Here are some thoughts on a visit to my grandfather in Santa Rosa, California, from February 7-13. As mentioned in an earlier post, I had no cell phone during this visit, so there aren’t any pictures. Sorry.
When I visited my grandfather in Santa Rosa, he was on the cusp of turning 90. He seemed to take this information three times harder than my friends who’ve reached 30. Each day during my visit, he would express disbelief at having managed to live that long.
One thing I’ve noticed from visiting him over the years is that death is a frequent topic of conversation. While most of us are reluctant to talk of either our own deaths or those of others, this isn’t the case with many elderly people.
“Everyone in this movie is dead.”
These words were spoken by my grandfather while watching White Christmas on TV about ten years ago. In the middle of the movie, à propos of nothing, he gave a long sigh and lamented the fact that every actor in the film had passed away.
For many of the elderly, death is one of their few remaining companions. Imagine outliving all of your friends, high school classmates, colleagues, and spouses. Add to that all of the politicians you’ve voted for, musicians you’ve enjoyed, and film stars you’ve admired. What else is left to talk about other than stories of the past and the inevitable end of your own life?
Those of us with living friends, family, and lovers struggle to speak of or countenance death. With so much living to do, it’s tough to believe that death can come at any time. For the elderly, who have seen everyone in their lives die before them, the only question is when their own time will come.
Predicting the Future
This lack of a filter when dealing with death also applies to most other subjects, at least where my grandfather is concerned. We went out for lunch and dinner each night of my visit, and every meal was full of life stories. I’d already heard most of them, but I’ve come to expect this when I visit him. My enjoyment comes from detecting the subtle nuances of each retelling, much like listening to a familiar symphony being performed again.
If you know a symphony well enough, you can anticipate the challenging moments in a new performance. With my grandpa, I felt like the parent of a young child waiting for the moment when he would say something horribly offensive in public. That mix of terror and adrenaline is much of the fun of spending time with Grandpa
One story he tells involves eating soup in a San Francisco restaurant in the 1950s. This restaurant wanted to be a men-only joint, so if a woman walked in, the bartender would turn on a red swearing light. This cued the restaurant patrons to be as crude as possible until the woman decided to leave.
As my grandpa told this story, we were sitting in a fish and chips shop right next to a young girl and her parents. My grandpa spoke loud enough that they could hear the whole story, and they laughed when he mentioned the swearing light.
At this point, my grandpa usually goes on to describe the bartender of the restaurant — the same man who operated the swearing light. Whenever my grandpa would eat at the restaurant, he would ask the bartender what kind of soup they were serving that day.
The bartender’s reply was always, “Good fuckin’ soup.”
When my grandpa started in on this part of the story within easy earshot of the child, I panicked. I did everything I could to steer him away from the plot and ask questions of redirection. To my great relief, he diverged at the last second.
There were other instances where he didn’t.
The Great Airport in the Sky
With death being such a frequent subject, I’ve heard a few interesting euphemisms for it. My grandfather worked for United Airlines from 1946 until he retired; he jokes that his career began before they had planes. When referencing his own death, he speaks of going off to the “great airport in the sky.” It’s a way to make dying seem like natural step to take — a continuation of his life on this planet.
A distant Irish relative gave me another euphemism during my trip. A Christmas card she had sent my grandpa had been returned to her; the address she had wasn’t current. While I was in the room, he got a phone call from her wondering if he had “gone on to his great reward.” Especially coming from an Irish relative, this seemed to be a very positive look at what death might be.
I can only take away the idea that a healthy attitude about death is critical to living well. This seems even more true in agriculture. Death is frequent in farm life. Plants are harvested and die each year. Animals are butchered. Hens are taken by hawks and foxes. When they can no longer lay eggs, they’re turned into soup.
This life cycle is what keeps the world moving forward. Birth leads to aging, which leads to death. To complete the cycle, death must lead to something: rebirth, both physically and spiritually. It’s the energy that produces new life. This is as true in farming as it is in all of nature.
Death is not the only food for new life. Stories, too, can live on and power a new generation. Without new sources of energy, neither life nor stories can sustain. By repeating their stories time and again, the elderly are able to keep their knowledge and memories alive until they can be retold by someone else. If I know all of my grandfather’s stories front to back, then his perspective on life becomes energy for my own. This is the life cycle coming full circle.
Sitting in San Francisco
On February 13, I had an afternoon in San Francisco to go exploring before I had to catch the train to Portland. I took BART into downtown and sat on the step of Union Square. It was 4:30pm, and the sun had just dipped below the skyline to my right.
I watched a woman in her 60s walk with a woman in her 80s. The older woman held onto the back of her wheelchair for support, and the younger woman held her arm. When the two of them reached one end of the plaza, they turned around and started back. Their slow pace belied the intense focus that went into every single step.
Nearby, a young father walked with his one-year-old son. The boy’s father held him by the arms, and they took their time crossing back and forth across the square. It was easy to see the focus of the young boy as he tried to keep one foot in front of the other.
It struck me that old age is, in many ways, a second childhood. Aging then becomes a process of transition between a child who can make mistakes without consequences into someone whose accumulated wisdom prevents most mistakes. When a young child falls down, nothing bad happens. His extra padding and physical structure are designed to withstand his mistakes. The older you get, the wiser you become — and the less you can afford to make errors.
I’ve watched my friend Andrew as he helps his 18-month-old son put on shoes, get strapped into the car, clean himself, and eat dinner. I spent my week with my grandfather helping him put on his shoes, get into his wheelchair, slide from the wheelchair into the car, and get to the dinner table. It can be hard to tell the difference between the things Andrew and I do for those we love. What differentiates my grandfather from Andrew’s son, however, are the stories I receive from my grandpa. What he’s done in his life can now inform the things that I do in mine.
When your physical and mental skills begin to diminish at a certain age, you might think that you’ve lost all that you’ve gained since you were a child. In many ways, that’s just part of the cycle. You start and end with nothing. With a healthy understanding of death, you can see how your life’s experiences are contained in their own unending life cycle. Even though your body may become food for the planet, your life can become food for those who follow.