It was my first time visiting a nursing home and I don’t remember its name, but it was somewhere near Seal Beach. I was in California for spring training with the West Point track team and I spent my days working out with the fleet-footed. Wind sprints, starting out of the blocks, baton handoffs, time trials. At the Academy every cadet was an athlete, so even when I wasn’t training, I lived among very fit people. What did I know of the sick or the elderly?
Death and nursing homes have been on my mind a lot lately. I’m living the pandemic life in the Connecticut panhandle these past 55 days. Nursing homes have been hit hard by COVID-19. Reading the town obituaries has me thinking about this trip I made to see my grandfather thirty years ago.
Albert Brewster was born in 1901 and was close to ninety when I saw him. He was bald with Herculean strength from his life as a stevedore in Boston. A card shark and a great whistler, he was the best part of my childhood summers. He and my grandma came for two weeks every year and my brother and I played bridge whist with them all day. That spring when I went to see him, my grandmother had already died and he was living at a facility near his daughter, my Aunt Kay.
I pulled up to the building and went inside. He had no idea I was coming since it was a spontaneous trip; I had asked for time off after practice and my coaches let me go. Here’s what happened.
The place looked like most buildings. I stopped at the reception desk and learned that my grandfather was eating so they took me the dining room to find him. He was there, sitting alone by the wall, and the emotions I felt seeing him caught me off guard. Here was a man I loved and laughed with and had enjoyed. How long had he been here, sitting at meals by himself, living alone?
I sat down across from him, said hi and introduced myself several times. I didn’t know why he was there or what kind of illnesses he suffered. Self-possessed young adult that I was, I hadn’t given a lot of thought to old age or his life, only that I knew grandma had died, had suffered from seizures. In this era before cell phones and GPS I found the address early and figured out how to drive there. All I knew about my grandfather was what had been passed on from family, by letter or long-distance calls.
The image I have of that meal these many years later reminds me of a Piccadilly cafeteria, smaller in scale, with the plastic tray, indistinguishable meats, mushy vegetables, and saran-wrapped Jello, the aseptic smell of the place like the bland fare, distorted through the lens of memory. I’m not sure if anyone else was in the dining room, just my grandfather, spooning up his soft food as I watched. He wore a short-sleeve collared shirt with front pocket where he kept his eyeglass case, like the nerd with pocket protector. He had black frame glasses similar to my father’s, his third son. My dad was bald by twenty and resembled the ‘old man’ more than his brothers, the same coke-bottle glasses.
Grandpa and I talked. I told him about track and spring training, the family. He hadn’t said much while he ate. As he finished, he stopped, a flash of expression on his face. Me-Yinn. Me-Yinn. Is that You? I don’t know how long it had been since I’d seen him; I was just in high school, maybe earlier since he last visited with grandma. He had spoken Canadian French with his mother, maybe his first tongue. No one seems to know why they spoke French. Maybe that had something to do with his way of saying my name, beginning the second syllable with a Y sound instead of an L. It touched my heart when he said it, Me-Yinn, his recognition and the warmth spreading between us, when just seconds before we’d been strangers.
I hadn’t thought about it then, but I looked different than the gawky teen he had known. My hair was thick and wavy, and I was tall and muscular, a mid-distance runner in my twenties. He finished his meal. I forget the rest of that conversation, but I wouldn’t forget the trip to his room.
Three Things I Would Remember All My Life
My grandfather shuffled down the corridor and went in his bedroom as I followed. My chest tightened, the same way I felt when I first saw him. The room had a bed, a dresser, a chair and a window. I wasn’t sure whether to sit or to stand. He told me three things that I would remember all my life.
The first.I can’t sleep, Me-Yinn. What I wouldn’t give to sleep, just one night. I didn’t know what to say and I held his tan hands in mine, strong hands from a hard life. I sat on the chair. Or, maybe I sat on the bed and he sat on the chair. At that age I could sleep on a bench, in an ongoing state of exhaustion from track and class and military stuff. I wouldn’t understand what a trial insomnia was until I was older.
I have Kitty’s things. Here. He wanted to show me. I stood as he walked to the dresser and pulled open the drawer. An embroidered hankie, a wallet and photo, an old necklace. Was it a pendant, a chain – I don’t know anymore. They rattled when he shut the drawer, my grandma’s things. The ruby ring on his finger, that’s the jewelry I remember when I think of grandpa. And, the soft underarm, that’s what I remember about my grandma. That would never be in a drawer, though it might be in a jar. She had told me so once. I used to cuddle with her, snuggle up close, her pale skin and sky-blue eyes so different than those of my Vietnamese family. I would knead her underarm skin, bulbous and soft.
Listen, when I die, I’ll bottle this up for you to remember me. Who could conceive the comforts of arm flab to a child? Maybe grandpa felt the same way about her stuff in the drawer.
The third thing he told me. He sat down, his enormous belly atop his pencil-thin legs. They want my money. All of them. They’re waiting for me to die. Of his five children, four were living at the time. I loved the oldest, my father’s favorite brother who had died years before my grandfather. I hadn’t seen much of the other two brothers but I loved Aunt Kay. She was a successful woman and I told grandpa that she loved him.
That was the last time I saw my grandfather.
