When I was eight years old my parents took my sister and I out of school for a month to go to England. My grandfather was dying and my father wanted to see him and wanted him to see his grandchildren before he went. I remember going on the airplane and being fascinated by the whole experience. I loved the music that I could command though the buttons on the side of the seat and spent most of the plane ride listening to the Pop Rock station. I clearly remember Diana Ross singing: Upside down, boy you turn me, inside out, and round and round… I also remember waking up in my seat to see the well roasted arm of a murder victim in the onboard film showing of “Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe”. Unfazed by the gruesome image, I simply fell back asleep. The next time I work up it was in another country; the country of my mother’s birth and my father’s childhood. We spent a month with my grandparents. I remember coming out of the room that I was sharing with my sister and seeing my Grandfather getting dressed by the side of bed. He was naked from the waist up and had a huge hard belly. I thought it funny how an old man could look pregnant. I didn’t understand that he had a massive tumour in his stomach. I have many memories of that trip; one very visceral one of falling down the winding stair case in my new shoes, my grandmother rushing over to my prone body, hugging me and crying as if she couldn’t handle one more dying family member. Other memories are of visiting aunts and cousins, family friends and their children. There is always joy to be had in sadness it seems.
Some days my grandfather sat at the kitchen table when we had breakfast and acted like all was well. Laughing at my antics, putting me on his knee and giving me his watch or calculator to play with. He even gave me a very old and strange musical instrument made of wood and animal hide. I had no idea what it was or of its significance but I still have it to this day tucked in a shoe box in the closet of my old room at my parent’s house. The day we left my grandfather took to bed. We readied ourselves and then filed into his room to say our goodbyes. I remember him looking at me and saying “Natalie, Natalie, Natalie”, over and over again, like I was his one wish for the world. I was the thing that his actions in life had created and which would go on without him. Even though I was a child I still understood that on a deep level. When we arrived home after our long journey, my father took to his bed having caught a cold on the plane. The next day he was still in bed, when a call came that my grandfather had passed. He had held on for our visit and once we were gone, so too was his will to live. My poor father had to turn around and get back on a plane to England. When he arrived home two weeks later, he again returned to his bed, for different reasons. My mother was very quiet and my sister and I followed suit: this was a time to be quiet and well-behaved.
My grandmother having no one left in England, came to live with us and later lived in her own apartment in a seniors’ complex. After many years, she too got stomach cancer, a sad irony due to the presence of H pylori found in the water in Belarus where my grandparents had lived decades earlier. At eighty years of age she decided to have an operation to cut the cancer out of her stomach; an operation which her doctor advised against because of her advanced age. Made of sterner stuff, she went through the procedure surviving with half a digestive system into which she then crammed kasha and potatoes so as to continue her days on earth. This worked for a few years until the cancer returned with a vengeance. One day, with my parents away for the weekend, I got a call at the house early Saturday morning. It was my grandmother’s best friend at the complex. She told me that I should go to the hospital right away because my grandmother had been taken there in an ambulance. She had passed out in the shower and suffered a concussion. I rushed to the hospital to find her on a gurney awaiting tests. I went up to her and asked her how she was. “Natalie, I die.” she told me in her imperfect English. “Yes, Nana, but not today.” To that she gave the smallest smile that her pain would allow. After her tests, we waited for the doctor. When the doctor came she looked at the chart filled with test results and said in her best bed-side manner: “Your grandmother’s cancer has spread to her liver and there is nothing we can do about it.” I remember being piqued at her manner and responded with: “Thank you for informing us however you do not have to be so brusque and speak like my grandmother is not in the room. She does understand.” I cannot remember what her reply was and it didn’t really matter. I took my grandmother home, and stayed with her awhile until the WWF came on and she told me that I could go home. She wanted to watch wrestling in peace. Assured she was comfortable and telling her that I would come back later, I left her to her entertainment, honed years before in England watching the British Bulldogs and their cohorts. Humans are strange creatures revelling in mundane comforts even on death’s door.
Later that early evening I returned to my grandmother’s, after WWF was over of course, and was surprised yet warmed when her doctor arrived for a house call. He came into the small studio apartment and over to my grandmother. The shock on his face was evident as he steadied his voice and asked: “How are you doing Sima?” My grandmother looked at him and said: “How do you think I am doing? Look at me! I want to die.” Undeterred by her strong statement, he gave her a superficial examination and then rose from his position telling her that he would come back in a few days to see her again. I walked him to the door and as I turned speak to him I saw his eyes moistening. He was a young, geeky doctor with the energy of an angel and in that moment I wanted to hug him. He started telling me the obvious, but I cut him off. “We understand what is going on here and my grandmother has stated that she wants to die, so any way we can hasten that would be appreciated.” He left after assuring me that a Do Not Resuscitate order would be put on her file and wrote me a prescription for morphine. Later at the pharmacists I was amazed at how cheap a bottle of liquid morphine was: $8 at the time. Funny what we notice at times like these.
