My grandma died yesterday morning. She did not go quickly or painlessly. It was not what most would consider a good death. Difficult, heart-wrenching decisions were made. I want nothing more than to write about how her life ended — about how the system failed her, about how the system is failing so many people — but the wound is too fresh. So I’ll give you another post I wrote about difficult endings. This one originally ran in July 2013. (The story below is about my paternal grandparents. It was my maternal grandma who just died.)
Last night I read Robin Marantz Henig’s beautiful story about Peggy Battin, a bioethicist and advocate for patients who wish to end their lives, and her husband, Brooke Hopkins. A bike accident in 2008 left Brooke paralyzed from the shoulders down and in need of almost constant care. Some days Brooke wants to live; other days he wants to die. And that puts Peggy in a difficult position: “Suffering, suicide, euthanasia, a dignified death — these were subjects she had thought and written about for years, and now, suddenly, they turned unbearably personal. Alongside her physically ravaged husband, she would watch lofty ideas be trumped by reality — and would discover just how messy, raw and muddled the end of life can be,” Marantz Henig writes. Still, Brooke has the ability to make a choice and to communicate that choice. Not everyone has that option. The story made me think of an example from my own life that was both simpler and more complex.
My grandpa had a series of small strokes in his 70s and developed dementia. Grandma cared for him as best she could, but eventually his disease became too much to handle. He would race off in his truck in the middle of the night. Sometimes he would come home; other times he would get lost and end up at a neighbor’s house. Grandpa was strong as an ox. If he wanted to go somewhere, she couldn’t stop him. It was too much for an old woman to handle. So we sent Grandpa to live at the Good Samaritan Center in Park River, North Dakota. His dementia progressed and he stopped recognizing me. Then he stopped recognizing Grandma.
The call came in late May. Grandpa had taken a spill. His head hit the tile floor hard—hard enough to cause his brain to hemorrhage. There was nothing to be done, the doctors said. This was the end. Grandpa wasn’t in any position to make choices, so we chose for him. Don’t prolong this, we said. No feeding tube. No IV. No doubt it’s what he would have wanted.
We expected the end to come quickly, at least I did. How long can a bedridden eighty-two-year-old survive without fluids? A few days, at most, I thought. Yet a week later, we were still waiting for Grandpa to die.
My memories of that week are unreliable at best. I remember accepting cup after cup of watery Folgers despite not being a coffee drinker. I remember watching my dad rub Vaseline on Grandpa’s cracked lips. But mostly I remember waiting. Each time the phone rang, I expected to hear that he was gone. Each time I was relieved and then dismayed.
Grandpa died June 9, 1998. Had he been in the hospital ten days? Two weeks? I don’t remember. But yesterday, when I read about Peggy and Brooke, I couldn’t help but think of Grandpa. I reflected on those last painful days in the hospital. I remembered his cracked lips and sunken eyes. What if some clean-shaven doctor had taken mercy on our family and administered a lethal dose of morphine? Would that have been immoral? Or would it have been extraordinarily humane?