Last week my maternal grandmother died at the age of 96. The story of her end is miserably familiar to most of us in the Western world: after living a vividly interesting, engaged life, she faded, first in body, then in what one might call force of life (or the willingness to grapple with it), and then, at the very end, mental clarity. This dramatic but universal experience unfolded in a well run, expensive, but undeniably depressing nursing home, a place where our elders eventually sink into infantilized dependency, clutching teddy bears the same manner in which they once clung to travel, or books, or friendships. Unlike most people in her situation, my grandmother’s mind remained present and unclouded throughout much of the process of her death; she knew she was dying, wanted to die, and was even aware of the various ¨stages¨ of her own decline. She would often comment and plan her death as if preparing for a great outing or future event in which she would take part and, of course, control.
Most of us would recoil at such consciousness, and reach for the percocet/valium/morphine/ambien combo instead. But being the traditional, hard Bostonian Brahmin she was, she viewed her own dying body with the lifelong habit of polite distance and almost academic curiosity. This attitude would be familiar to anyone close to her: my grandmother was a cool woman, but also one whose interest in the world and its newness gave her the charm of Old World Jamesian mores. One could never be close to her through intimate revelations of mental hardship or physical distress, but she could be an instant and loyal friend to anyone with her similar understanding of Corgie breeding, Scottish history, or the writings of Willa Cather. She came to intimacy, probably like most people of her generation and Mayflower antecedents, through opaque and subtle veins of common understanding; personality, in a way, had nothing to do with liking or even loving a person. Instead, were they of the same ¨sort?¨
My grandmother helped raise me when I was a young child. My mother, struggling in nursing school and working through the myriad difficulties placed on a woman who got married then divorced too young to the wrong man, knew I had a place of ritualized stability in her mother and father’s quiet home. The days unfolded with the simple rhythm of a child’s nursery rhyme: waking early, watching my somber grandfather eat burned toast with poached eggs, a long walk with the exquisitely bred shelty who was my greatest companion; lunch, nap, reading, the never-missed five o’clock cocktail hour (scotch, bourbon, written correspondences shared), early dinner, early bed. Repeat.
They lived close to the base of the enormous Pikes Peak mountain, the top of which would decorate the days with its ever changing weather and clouds. The mountain. The silent house. My grandmother’s precious jewelry I would watch glinting in the late afternoon sun, the jewelry I now own and cannot seem to wear. The books, the dog, the sound of a sewing machine in a far off room. I could have stayed forever. I have stayed forever; those days shaped me. I am always looking for their quietude.
My grandmother gave to me perhaps the finest gift I have ever known: the love of and desire to travel. My earliest memories are of hearing stories about her Grand Tours of Europe, beginning when she was a lovely 16 year old. In those days, and in her circle, traveling included not only packing one’s Vuitton shipping trunks, but loading several cars into the cargo as well, which would take them from the French Alps (skiing) to Italy (art) to Germany (music).
A few years ago she told me of a vividly recalled event in her life, in which she, along with her chaperoning Auntie, sat on a hotel balcony one summer evening in Berlin. Suddenly, they heard a sound, and then a vision she never forgot: Hitler’s soldiers goosestepping down the Strasse, forming line after line of perfect, ominous, and disciplined formation. The war began not long after that, but by then she was back home, having moved in the most unorthodox manner to the West in order to marry a rather high-born Easterner who had become a rancher.
That was a long time ago, and the woman who became my grandmother went on to experience and witness many extraordinary events in her long, long life. Travel, ranching, pregnancies, many miscarriages, children; and, strangely, as seen from the perspective of the modern, independent woman, she remained utterly devoted to her suddenly converted husband after he uprooted her from her loved ranching life in order to become the wife of an Episcopal priest. I suspect she never much cared for that role, but she took it on with the same stoicism with which she shot antelope for hungry ranch hands.
How does a woman of such vigor and limitless curiosity die? One would hope swiftly, and in the same tone of straightforward fearlessness with which she lived her life. As problematic and distant as her personality could be to her children and (only) granddaughter, one would never associate the fading away a long stay in a nursing home necessarily bestows upon a person’s consciousness and body with her strong and stubborn personhood.
And yet this was the path of her death, the slow arduous descent, made none the quicker by our careful and litigious medical establishment. For weeks, my grandmother wanted to die, and was deeply disappointed with herself and the world for her steady beating heart. Compared to many, including my paternal grandmother, who was essentially tortured by ¨medicine¨ for eight months before her release, her death was relatively humane and peaceful. But I felt, somehow, that although my grandmother’s awareness remained intact, her agency inevitably became intertwined with an institution and an impersonal process.
None of us want this, for ourselves or anyone close to us, or any sentient being. Almost everyone I know, as soon as the specter of an elongated nursing home death comes close enough to really see, instinctively cries, ¨Not me. Never.”
How, then, does one die? For those who live a life unscathed by disease or cancer or accident, it is old age that carries us to the end. And this is the circumstance we all crave: a healthy, long life. Any life, though, as much as we distract ourselves from this truth, has finality. And it seems the deeper into the forest of age we travel, the less choice we have in the final terrain to be traversed. The map becomes muddled, then lost. My husband and I, like many couples I am sure, bravely speak of traveling to northern Europe when the time seems ¨right.¨ This is easy conjecture, and, probably, pointless planning when the reality of one’s demise veers up, close and brutally undeniable.
We like to imagine that death will be the final mirroring symmetry to our lives. Rarely, I suspect, is this ever the reality. When I meditate on death, I can never separate notions of control, of timing and planning. Death, of course, is the final letting go; it is the opposite of a life fully lived, which involves, inherently, independence, control, choice, and agency.
Death, then, is indeed an opposing symmetry to a life. But it is not the one we look for, or can design. Yogis speak of abhinivesha, which can be understood as the involuntary fear of death; it is a layer of suffering that one, no matter how spiritually advanced, can never be rid of. It is inherent, both in one’s biology and consciousness, and it is an essential ingredient to the thread that constitutes an existence.
So as much as we become angry with ¨systems¨ that fail to support dignity in death, or disease that ends a young life, never will we have a prescribed, controlled form to face death and then die, despite the elaborate and sometimes achingly beautiful rituals with which every culture reacts to death. No one knows how to die, or guide one toward death, until death comes. Death is the design. And part of that design is not accepting it.