For me, it all started three years ago when my grandfather grew ill. His illness was a result of years of alcohol abuse that took a deadly toll on his body. It deteriorated his liver until he began to bleed internally. Shortly after his body began to decline, his mental faculties did also. At the age of 86 he was placed in a nursing home. When I was 19 I went to visit him for the first time there. I knew it would be hard for me to see him that way, but I was wholly unprepared for the emotional grief that I experienced.
I drove two hours down to Wilmington to visit him. I loved him. I spent many summers when I was younger with him. He taught me to appreciate the beauty of this world. He also taught me about death. I arrived on a warm and sunny Sunday afternoon. I did not recognize him at first. He was wheelchair-bound, had gained about 30 pounds, and had little recollection of who I was. Only a few months earlier we were feeding ducks off of his back porch by the pond. He was healthy and happy then.
I tried to connect with him, but his mind had diminished so much that he could hardly carry on a conversation. I fought back the tears as hard as I could, but seeing him in that state, bloated, with food dribbled down his shirt, mumbling incoherencies, was too much. A lump swelled in my throat as I told him that I had to go, that it was good seeing him, that I loved him, and that I would be back to visit soon.
He didn't remember me, and another visit would mean nothing to him. That was my rationalization for not returning to see him ever again. Seven months after that visit I was hiking in the Adirondacks when I called my mother to check in.
"I'm in Wilmington," she said. "We have been trying to get in touch with you for days."
I knew something was wrong. "Why are you there?"
She was at my grandfather's funeral. He had died a few days earlier and I was the only family member who didn't attend.
Death challenges our core beliefs about human existence--why are we here, what is our purpose, what happens to us when we die? Many people I know deal with their grief by turning to God. Even atheists can become adamant in the belief that heaven exists and that their loved one is looking down on them.
I dealt with it a little differently. I went to my favorite summit in the Catskill Mountains, where I fasted and meditated for three days. I thought about life and what it meant, and I searched the recesses of my mind for memories of my grandfather. When I found them, I burned them there permanently.
Fast-forward two years. My grandmother, Plina Fountain, is put into a home in Raleigh after her sister has a stroke. The first time I visit her she tells me, "I should not be here. God is going to punish someone. I have four healthy children who could take care of me. I just want to go home."
The woman next to her at the dining table looks at the newcomer and interjects, "We all do honey, but we're stuck here. You better get used to it."
Again, a lump swelled in my throat as I told her that I had to go, that it was good seeing her, that I loved her, and that I would be back to visit soon. But I did go back to visit, and still do every week. We are closer than we have ever been. She opens up to me, the only constant person in her life, the only one around that cares to listen. She's not like my grandfather, though. She is mentally alert and physically able. That's why it is so gut wrenching to see her there, because she doesn't have to be.
She is there because our culture can't deal with death. She is there because, like everything else that we don't like to deal with, we push it to the side, out of view. We bury it, and weeks or months or years later, we bury the ones we loved. We regret that we didn't visit more often or invest more fully. But we don't change anything. We never do. We ignore death in an attempt to avoid it. Meanwhile, our mothers, grandfathers, friends and brothers sit in homes as vulnerable and scared as children, serving their life sentences. The result is a lack of respect for the elderly that is utterly profound and unsettling.