On death and dying

I took a quick frequent-flyer-funded trip up to Seattle last weekend, taking the 6:10am Saturday flight and 9:55am Sunday return. Please continue reminding me in the future that these early morning flights really suck. There’s nothing worse than getting up at 4am to go to the airport, even if I can doze on the airplane. Ugh.
My grandfather on my mom’s side was in an elder care home and seemed to be deteriorating rapidly. Mom had warned me a few weeks earlier that things appeared to be coming apart, but with my flu and developer seminar and Siggraph I paused a bit before hopping a flight north. On Friday I talked with Mom and she said it was probably a matter of days. At one point in our conversation Mom held up the cell phone to Grandpa and told him it was me – I yelled hello and heard him grunt in response. I must admit that I was surprised he was awake and aware – could it really be just days? Yet, this is the memory of that moment which will now always stick with me.
On landing at Seattle I grabbed a rental car and zoomed south to my parents place. Around a quarter of 9 I called Mom and she told me Grandpa had passed away at around 7am. I was just a bit too late. My first reaction was sadness at not having been there, followed by relief that I was in town and could spend the day with my parents. My mom was driving home, and our cars were 20 blocks apart – we met at the Starbucks and had some quiet time to chat and sip. This is the second moment of that day which I’ll remember clearly.
These two moments reminded me of two similar moments two years ago, when my grandma (also on my mom’s side) passed away. Mom came down to SF and we visited Grandma at the hospital in the east bay quite a lot. Yet, that morning of her passing we were about 20 minutes late to the hospital. When we reached the hospital room along with other relatives, Grandma was still there – but not. It looked like Grandma, certainly, but… well, no, it seemed quite clear she was gone. What she had left on the bed was more like a skin she had shed. Later that day, Mom and I visited the Four Seasons in San Francisco and had a mango margarita to toast Grandma’s life. In that quiet moment we got to reflect on the nature of life and death and the story arc of a person’s life, and we got to breathe in the sweet air and be thankful that we could enjoy each other’s company in this tenuous moment of mutual existence.
I’m out of grandparents now. I suppose that means I won’t have to visit any elder care homes for awhile, or at least I sure hope not. They’re terrible places. There was an article in the New York Times recently that seemed to talk about these places a bit (I must admit I haven’t read it completely yet). Each person basically has enough space for them to park their body and a few belongings, while everyone waits for them to pass away. It’s terribly depressing at these places. They remind me of car junkyards, only people visit junkyards to get bits of cars and re-use them, while elder care homes are merely places for folks to dry up and blow away as gracefully as possible while surrounded by a hundred other folks with disintegrating health. :-/
Why don’t we take better care of our elders? I’m sure this is purely cultural. For example, Japan seems to revere its elders, and in other countries the extended family lives together and takes care of its older relatives. In the U.S. we are so driven and independent that it seems stopping to take care of our elders is too much trouble. Right now that seems to me to be really stupid and short-sighted and uncaring, though I also have a hard time seeing how to do it otherwise, having grown up in it.
Alas, I have no point to this entry aside from just whinging a bit. I don’t think any country has everything together, but sometimes I like to bitch and moan about the things I think we in the U.S. are doing wrong. I don’t expect any solutions. ๐Ÿ™‚