“How glad I am to be superhuman.”
— Gus Gus, “Superhuman”
In 1999, Icelandic electronica collective released and album called “This is Normal.” I found them via an online music service and even though they’re what might generously be termed “bizarre,” Gus Gus has more than one song that can stop you in your tracks, if you’re in the right frame of mind.
I’d been planning on writing about this song in another context later next year. But sometimes elephants amble into the room unbidden. After two weeks of fighting this month’s ex-column, it could double for Dear Abby, except with a little more sanctimony and patronization. So instead, I’m going shuffle a bit and write about my grandfather’s death because I’m afraid I won’t be able to write anything else until I do.
“It’s not you, it’s me.
It’s not hate, it’s love for you.”
Last January, I returned to Montana for my annual post holiday visit. I grew up with my grandparents, so I alit, as usual, at their house where things were pretty much normal. All except that my grandfather was sick. A stubborn case of pneumonia had been lingering since November. After a long discussion and a cold sleety morning, we were seen in a cold clinic by a doctor with even colder hands. There was a long examination and then there were prescriptions and instructions and then we went out for pie or chicken fried steak or something equally indulgent. I was frustrated that he wasn’t better. I blamed the doctor. I blamed my grandfather for not resting enough. I told myself, as I packed to return home, that he wasn’t in the hospital, so it must have been okay. He was strong — strong enough to beat pneumonia.
Of course, it wasn’t okay. A month later, we sat in a terribly quiet waiting room while he received a confirmation biopsy for cancer. A very short doctor and a very tall medical student told us that it was cancer and it was advanced. The student patted my grandmother on the shoulder and said he was sorry.
My grandfather was on some pretty serious medication for the biopsy — the kind where you aren’t supposed to remember much afterwards. Even though the doctors had told him what they’d found, he didn’t — or maybe wouldn’t — remember that they’d told him it was cancer. Maybe he just had lupus, he said. Lymphoma? And then he asked for whiskey. It was the last time we got drunk together — I can’t imagine it was a good night for him, with the sedatives wearing off and the alcohol, but at that point, who was I to refuse the man a drink?
It’s a common myth that older people are ready for death. My grandfather, at 77, was not remotely ready nor did he ever get that way. Death frightened him and he liked life. I don’t think he ever came to terms with his illness and although it was difficult for the rest of us in some ways, I admire him for continuing to fight all the way to the end.
Part of the reason that he lasted longer than anyone expected was that he was strong — not just mentally, but physically. He’d always been a giant man. Not tall, but with huge hands and thick bones and muscles — even as he had aged. And he didn’t care about what anyone thought of his ugly truck or his rainbow suspenders or the hideous blanket coat he insisted on wearing. He was the practical one of the family. His lack of imagination irritated me as a child, but when I got older, his sense of humor and his linear thinking made him an excellent partner in conversation and debate. He loved to talk philosophy and religion and politics and books. He loved to read and keep abreast of the news. Even though he didn’t always understand my choices, he respected them and I didn’t feel judged by him. We clashed about business and money — he had a habit of making decisions first and asking for advice later — but we never came out the other side hating one another. We just disagreed. And then had some wine.
But something beyond the cancer wasn’t right. His memory was off. He started to say odd things. Our conversations were strange. A week later, an MRI revealed that the lung cancer had moved to his brain. The neurosurgeon himself was surprised at the success of the ensuing brain surgery. Except for insisting that his oncologist’s name was Dr. Santorum, my grandfather had healed up better than anyone had expected. “So strong,” the surgeon said. “Very strong.”
But there was still the matter of the rest of the cancer.
“Sleep now, love.
Sleep now; there will always be failure.”
To recount the entire year would be tedious, but suffice it to say, I went back every two or three weeks to help with chemo and errands and diagnoses and prognoses. I met doctors who were helpful and nurses who weren’t and every permutation therein. We were given a “navigator,” let’s call her “Peppy,” who was supposed to help us through the process, but she disappeared halfway through the process due to a cat bite and never resurfaced.
I saw Peppy just after Thanksgiving and she giggled about how she hadn’t seen my grandfather in several months. I took a deep breath and told her that he had died three weeks before and was not a little sad she hadn’t been chewing on anything. But I don’t have a right to hate that woman. None of it was her fault and her job was a courtesy to us, not a promise. The real reason I’m angry has nothing to do with Peppy. I’m angry because, despite the fact that I spent the entire year grieving for the inevitable, on the 18th of October, I was entirely not ready.
October was the first month I didn’t go back to Montana. Instead, I stayed in Seattle to prepare for a week long writers conference on the East Coast. By that time, my grandfather was starting radiation treatments because the cancer appeared to be active in his brain again, this time affecting his balance. I struggled with the decision to go to the conference. I knew that my family, including him, wanted me to go. But I worried that he might not be lucid by the time I got back. He’d been plodding along at the same pace for so long, somehow I managed to convince myself that it would go on that way forever. Surely a couple of weeks wouldn’t matter.
But of course, they did matter. I had been home from Boston for three days when the telephone rang at 4 am the phone rang telling me to get home. By 5 am we had plane tickets arriving in Montana at 2 pm. At 8 am we were boarding the plane when my grandmother called again to tell me that he was already gone. The rest of the passengers gaped or politely tried to look away as Adam helped me get back off the ground, breathe, blow my nose, and get on the airplane. I don’t really remember much before or after that.
“Leave now, love.
Leave now; you will recover from that.”
As I reflect back on 2012, I can say, without hyperbole, that it has been the best and worst year of my life. I’ve realized one of my lifelong dreams — writing as a career — while simultaneously coming to terms with my deepest fear — losing my family. Some days, I do okay. Others, not so much.
I have some mementos when things get hard. I have some of his pet rocks. I have sticks we whittled when I was small. I have his pocket knife. I have the card he gave me for my 100th birthday party in the case that he wasn’t able to attend. I have a tape dispenser in the shape of a shoe that he insisted on sending shortly before he became ill. I have his unwavering faith in my ability to be whatever I want. I have his comments on one of my novel manuscripts.
He held on long enough and more. He had a 78th birthday, in fact. He was afraid he wouldn’t last six weeks after his diagnosis. He was so strong that he almost tricked me into believing it would be another six years.
I miss him. I wish I’d gotten to say goodbye. I made a choice, a decision, a gamble, even, and I ended up on the wrong side. But I’m so grateful for the goodbyes I did have. I’m grateful that he fought for that time. I’m glad he was superhuman. I hope, someday, I can be superhuman too.