When My Grandfather Dies, No One Will Say He Was “Gone Too Soon”
When my grandfather threatened to kill himself, I began to wonder if, as he sees it, he has effectively stopped living.
Late last year, three days after my grandpa had moved grudgingly into a senior living facility, I sat across from him at the dining table he and my grandma had transplanted from their home of forty years. My aunt left the apartment to take care of more paperwork and Grandma shuffled across to the couch. For the first time since I’d arrived in town, Grandpa and I were more or less alone.
My uncle’s wake was held in the backyard of the house he designed, and which abutted the garage where he took his last breath. Some twenty of us attended. (My aunt’s parents, too angry, I suspect, were not among the mourners.) Several expressed condolences; one, indeed, commented that he was in a better place. Nobody said he’d left us too soon.
The same will hold true when Grandpa goes, whether his death is natural or self-inflicted.
At the senior living facility, Grandpa threatened to blow his brains out, a blunt description of what my uncle did in that garage seven years earlier. At the time, his back problems necessitated the use of ski poles for afternoon walks. He would spend most of the time lying in bed, supine and inert, unable to watch movies or read, two of his favorite pastimes. He was seventy-four.
While shocking, his death was the fulfillment of a promise, made to my aunt and shared with me. Namely, that if he ever reached a state of dependence on others to, say, wipe for him, he’d take care of the problem himself. He’d even noted to me, over beers in a Catskills tavern, how a cop friend had shared the ideal way to do it—in your car, on a quiet street, so your spouse isn’t the one who finds you.
By the time he came to the decision to take—or, rather, leave—his life, he could no longer drive, but did his best to adhere to the ethos of the cop’s strategy. He waited for my aunt to run errands, changed into a bathrobe with pockets big enough to hide a gun, and ambled, in view of the neighbors, out to the garage. In the far corner, behind the Subaru’s front bumper, he stretched out and slid a sleeping bag behind his head. For such a gruesome undertaking, this task was accomplished about as neatly as could be asked. Still, this didn’t spare his spouse the trauma of finding him.
For years after, whenever I broached the topic of my uncle’s suicide, Grandpa would change the subject. Or, he’d echo Grandma’s refrain, in defense of their daughter: “How could he do that to her?”
But in all the years I was growing up, my grandpa put forward three major precepts, all taking the form of prohibitions: Never be a burden, never be idle, and never waste money. Before my uncle’s suicide, he was essentially a ward of my aunt. Mostly idle. And spending their money in order to go on being both. What he “did to her,” what he meant to do, was put a stop to all that.
A couple days after Grandpa threatened to kill himself, I drove the ninety minutes from their living facility to my aunt’s place. Before dinner, we made three Manhattans, each on the rocks and using a different whiskey, and lined them up on the kitchen counter. The point was to pit an expensive rye she’d recently purchased against two familiar contenders. The unanimous winner was Jack Daniels, confirming our suspicions that the good stuff might be wasted on our palates.
Emotionally exhausted, we needed the amusement as much as the alcohol. This was a rare pocket of time, rarer still now, when we discussed something other than my grandparents.
But I couldn’t let the pocket expand. While my aunt went back to prepping dinner, I settled into a chair in her kitchen’s nook, took a healthy slug of one of the Manhattans, and summoned my courage.
“Did you hear what Grandpa said the other day, in their new place?”
She paused in her dicing.
“About killing himself?” I added.
She glanced my way, and nodded.
“It felt like he was waiting for you to come back before saying it.”
“Maybe.” She set the knife down, stepped to the opposite counter and picked up her drink. “But it doesn’t matter.”
“Why do you say that?”
“He’d never be able to do it.”
Because he lacked the nerve? Motor control? Access to a weapon? That answer, too, didn’t matter. There’s not much point to seeking reasons an event will never occur.
Well short of my grandpa’s pseudo-deadline, they did move out of the facility—to another one. Though this place was better, things went dramatically south. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. The dementia has worsened, precipitating paranoid accusations, like their caregiver sleeping with his wife. His depression is palpable. He needs help to shower. And wipe.
Weekly or so, my aunt undertakes the long commute to check in on her parents. She also supports my mom, wholives a few miles from the facility and is besieged with calls from staff reporting everything from minor falls to rudeness and misbehavior that would have left the perpetrators, in their more cogent days, aghast. No worse, though, than some of the abasing comments my grandpa, often confused as to where he is and why he’s there, has made to his daughters.
My aunt’s ability to assist her parents and sister, we owe in part to what her husband “did to her.”
My hunch is that Grandpa was seeing his own inevitable future, the one he’s living in now.
When I visited my grandparents, a few months ago, I got to their place for breakfast four mornings straight. Each time, Grandpa looked surprised to see me. Each time he complained about the food, which, to me, was better than what he’d have gotten at two once-acceptable franchises, iHop and Denny’s. To the staff, he was, at best, cold. And shortly after each breakfast, he just wanted to sleep. I no longer recognized any semblance of the man I knew—eager to engage others in conversation, perpetually in search of something to work on, up to date on the latest breaking news. It was like passing time with a stranger.
On my drive back to Mom’s each day, I’d find myself nostalgic for the numerous rounds of golf, a sport that holds little interest, but I learned in order to spend time with Grandpa. For the whale-watching cruises and the stories he’d share of his time in the navy. For the weekend in Palm Springs, when I’d interviewed him for two hours each night so he’d have material for a memoir he never got around to writing. Soon, I’d be admonishing myself for projecting him as already gone, while missing the times he was entirely here.
The last of those nostalgic moments, to my mind, was our trip to the Reagan Library, not long after his heart valve procedure. At that point, he’d relinquished any hope of golfing again, and, after years of our begging and a fender-bender in a parking lot, given up driving. But, he was consistently lucid, ambulatory, and still able to paint by numbers and repair a watch band.
Fifteen minutes into the library tour, however, he tired. As we continued, museum staff relentlessly offered him a wheelchair. And he resolutely refused. He would be neither idle nor a burden. So I lurked beside or behind him the rest of the tour, managing to catch him when he finally collapsed in the special exhibit for Vatican art.
As I shoulder-pulled him to a nearby bench, museum-goers gawked. Attendants and guides came running. He shooed them away, but was noticeably embarrassed. After a short breather and some nudging, he consented to be wheeled through the final five minutes of the tour.
On the drive home, we debated the impacts of Reaganomics. And discussed the island in Lake Michigan where he and my grandma met, and they’ve purchased cemetery plots. He wanted to visit once more, he said, before he went for his permanent stay, but traveling had become so difficult. After a passing comment on what an excellent driver I’d become, he brought up my uncle’s physical condition, how he’d been faring just prior to his death.
I was startled. It had been nearly four years since we’d buried him, and I hadn’t heard Grandpa mention his name in at least half that time. I kept my eyes on the traffic ahead.
My hunch is that Grandpa was seeing his own inevitable future, the one he’s living in now. That, like my uncle, he didn’t want to die. Or live the life that was clearly ahead. But those were the options. At the same point of realization, my uncle had known that every morning brought the possibility he’d become more physically impaired. And left with just the one, less appealing choice.
Doubtful either man ever put much thought into the question of whether someone could leave us too soon. But they delved into whether the opposite was true.
As we exited the freeway and neared Grandpa’s home, the one he’d be forced to vacate three years later, he wrapped up his thoughts on my uncle. “It couldn’t have been easy,” he said. “I respect the decision he made.”