"Ba de ya/Say do you remember/Ba de ya/Dancing in September..."
(Photo by Wolfram Burner)
My grandmother died three years ago, toward the tail end of my final pre-season camp with the Oregon Marching Band. I got the news during a trumpet sectional, which ironically was being conducted in Pioneer Cemetery – a 150 year old frontier cemetery on the east side of the University of Oregon’s campus that had become less of a final resting place and, thanks to thick trees and poor lighting after dark, more of a refuge for students who wanted to get drunk or take a piss on the way back from a house party.
During a break, I glanced at my phone and saw I’d missed a call from Mom, and when I returned it she gave me the news – grandma had passed away about half an hour ago.
“Oh,” I said.
“Yeah.” She said.
“Well, I guess it’s for the best.”
We said our goodbyes and I wandered back to the sectional, where I joined several of my bandmates in a spirited discussion about which movie titles sounded like they were describing bowel movements. (21 Grams, Gone In 60 Seconds, Operation Dumbo Drop, etc.)
Later that afternoon, approximating grandma’s time of death from what Mom told me, I tried to figure out exactly what it was I was doing when she died. Turning back the clock in my head, I realized that half an hour before Mom called me, when my grandmother’s life was ending, we were rehearsing one of our popular stands tunes – a cover of ‘September’, by Earth Wind and Fire.
The purpose for the sectional had been to teach the freshmen what the dance moves were for all of our repertoire. It occurred to me that while my grandmother – a woman who had witnessed the Great Depression, World War II, the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, Watergate, and the dawn of the digital age – was breathing her last, her grandson was shaking his ass in sync with 25 other people in the middle of a cemetery.
As I write this, my 92-year-old grandfather is unconscious and running a fever, and staff at his nursing home expect that he’ll probably die within the next 24 hours. I can’t help but wonder what I’m going to be doing when that happens.
We moved my grandparents into an assisted living facility in 2004, after my grandmother’s frequent falls and increasing dementia became too much for my grandfather to manage on his own. My parents and I drove from Salem to Portland to visit them twice a month. Grandma, an overwhelmingly sweet woman whose memory had all but eroded at that point, loved the facility because of all the activities and friendly people. Grandpa clearly hated it.
After high school my parents moved to Portland so they could visit grandma and grandpa every weekend (and also because Salem is sort of terrible). Around this same time grandpa’s mental faculties went into a sudden and rapid decline – he became easily confused, sometimes forgot who grandma was, and would often try to leave the facility to go back to his and grandma’s house, which had been sold years before.
After he wandered out of the building and fell while trying to jump on a bus, we moved him and grandma into a special Alzheimer’s wing of the facility – a locked down, carefully controlled dayroom environment that was uncomfortably similar to One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
Every week, my parents would arrive, drop off a new batch of adult diapers, investigate the source of the odors in my grandparents’ room, and try to chat with them about what was going on. By this point, grandma was barely able to follow a conversation and grandpa didn’t always remember who my father was, so the conversations didn’t last too long.
In the years after grandma died, grandpa became even more disconnected from reality. One week he told my parents that he was planning a road trip with relatives who had died years ago; another week he mentioned that he was about to start college in Atlanta. Sometimes he seemed convinced that the nursing home was a hotel, and grew increasingly agitated when he was told he couldn’t leave.
The way I see it, what’s been happening to my grandfather – a World War II veteran who went on to become a gifted and respected anesthesiologist – is far, far worse than what’s going to happen to him in the next 24 hours. The idea that he’s about to die is a relief to me, and I’m sure that if he were still aware of his surroundings it would be a relief to him too.
I think one of the reasons I aggressively disliked Ricky Gervais’ new show Derek is that I just can’t buy the notion of a quaint, romanticized nursing home where cheerful old people peacefully live out their final years among quirky, dedicated staff. I spent a lot of time in a nursing home* over the past nine years, and there wasn’t a thing I saw there that made me feel anything other than crushing sadness and a panicky desperation to leave. It was a room full of scared, confused people waiting to die.
*I should point out that because I was away at school I didn’t spend nearly as much time there as my parents, whose diligence in taking care of my grandparents is truly commendable.
I have a lot of respect for Hunter S. Thompson – his writing, his journalism, and his suicide. At the age of 67, suffering from a myriad of health problems thanks to a myriad of lifelong drug problems, he penned a brief suicide note and shot himself. The note read:
"No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your (old) age. Relax — This won't hurt."
I really hope that I’m able to do something similar once my life reaches the point of diminishing returns. Taking your own life is an unpleasant thought, but after what I’ve seen I think it’s far more pleasant than waiting for your body to just give out and do it for you.
When it happens, I’d kind of like to be buried in Pioneer Cemetery, beneath future generations of college freshmen rolling their first joints and having clumsy sexual encounters in the dark, future trumpet sections shaking their asses to future pop hits.
This is what I’ve learned from my grandfather: I would rather be dead and close to the good parts of life than alive and trapped among the bad ones.
Truman Capps would gladly live forever if he could age as gracefully as Sandra Bullock is.