Saturday, June 21, 2008

"And Another Shall Gird Thee"

When thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not.

-John 21:18

Last night I sat with my wife’s maternal grandfather behind the closed door of the back room of his aging house, supporting his increasingly dead weight as he sat on the edge of the bed trying to relieve himself in one of those specialty plastic bottles the hospice nurses gave them for that very purpose. A few times in our mostly silent moments together, I thought I was going to lose him, that my strength would give and he’d topple to the floor or that what little strength he has would give, sending us both into a pile on the bright blue carpet.

Mostly, though, I just looked at him—the whiskers on his face, his increasingly vacant expression, his hands that vacantly traced a crease in the sheets, his twitching left foot—and held him, considering life and death and the responsibility the young (or younger, anyway) have to care for their elders. When Dale put his arm around my shoulder to better support himself and then when I told him to hug my neck so I could position him again on the bed, John the Beloved’s words came to mind (as copied above), especially these: “thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee.”

Too often, I think, we want to separate ourselves from those who stand on the border between life and death, reluctant to accept them in their weakened state because we still want to see them as virile, productive bodies. I’ve been guilty of this with my paternal grandpa, a man, Dad tells me, who’s now on liquid morphine and a pain patch, living out his final days on the bed in an assisted living center. The key to this knowledge is that it had to come through my own father, Grandpa’s oldest son, the executor of his will, and his greatest support. I make excuses for why I don’t visit Grandpa myself: it’s too hard to pack the girls through the care center or the drive across town is too long or we just don’t have time.

In all reality, though, I’m just afraid.

I don’t do well with old folks’ homes. I never have. I don’t like the smell or the creepy old people lined in wheelchairs down the hallway. I have difficulty accepting them and what their decaying bodies mean about me: someday, I’ll be one of those creepy old people, slouched in a wheelchair, waiting for my children and my grandchildren to visit (if I still have my mind at that point and know who anyone is), to brighten the darkness of aging.

Why it’s so difficult for me to see them fade, I don’t know. Even from the lofty Mormon theological perspective that death is simply the beginning of something else, I find myself reluctant to invest in the process of dealing with the death of those close to me. Maybe that’s because I’ve never really had such close seats to watch it from before. I remember attending the viewing of an acquaintance I’d known in high school when I was sixteen or seventeen. Looking at his body in the casket, I knew it wasn’t him, that his essence was elsewhere.

But still.

With Grandpa it’s been different, even from my experience with Dale, who’s been sick for as long as I’ve been part of their family, or from the high school buddy who was shot in a gang fight in downtown Ogden. I’ve seen Dad’s dad go from the epitome of vitality, a retired botany teacher and gardener whose life was manifest in the health and beauty of his plants, through a hip replacement and quadruple valve bypass into the far corner room of an assisted living center where I imagine him as skin stretched over bones, lying on his ashen bed, sleeping all day in the center’s atmosphere of death.

But just because he’s no longer what I want him to be doesn’t mean he’s no longer a source of strength and life. I’ve confronted his mortality in my writing; indeed, his experience has been a significant source of inspiration, helping me find my way into the craft of language. Now I’m convinced I need to do the same thing in the flesh, to gird myself so I can in some way carry him and Grandma (who may not be far behind) through the margins of our life together, into the next.

And while this might ultimately be selfish, if I don’t do it for them, I need to do it for me and my girls. I can’t help but think, though, that in offering him my presence, his won’t haunt me as much whenever I pass an assisted living center or think about plants or look at the picture Grandma gave each of us for Christmas last year: she and Grandpa, their bodies unfocused, stand in front of one of their immaculately groomed flower gardens, the shadow of a smile hidden in the blur of their faces as if their photographic presence is fading from brightly colored page.