Never one for idle chatter, Albert Brewster cut straight to the point. He wasn’t a bitter man. He was easy to please, happy with a can of Schlitz, a game of cards, or a butterscotch candy, which replaced his smoking habit. The lines around his mouth took their shape from whistling all the time. It was not easy for me to see him that spring, in his dotage, and maybe it was just old age or the loneliness without grandma. But, the nursing home sucked.
My father died in my house. I couldn’t put him in a nursing home. They covered his body and rolled him out on the side path as dawn broke, the sun just peeking through the pines, its rays stretching across and over him like God’s fingers.
Recent obituaries list the local nursing homes as place of death. As much as forty percent of the deaths from the virus take place in nursing homes. That’s where you go when you’re going to die, or when you’re close, hospitals and nursing homes.
I’d like to ask my grandfather what he thinks of the pandemic and the first-of-its-kind lockdown. He had a saying about old age which I’ve never come across since.
“Listen. When you reach seventy, they ought to line you up and shoot you.”
It seemed serious when he said it and he had a bit of a twinkle in his eye. There was something in it though, like all humor. He said it often and he must have been in his seventies when he did. It’s morbid and it’s funny because there’s a kernel of truth in his attitude. The old and infirm I’ve known didn’t want to be a burden and many were just plain tired.
My dad was waiting to die at the end. I overheard him say so, though he never complained. He sat slumped in his wheel chair, nearly expressionless when asked how he was doing: Just waiting. At times I’d find him on the ground or on the bathroom tile where he’d fallen. He’d been there hours but he hadn’t wanted to bother me.
What Gives Life Meaning
You have to die somewhere, so when my time comes I think I’d want to be at home. Eighty percent of Americans say they would prefer to die at home, but where do they actually die? Sixty percent die in hospitals, twenty percent in nursing homes, leaving only twenty percent to die at home. I admire Robert Duvall and Michael Caine’s exit in the movie Secondhand Lions, probably one of the best ways to go: Flying their bi-plane upside down into the barn.
And I have a fetish with all things Edward Gorey, the illustrator and author of vaguely disturbing stories and mysterious musings. His cult hit, The Gashlycrumb Tinies, is a gory (pun intended) depiction of the ABCs. The cover has the Grim Reaper holding a black umbrella over twenty-six children; on the back are twenty-six tombstones. The book opens like this. A is for Amy who fell down the stairs; B is for Basil assaulted by Bears; C is for Clara who wasted away; D is for Desmond thrown out of the sleigh. I’m not sure what’s better, the language or the macabre pen and ink drawings.
The message seems a departure from the pandemic paranoia. Death is bad. Death is everywhere. Death is the enemy.
That may be why I love Gorey. I didn’t share his sinister miniature with my toddlers but as teens they got the full dose. In every book swap and pawn shop, I was searching for his books. Then I shared it and read it to them and reread it.
My dad said they used to set up the deceased at an Irish wake, prop the corpse in the corner while the mourners would descend into a mixture of sorrow and celebration with more than a bit of whiskey and dance to go along with it. The corpse is likely an exaggeration but I don’t think the merrymaking was, and it provides balance to the sobriety of death, something I see at more and more services now: a celebration of a life. When my dad died I opened his sealed will which included a letter to my brother and me. On one typed page, he explained his intentions and his wish to keep the service simple. In that hour of anguish and darkness, I read the final sentences of this paragraph and broke into laughter.
Do not let the funeral director use his considerable talent as a salesman to try to talk you into something elegant. I do not want that and will rise up and haunt you if you do not put me into the ground in the least expensive manner possible. (Sealed letter March 14, 2002 and opened on September 2, 2009)
Gordon Livingston, a psychiatrist and author, wrote that humor derives its power from our capacity for laughter, that this is unique to the human condition. He added that what separates us from other animals is the ability to contemplate our death. The connection between these two human traits makes it possible to be happy in the face of our mortality. The truth he shares after decades of practice: Of all forms of courage, the ability to laugh is the most profoundly therapeutic. (Too Soon old, Too Late Smart by Gordon Livingston, M.D.)
I think immortality may be a kind of hell. Literature as much as tells us so, from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray all the way back to Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus denies the goddess Calypso’s offer for immortality because he longs for his wife and home.
Maybe death is what gives life meaning. It makes me value the time I have, the ever-fleeting minute, the hours and the days, because there are only a limited number in my short life: that quiet moment with my daughter, breakfast with my mom, and the exchange with my grandpa at the nursing home all those years ago.
I didn’t know it was goodbye and maybe I didn’t have to know, because I still carry my grandfather with me. His dark humor, the twinkle in the eye. So damn the paranoia and damn the nursing homes. Listen when you turn seventy, they ought to line you up and shoot you.
And since the Reaper is coming, I better get on with living.
Here’s a contemplation on expiration: The average person in the U.S. will live 41.5 million minutes or 690,901 hours. That is equal to 28,788 days for the 78.87 year life expectancy. At my age I’ve lived 18,725 days. So if I’m lucky, with the blessings of health and otherwise, I’ve around 10,000 days left. That’s fewer calories than I consume in a week! Morbid?
Nonsense! Edward Gorey might muse.
M is for Maud who was swept out to sea
N is for Nelville who died of ennui