My grandfather, Opa, would be celebrating his 104th birthday today if he hadn’t been killed by an irrational fear of surgery. He died in a hospital in Hollywood, Florida, as a result of septic poisoning from a blocked gall bladder duct. He was 86. The doctors had warned him about it, but he’d refused surgery. Off he went on his vacation, alone, where he took ill in a Florida motel room. The manager called an ambulance three days later.
Most of my family flew to Florida to be with him. We gathered round his bed and watched for days as a black stain of poison crept from his feet up his legs. They did a procedure to unblock the duct, but he kept deteriorating. He never regained consciousness. The doctors said they could do some last-ditch surgery, it was up to us, but there was a good chance he’d die on the table.
Everybody said yes, yes, do the surgery, give him a chance. But I pointed out that the last place he’d want to die was on an operating table, and maybe we should consider the quality of his life should he survive, and the quality of his death if he didn’t. I must have spoken quite eloquently, because they all changed their minds, and I was left with this awful feeling that I’d just robbed my beloved grandfather of his only chance at survival. I wasn’t even convinced myself of the point I was making; I just wanted us to consider both options.
Dying isn’t exactly binary – you’re not always either alive or dead. There is a passage, a fading, a transition, an ebbing of life. The machines flat-line, your breathing stops, the nurse declares your time of death, you start growing cooler, but you’re still not completely gone. I didn’t leave the room until I knew he was finished dying. I think it took an hour or two.
Opa was a very good grandfather.
My parents were teenagers when they got married. My sister was born five months later. I was born before her first birthday, and our parents split up before mine. They were still teenagers.
They were both only children, so there were no aunts or uncles or cousins, no extended family. Just four grandparents, three of whom pretty much opted out of grandparenthood altogether.
Opa knew my sister and I were a colossal mistake, but he loved us anyway. He bought us books and dolls and he squeezed fresh orange juice for us. He made us stilts and a dollhouse, and once he towed us around the neighbourhood behind his car on a toboggan.
I think he saw us as a chance to make things up to our mother. He had won custody of her when she was five. Nobody ever said why, exactly, but his wife was declared an unfit mother. It was very unusual back in the 40s for people to get divorced, and men hardly ever got – or even sought – custody.
Of course nobody expected a single man to actually look after a five year old girl. He paid a family to do that, and then, several years later, he sent her to boarding school. She grew up materially indulged but emotionally deprived. Her childhood ended abruptly with premature parenthood.
Eleven years after winning custody of his daughter, Opa became a grandfather; he was better at that.
We lived with him when I was very small. Later we moved a few blocks away and I could walk to his house to visit him.
One time I collected bugs in a jar all the way over, and when I saw him on his porch, I was so happy I broke into a run. I tripped and fell and my jar broke and my bugs escaped. He helped me up and cleaned up the broken glass. He never admonished me for running with a glass jar. He knew kids could learn things without having their noses rubbed in their mistakes.
He wasn’t perfect, of course. He could be stubborn and opinionated, especially when he was wrong. He tended to be moody. And he was definitely not a cat person.
When I was seven we moved away, to Ottawa, and my grandfather and I became penpals. He sent me letters with small treasures tucked inside them, like pressed flowers and cancelled stamps and sketches. I wrote back faithfully.
The years passed.
My grandfather was a naturalist and a painter. He retired to a chunk of land in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. He spent a lot of time at his kitchen table, looking out his window. Once a passing deer stopped to give birth in the tall grass of his yard.
He loved his solitude, but in later years he grew lonely and, I think, depressed.
One day he was burning some brush and a stranger drove up his laneway and got out of his car.
“You might want to move your car,” suggested my grandfather. “You’ve parked on my fire.”
The stranger pulled the car ahead to safer ground, and re-emerged. He and my grandfather got to talking.
Harrison had just been driving around aimlessly, trying to get through the day, and he had ended up on my grandfather’s land.
It was the first anniversary of his only child’s death from cancer. Her name was Gloria. She was a feminist filmmaker – she’d written the scripts for the films “The Company of Strangers” and “Behind the Veil: Nuns.”
My grandfather put on a pot of coffee and they talked while playing backgammon at his kitchen table. They became best friends that day, these two lonely old men. Harrison was tall and skinny and my grandfather was short and round. They were inseparable until Harrison’s death a few years later.
I think by the time my grandfather died, he was pretty much done living. He’d lost his best friend, he couldn’t paint anymore because of the arthritis, he’d had to sell his house and land because he’d outlived his money, and he was cooped up in a small apartment in town. He was 86 years old.
Some people believe you’re not fully gone from this world until everyone who knew you has passed, and no memories of you remain. I keep my grandfather’s ashes in a birdhouse on my bookcase, and I remember him often and fondly.