They say getting old sucks...but does it? We want to believe that it doesn't. We say we love getting older. We embrace it! We thumb our noses at society's predilection for dismissing aging as something to be feared. But when I visited my 88 year-old grandfather in a small nursing home in rural South Carolina today, I have to admit, I shared the fear. Here is a man, James Dimery, who spent his entire life working himself nearly to death for the International Paper Company Box Plant in Georgetown, SC for more than 40 years, to provide a modest but very decent and happy life for his family. He was a tall, handsome man that everyone in Georgetown knew and loved. He adored his children, his grandchildren and great grandchildren.
I didn't see if first hand, but I understand he was a pretty seasoned drinker and a hellcat before my mother died in 1971. I understand that shook him to his core and "settled" him.
I talk about him in the past tense, not because he has passed, but because for the last few years, this solid, steady-handed presence from my youth through adulthood has been relegated to a hospital bed in the clinical atmosphere of a depressing nursing home. The place is eerily similar to the nursing home Granddaddy used to take me and my older brother to, to visit his father in final years of his life.
I remember Granddaddy saying to us... "Whatever you do, please don't leave me in a place like this when I get old." I remember the statement struck me as odd, because he himself had put his father in that place. But, we came to understand and accept that it was the best solution Granddaddy had at the time.
Now my granddaddy is ending his life in the exact same kind of place he feared all those years ago.
I don't blame anyone. Hard choices were made. End of life care is immensely expensive. I am thankful that I will not have to make those hard choices for my parents since they are both deceased. I get it. But as I visited him today with my brother, my Aunt and my Uncle, I couldn't help but wonder what was going through his mind.
He has a hard time remembering faces, but today was a relatively good day. Even though I had not seen him in several months, after only a few seconds of a scrunched up brow he seemed to recognize me. He even pointed to my picture on his TV to confirm it – proud of the small but significant accomplishment.
We sat around his bed getting caught up. We were loud and obnoxious and though we talked for almost two hours, we only spoke directly to Granddaddy maybe 10 minutes total. Granted, he doesn't have a lot to say these days. So as we sat and talked and laughed, as if he wasn't even in the room – as if his roommate, the sweet Mr. Keith, wasn't in the bed two feet away trying to watch The Price Is Right – I wondered. Was Granddaddy glad we were there? Was he annoyed by the racket we caused? Did he feel left out of the conversation? Even ignored?
Near the end of our two hour visit, my Aunt - his daughter-in-law - asked him, "Granddaddy, what are you thinking about?"
He mumbled something inaudible. She and I leaned in.
"What's that Granddaddy?" she asked again.
"Just listening," he said in a meager voice.
"Oh. Just listening?" she repeated to be certain.
"Yes," he said. "When you're in a place like this, its just nice to have visitors."
Did my heart break? Yes. Did I feel guilty for not seeing him more often? Of course.
Did I feel guilty for the noise and chaos we caused while sitting a foot away from his bed while he faded in and out? Not as much.