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Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Dinner Time Conversation

Sometimes a person gets to a certain point, usually when they are pushing 85 or 90, after they've suffered a few major illnesses, have grown weak and diminished and are noticeably, in appearance and in conversation, not quite the same person that you once knew, where you begin to think maybe it would not be such a bad thing if the person fell asleep and their heart just stopped beating. These thoughts may hang around the edges of your mind as you look upon a loved one fading away, and perhaps you look around other loved ones standing with you, wondering if they are thinking the same thing. As you look around at them, you wait for someone to say something, to ease the guilt you might be feeling, thinking such a thought - a thought which, in effect, is a wish for someone's death. After awhile, someone may say something and with a relief (though probably not seeming too eager) you agree, with hushed tones and soft sighs that, yes, it would be for the best because, after all, at a certain point life just might not be quite worth living.

With internet telephony and email and cheap long-distance rates available, it is not so hard to keep in touch with people these days. While living in Taipei, I spoke with my folks just about every Sunday night via Skype, occasionally messaged with my mom in the mornings as I typed blog entries, and emailed with some sporadic constistency. I knew that my grandpa's health was not the best. I knew that he was getting frail and that he was staying in a home after his last trip to the hospital. And from the way he sounded when I spoke to him, from the tenuous strength of his voice, the breaking and teary sounding excitement about my impending return, I had a hint that even he might be thinking the worst thoughts about his future.

Despite this sort of communication, though, being on the other side of the world makes it really difficult to be in the loop on things. By being so far away you can not see the looks that pass between people when they are thinking thoughts that they do not want to voice, that can only be expressed with looks. You can not see the way situations impede upon daily lives or the true effect they have your family or friends.

I bring this up after two consecutive nights of dinner with my grandma and parents. Each night we were sitting out on the deck, waiting for breezes to bring life to the still hot air, eating homecooked meals, conversing as we never did over dinners when I was a child. Each night there was plenty to be happy about, plenty of positive conversations to have. A child/grandchild come home after a year and a half away on Sunday night, and on Monday his girlfriend arrived and beginning to meet what may someday become her second family. Yes, there was plenty to feel good about.

Five places around the table instead of six, though. This is the first sign that something is not quite right, that somebody is missing. Then there is the way that conversations just keep returning to that absence. Questions to Natalia about her family circle back to grandpa. Talks about my students somehow return to grandpa. Discussions of health drinks and pills (a very favorite topic of my father's these days) come back to grandpa. Everything stops there. And then moves again, down steadily darker roads, full of doubt and worry, at times resignation.

What kind of savings are there in the bank? What are the options here, because the place he is in now is just not doing the job. They don't even let him get up and walk around with us unless a nurse is present. He needs to be walking. He needs to be moving. He needs to be pushed or he will just lie there or sit there, accumulating sores and sorrows and letting what little confidence he seems to have in himself drain away.

So can we get him to this or that home? What can insurance cover? We have a conference on Wednesday (remember that son, because someone needs to be there to help me, to say what is really on our minds, to be strong, to tell these people that we do not believe in what they are doing, and if this is the best they can do then at the very least he can come home and we will figure out the times of day when it is most important to have someone around to watch dad because goodness knows I can not do it by myself). (And as an extra paranthetical notation here, because there is just so much to say, what is this doing to me? I've lost weight and he depends on me so much, but I can't sell the condo now to get extra money because I need that for my own insurance down the road and it just was so much easier 60 years ago when you had one doctor who really cared about you and talked to you and treated you and not a symptom. I know that everyone in the family is supporting me right now but at 10:30 the lights go out and all the strength I have goes away but I can't sleep like you think I could because the hamsters in my brain decide to start exercising and the wheel just keeps turning and turning and there is no one to listen to breathing next to me, or to wish would stop snoring. No, there are just bad radio call ins with crazy callers that usually put me to sleep but now just spit their white noise at me and make me wonder where this is all going).

From discussion of savings and treatments and living arrangements comes a list of previous ailments. Prostate cancer that went into the bones, and 18 years living with that and still going is pretty amazing. Melanoma. Strokes. Falls. I really thought the last time he was in the hospital was it. I thought he was going to go, and I thought it was time and I was ready, but God was not and we are thankful for that.

But you have to deal with so much now, and he suffers so much. There does come a time when you think...

And the unspoken is spoken. The veil is lifted and that thought, a late night heart attack, a mercy, a blessing for everyone. Before others health is robbed by worry and stress. Before memories are destroyed and savaged, replaced by a visions of a shell lying in bed, mumbling and repeating and forgetting, a broken mind in a decaying body. Before savings are eaten away.

A breeze begins blowing. It is amazing how much life is around us, and how I notice it like I have never before. Is it because of being in the city for so long, or because Natalia is here and I am looking at my home town and my home and my youth through her eyes now? Is it because of this cloud of sickness and death hanging over our conversation? Birds are sitting on the railing. There is a cardinal sitting at the top of the apple tree, and then it is flying away. One of the cats is poking its head near a bird nest, and the birds fly around his head. Ants crawl below us, one over my ankle.

The breeze feels incredible. My girlfriend is sitting next to me, and though it has only been two days she looks more beautiful than I remember her, and we both think it is just a little bit strange that we are together here, that our life in Taipei is gone and that now we are here of all places and this is my family and, well it's just weird. Talk stops and now there is quiet. And then talk again, now of small things. It is time for Grandma to leave and we kiss and hug. She hugs Natalia and I can see how everyone in my family wants her to be a part, considers her already as one of us (poor girl).

But why is she here now? She will meet my grandpa today, and though I have already seen him twice since Saturday, yesterday he asked if I had made it home yet. His birthday is almost here. Natalia is here. There is so much to celebrate, but she is not meeting the man that I have known all my life. Sometimes he is close and sometimes not. There is so much to celebrate and I know that, but it feels hard now, to celebrate. Celebrate life and what remains, right? Wouldn't it be nice if it was that easy?

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