, "I'll see you tomorrow."
I was the last to touch him. Scared that everyone was leaving the room but reminding myself that it was just him. I kissed him too and said, "Bye Pop."
I ran upstairs and waited for them to load Pop up to take him out.

Taylor Swift played on the CD player as I told them all to sit on the floor. Grayson yelped in my arms and I was the only one who watched them take Pop out. Through the window I could see his sleeping self going down the steps. They didn't close the bag, not even when they put him in the car... For that I was thankful. He just looked like they were taking him to the hospital to get better. I was singing, swaying a baby as I watched this.

Now that it's over, we are relieved. The images haunt me more than the loss but I suspect that will get better with time. I eventually cried, but it wasn't until I got home that night. The next day I went to pick out a suit for him with my mom at the house. The winds were so fierce and strong and my mom kept talking to him outloud. I felt like the winds were a rush of an exhale he's been trying to take for years!

My mom and I stopped at the beach. She took my arm and we walked to the end of the jetti so she could say goodbye in the last spot they hung out in before he got sick. The waves crashed hard and the wind blew us backwards. I don't think he wanted her to stand there and be sad, so we took a moment and then we left.

Seeing his obituary in the paper stung a little but we are excited to bring him to Arlington to lay among heroes, like himself. The Bells and us are communicating well and insults have been replaced with hugs and jokes.

I believe that Pop waited for us, that I was supposed to see it all and that God removed me from the room for a scary part I couldn't have handled. We really are celebrating his freedom more than anything and perhaps this change in my history will affect me for the rest of my life.

I do get sad but my ambition and independence has spiked noticably. When he is laid to rest on his birthday, March 12th perhaps I will have a different kind of change in my life. Maybe it will be a softer form of closure... But for now, I am thankful that he let us say goodbye together and that he provoked an outpouring of love I have never witnessed from my bloodline.

There is more happiness surrounding this passing than greif and I am the most thankful for that.

Walter Ray Carter
March 12th, 1927 - February 11th, 2009