On being there near the end

Things haven’t been looking up, it seems.

I’ve just gotten back from a five day stay in Victor, Idaho, home of my grandparents, only twenty miles from the valley that my ancestors founded: Jackson Hole. We went because my grandfather is very sick – lung cancer from years of smoking. It spread to his liver. They stopped chemotherapy; the cancer had become inoperable. We started medicating for a painless way out.

I went because my grandfather, regardless of how well I realized it growing up, had become my hero. I started to appreciate all that he had done, all that he had said and taught, when it was too late – years after the fact, when I was in college and I came to understand the lessons that age and experience bring. It took me 20 years to look at my grandfather as someone to respect and not just the fun guy who lived in Wyoming.

It took me until this year to realize how much I love him.

Our trip wasn’t meant to be fun. We knew what we were doing – we were going to see him before things got too bad, before we were left wishing that we’d gone to visit him one last time before it was too late. We knew that we were going to be exhausted upon leaving, drained from the act of taking care of him and sapped of all words after seeing him for what may be the last time.

This summer Kerrie and I headed out to the same place, but it was under the guise of vacation. We loved the area, and we loved my grandparents, and it only made sense to go visit. We were still optimistic then. He was going through treatments, and he was very sick but fighting for his life. We delivered him to the hospital once, and we saw him at his most vulnerable, but we were positive that the cancer in his lung would go away. We knew that he would be okay and this would just be another chapter in his long and storied life.

It wasn’t to be, though. The cancer shrunk, yes, but it also moved. The lump in his lungs was nearly gone, but it had moved to his lymph system, to his liver, to other points it had no business being. It defied the chemotherapy. It ducked the radiation. It was taking all the routes possible throughout the body and was going to stick the treatment out.

So, with that, they gave up. There was no point in keeping it up. He wasn’t going to beat the cancer.

This brings us to now. My grandfather is weak. He’s been the strongest guy, both physically and mentally, that I’ve ever known, but this disease has torn him apart, cutting through years worth of built up strength and left him bowing on the couch with waning cognitive skills.

He’s on medication – drugs to help his shoulder pain (from an infection), his bulging liver, and his slowly spreading disease. He even needs a pill to eat – to help the nausea that comes over him whenever he smells food. Despite all of this he was incredibly alert when we were there. He knew what was going on. He was happy to see all of us. He wanted nothing more than to be around his family, and we were brought out to make that dream a reality.

I took pages of notes while I was there, documenting every feeling I had. By the last day, though, I just couldn’t write anymore. I was exhausted. Every day was a roller coaster of emotions. I moved from the relief of seeing him looking so deceptively healthy, after having a mental picture of him emaciated and barely alive, to a gentle depression that came with knowing he was not going to be around much longer. I cherished every moment with him, but found myself shying away from him for fear of having to actually deal with his death. It’s hard to watch someone you love become so sick – I don’t have to remind anyone of that – but it’s harder to watch it when you know there’s nothing that can be done.

Every morning I woke up, walked to the breakfast table, and took a good look at my grandfather. Each day he was getting worse and worse. We blamed it on the medicine – we gave him too many pain pills, or we didn’t give him enough and he was feeling the blinding ache in his midsection. We found reasons to think that he was going to stay the same, that he’d be okay. We knew this was false, but we believed it.

The last day of our trip was hard. My grandfather was slurring his words like a drunk on New Year’s Eve. He could hardly walk; hardly stand even. He had become progressively more and more incoherent as the five days passed. We found out today that they admitted him to the hospital, where they found the cancer had moved to his brain.

We’d been fighting with him to accept hospice, if only to give my grandmother a little help in taking care of him in his last days. Today, finally, he agreed.

I know now that my grandfather can never live forever. Though I may have considered this notion when I was younger, I realize that people age, that their bad habits catch up with them, and that the human body, while strong and pliable, is also as fragile as thin crystal.

The last night I spent with him was hectic – he was running a fever, was unable to speak clearly and was constantly fighting to stay up and visit with us. He was a handful, for sure, but he always had been in the past and this night should be no different. My grandfather didn’t want to go to sleep because he was afraid we’d get up in the morning and leave without him, that we’d sneak off like thieves.

As I reassured him that we would stick around and say goodbye before we left, he turned to my grandmother and said “This guy, he’s my buddy. He’s a smart kid, and he’s my buddy.

“Corey, you’re my hero.”

Regardless of his state, whether he was in full possession of his mind or not, whether he lives on for years or only until the end of the week, that will stick in my mind. I’ve taken those words and locked them inside.

You could say, in that case, that my grandfather will live forever.

This was lovingly handwritten on January 12th, 2006