We got a private nurse in to look after my grandmother 24 hours a day and made frequent trips to her house. After about 5 days a close friend of hers who happened to be a nurse in a previous life but who was now a local politician, called: my grandmother was going, and we should come over. I didn’t know what to expect, but when I came into the house and went over to her bed, I was dismayed to see that she was comatose. Her mouth hung open, expelling her laboured breathing and it wasn’t a pleasant sight. It wasn’t my strong, feisty, opinionated grandmother, it was a body that was failing and it hit me hard. The friend who had called, left me alone with the nurse and soon my mother and father arrived. My father was not coping well so we sat in the living area while my mother and the nurse sat on either side of my grandmother’s bed. A couple of hours went by and my father became more and more distraught. I can only imagine the thoughts that were going through his head. He often said that he would be dead if not for my grandmother. She had kept him alive during the war and because of her they had made it though. Now he was sat in her apartment listening to her last gasps wondering, even though he was no longer a child but an old man, who would get him through now. My mother decided that I should take him home for a break so I walked over to the bed and said goodbye to the body used to be my grandmother. My father couldn’t do the same before we left for the 10 minute drive to our house
My mother sat with the nurse, a sweet Pilipino lady who told her about her life. She too was being touched by my grandmother’s death as it was bringing up memories of her previous patient who she has nursed for many months and had grown to love. She told my mother that she had only let a few days pass before taking on this assignment because she didn’t know what else to do with herself and her grief. Now she seemed to relive it sitting at the side of my grandmother’s deathbed. After another hour had passed my grandmother’s breathing changed. My mother felt like she had been holding on for my father and I to come back but got tired of waiting – typical impatient, determined woman. Her breathing stopped and started, stopped and started until it stopped completely. My mother and the nurse both swore at the moment she passed, that the sweet smell of flowers appeared in the air. An old Spiritualist belief that if you smell flowers, the dead are visiting. Maybe my grandfather had come to meet his wife with a bouquet of fresh flowers in his hand. Knowing their marriage she would have probably beat him over the head with it, but it is the thought that counts.
My mother called us at the house and I picked up the phone to hear the expected news. We were sitting in the living room watching the news having not bothered to take our jackets off. Just sitting there pretending to attend to all of the horrible events in the world whilst really consumed by our own horrible event. After we arrived back at the apartment my mother immediately took the nurse who was in bits, back home. I went over to my grandmother and saw that her blue eyes were open. “Why didn’t you shut them?” I asked my mother? “Because your father should do it.” she replied. I had never been part of such a process so I did not know what the protocol was or from where my mother got this particular belief, but I did know that my father wasn’t coming near his dead mother. I lifted my grandmother’s chin, closed her eyes and touched her cheek. Her cheek was so soft and unlined. I remember thinking, Wow, not bad for 84 years old, thanks for the good genes, Nana. Again, peculiar, we humans.
My father and I waited for the undertaker. I sat in the chair and he on the couch. We took our coats off. “Is there anything to drink in here?” My father asked. “I don’t know, let’s see.” For as long as I remember, every Christmas we gave my grandmother a bottle of brandy. In one of her bottom cupboards, there was an open bottle of the stuff. I retrieved two glasses, poured generous helpings in both and passed one of them to my father. We sat in silence sipping the strong spirit, until my father starting speaking. The alcohol had turned on a spigot of musings about his mother, his childhood, our childhoods, his life in general. At one point he said to me that the greatest regret of his life is that he never spent enough time with us kids. I swallowed more than brandy and looked at the body on the bed. Soon the undertaker arrived as did my mother. My father signed some forms and they left. We finished our second brandies and my mother insisted on cleaning the glasses and putting them away. My grandmother would be horrified if we didn’t. We went home and tried to sleep even though it was the middle of the night and we should have been exhausted.
In the week that saw David Bowie and Alan Rickman both die of cancer, I thought about all of the people and their families who had been touched by this disease, not least mine and my grandparents. I thought about how these two men were of means yet all of the money in the world could not save them from death. One only needs to remember Steve Jobs to know this is true. My grandparents were very wealthy before the Communist Revolution and bitterly poor after it. Yet even if that fact of history had never happened and they had retained their wealth, the water in area of the world they resided, would have given them cancer anyway. Nothing can stop the death march we are all on whether we get their by foot or by driving a Lamborghini Veneo. No matter your personal belief: whether death is a cessation, continuation or reincarnation, it is final. It is the completion of your life as you know it now. What I take away from all of this is a resolve to not live my life on the surface but to live it as deeply as I can.
Today my daughter and I were sitting on the couch. She suddenly took my head in her hands and gave me a big kiss on the lips, with the added dramatic flourish of a head toss and a mwah, at the end. We squealed with laughter and did it again and again trying to outdo each other with the head tosses and the mwahs. I hugged her little body to mine and wondered if any other moment in my life could compare with this one? Actually, I resolve to make them all compare to it. I resolve to give each moment of my life a giant smooch, followed by an equally giant head toss and mwah. I resolve to be my grandfather’s wish for the world by living, loving and laughing. I resolve to be the 11 year old on an airplane listening over and over to Diana Ross singing: Upside down, boy, you turn me, inside out, and round and round, and thinking it is the best thing that I have heard in my entire life. I resolve to be that passionate about each new sound, sight and smell instead of going round and round like a hamster on a wheel, running towards nothing but my own death. We are all going to die, but before I do, I have resolved to live first