Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Winding Down

My husband's grandparents came to live with us this past spring. We bought the house planning to have them with us a few years ago, but they resisted leaving familiar surroundings (they've lived in the same part of NJ since they came to the US as refugees after WWII). When Grandpa started to seriously decline, we built an apartment onto the house, and they moved in this spring. And now, Grandpa, whose 94th birthday is coming up on December 12, seems to be coming to the end of his life. It is so terribly hard to watch.

I've worked in hospices and nursing homes, and done EMS for years, so I'm intimately familiar with the details death in a professional sense, but I had forgotten, somehow, how badly one longs for the mercy of death at the end. I am normally (more than normally?) afraid of dying - much more so since I had children who need me so desperately. I do not look on death as a friend or ally for myself. And yet I did not remember how I used to pray, really and truly beg God with all my heart, that a particular patient, reduced to suffering and endurance, would die, and be granted a little peace. I had forgotten how angry I used to get at the universe for allowing this kind of pointless misery. I am reminded.

And here I am again. Grandpa is in a moderate amount of pain, which no medication seems to relieve. He cannot enjoy his great-grandchildren, food, music or companionship. Life has been reduced to the hideous misery of having to move from one place to another, to endure another bathing, another meal, another toileting. Grandma, who is 14 years younger, is no longer his companion or friend, just his increasingly overwhelmed and exhausted nurse while Eric and I try to take what of the burden we can from her.

Suffering does not always, or even usually, have a purpose. I've seen little children, parents of small ones, people desperately loved and needed dying slowly and agonizingly sufficient times that I have long since made myself recognize that there is no meaning in pain. And yet I cannot reconcile myself to that absence of meaning. I still want God to relieve him of his suffering, to end 94 good - at times even heroic- years with dignity and peace. I find it nearly unbearable to watch him, confused, hurting and querelous, attempting to understand why it is that we are hurting him by forcing him to move, or eat again. And he tries desperately to be kind and dignified, thanking us for our kindness even when we are making things worse.

This is not a life tragically cut short - he had a good run. And while we will be sorry to see him go, that's not the point. The point is that we have no right or way to make his end anything other than a misery and a kind of tiny, personal tragedy, when it might have had grace.

I don't know if he'll live days or weeks or a couple of months. I doubt longer. I know I will pray (pointlessly, I suspect) as hard as I can that tonight, or tomorrow, or soon he sleeps and doesn't wake up. If God is real, he doesn't take requests. But I will keep praying, because it is better than any alternative that accepts this misery and indignity as inevitable or meaningful.

Shalom,

Sharon

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