July 21, 2009 by David Gillaspie
Police cars, an ambulance and a fire truck rolled up outside the neighbor’s house one morning. I didn’t see any smoke. He came over later.
“If you live with an older person in the family, Mom or Dad, Uncle Buck, you absorb parts of their lives through interactions. You raise your kids in front of them, making comments or not, and get ‘the look.’ You don’t remember what ‘the look’ is supposed to mean, but it’s not a good feeling. You remember enough to avoid direct eye contact. ‘The look’ is universal.
A mixed family is the way most people in the world live. I’ve never heard of an old folks home in Africa, a retirement home in India or China. The families stick together.
I stuck with my old man to the end. The mortuary I’d called said I needed to contact the police when it happened, so I did.
The cops knocked on the door; an old cop showing a young one the ropes. I talked to them outside, telling them Mom was in delicate shape.
They came in like it was a murder investigation, Joe Friday with an attitude. They take pictures and demand Social Security cards and a drivers license for Grandpa. Who knows where those are? Sure they were doing their job, just not the way I asked them.
A tender scene of farewell turned into a confusing interrogation. I answered some questions until it got out of hand. Here was an old man obviously at the end of an extended illness. He was in a hospital bed with a walker and all the stuff you get when you don’t get around. It seemed pretty straight forward, but they were going to use all their training to solve the case.
The mortuary guy called and asked if the police had come. I said they had. He hung up and called their supervisor, who radioed the cops. A minute after their call they packed up and left, case closed.
The calm lasted half an hour before the mortuary mini-van pulled up. Two guys in Matrix-black long coats came into the house, one with spider webs tattooed on his neck.
They came too early. We weren’t ready for things to change, ready for my old man to leave. I asked them to come back. The boss said a body has to transfer eight hours after death by law. I said “see you in eight hours.”
We lit candles for a wake of remembrance fit for a king. The woman who loved him, who stood by him, went the distance.
Grandpa had a wrist so big it took one and a half watch bands to reach around. He was the Commodore of the Marina del Rey yacht club in Los Angeles. Years back we took a cruise with the Hawaiian Princess and the Lady Washington. The two ships maneuvered in the open ocean to fire cannons at each other.
The captains took it seriously, buy not as seriously as Grandpa. He was ready with the boarding party to swing from one ship to the other. Luckily that wasn’t part of the program.
He took ill and didn’t know what to do. No one did. He had Parkinson’s. He had Supra nuclear palsy. He had Parkinsonian symptoms. You don’t want any of them.
Together we read about Christopher Reeves’ death from a massive infection. We read Bob Hopes obituary. It was probably wrong, but I told him they wouldn’t have died with the sort of caregiving we did. It’s never enough and we both knew it.
One mortician came back for Grandpa, the one without spider webs. We moved Grandpa from his bed to the gurney to the van.
From two days to live to five years later it feels too soon. From growing up in Michigan, to WWII Marines, to now, it’s too soon.”
In the caregiving world it’s either yes or no. It’s never too soon, or too late.
It just feels that way.