In the last five years of his life, my grandfather and I became quite close. We spent considerable time together and I was familiar with many of his stories and adventures. He was kind, generous, strong and disciplined. We had easy conversations together and hard conversations together. I felt grateful that I had an opportunity to learn from a man with ninety-four years of experience. He taught me many things, most of which I am not going to include in this story, so you will just have to take my word for it. My grandfather was constantly supportive, particularly when I was struggling to find my way.
Six years ago, when my father was dying from brain cancer, I was not present at all. I remember the horror when I came home from a friend’s house, high, and my dad could no longer communicate. The deterioration of his body and his mind was agonizing and I could not stand it. I was constantly coming and going. Even when I was physically present, I was not truly there. After he died, I could not forgive myself for how distant I had been. I felt like a coward and I knew if I had to watch somebody I loved die again, I would do it differently. This year, when my grandfather had a small stroke and began his final decline, I wanted to be there.
His bed was by the window, and the early spring light brought a delicate warmth on the light green blanket he had pulled up to the middle of his chest. The deep blue veins in his hands were visible through the translucent skin that age had drawn over his entire body. He had become so frail and I could see the outline of his bony legs beneath the blanket. He lay there sleeping, only the rise and fall of his chest revealed that he was still alive. I watched him from the chestnut brown armchair in the corner of the room which had become my temporary home.
Occasionally, he would open his eyes and struggle against the confines of the blanket and the bed, but his strength was waning. On the first day, I thought he was going to die any minute. It was the same on the second day, and the third. But each day, he surprised me and kept fighting. I was astonished by his determination. He was holding on, fighting not to fall into the unknown. He was teaching me about the incredible human will to survive, though he was fighting a painful battle with an inevitable outcome.
On the fourth day, I had been listening to his death rattle for twenty hours straight and I will admit that I was starting to lose my mind. I was shocked when I noticed that my own breathing had started to follow the same rhythm. I closed my eyes and focused intently on my own breath. The light on the night table glowed though my eyelids like the embers at the heart of a dwindling fire. Time passed, but my perception was compromised and I do not know how long we were together with only the sound of our breath. Finally, in the middle of the night, the rhythm of his feeble inhales was broken by a sharp breath. I sat upright in my chair and listened. Silence. I got up and sat down in bed next to him and put my hand on his chest. I could feel his heart beating. He took another sharp inhale, then exhaled slowly. Silence. I could feel as his heartbeat slowly faded away, like a sound moving off into the distance... UUUUUHHHHHHHH–his final breath was loud and terrifying. As he released it, I knew I was now sitting alone with his body.
The silence was overwhelming. It felt strange to be in a room alone with his dead body. The line between life and death has always confused me. What is a loved one’s body when they are no longer alive? It was heartbreaking and it was challenging, but I was present. I was there, and embracing this experience felt like the completion of a journey that began when my dad died six years earlier. It was like a tangible metric with which I could measure my personal growth. I was not there with my dad, but I was there with my grandad.
Self-improvement is a challenging concept with many different subjective definitions. Ironically, comparing myself to the young man I had been six years ago helped me to understand that drastic events like death are not actually necessary to assess individual progress. In small and simple ways I can choose to be present, everyday. I can choose to show up, no matter what the challenge. Even if I don’t always do so, which I don’t, I can continue to try. I can confront my fears no matter how big or small. I can do something positive today that I did not do yesterday. I can change and improve!