June 13th, 2011

Fear of death

Fourteen days ago, I began preparing for a vacation to Idaho, where my grandmother lives and where, for two weeks every year, I wish I lived.

Thirteen days ago, my mother told me that my grandmother wasn’t doing very well. She was very sick. She sounded awful.

Twelve days ago, I concluded that I was no longer going on vacation. I was travelling to say goodbye to my grandmother.

I was wrong. Thankfully, blessedly wrong.

1.

In January 2006, my family – mother, brother, Kerrie and me – flew to Idaho to spend a surprise post-Christmas week with my grandfather. We knew why we were really going, though: my grandfather had lung cancer, which had spread into his brain. We were travelling to spend time with him before he was gone.

This came just five months after Kerrie and I had made the same trip – a vacation this time. At that time, the cancer was still in its infancy, and my grandfather was actively going through treatment, his nurses confident in his recovery, my family positive that we’d make it through the ordeal.

The shift from summer to winter saw my grandfather grow worse. Where he was once full of life – sick, pained, but still in good spirits – he was now tired and weak. We celebrated the holiday. We hung tight as he became sicker, his lucidness beginning to wane from day to day, and we hoped for a miracle.

A week later, he was gone.

2.

I have never been one to dwell on death. I know that my time will come when my time comes, that there is little I can do to stop the inevitability of death, and all I can do is hope that it comes much later than sooner. That doesn’t change one simple fact, though: I’m scared of it.

So when my grandmother went in for testing, I wasn’t ready to admit it. When that lump appeared, I wasn’t ready to acknowledge it. When that diagnosis came back – that it had been removed, and we’re all just waiting to make sure it worked, and that she should be alright but we really don’t know – I wasn’t comfortable.

The uncertainty was awful.

And then, she got sick. Wouldn’t leave her chair. Ran out of energy after just a few hours.

Suddenly, everything became so urgent. Suddenly, I found myself dwelling on death.

3.

Turns out, my grandmother is going to be okay. As far as we know, right now.

Over this last week, we saw my grandmother’s color return. She didn’t leave the house except to get tests and results, but those results were positive. She still sat in her bedroom, but so did we. And at times, we didn’t. At times, we convened around the dining room table. Like we always have. Like we always will.

She was still tired, but she was there. THERE. That’s all she needed, too: to be there, with us, cracking the same jokes, living the same life, bringing us together as a family as she’s always done, even when the family didn’t want to be brought together at all.

I pulled out of the driveway without tears. Not because I fought them back, but because I knew everything was going to be okay.

As far as we know. Right now.

4.

My grandfather never really left us, it seems. His ashes, encased in a beautiful wooden urn with a burned-in image of the Tetons, still sit on my grandmother’s china cabinet next to the ashes of his dog, Darby. She’s been unable to bury either box. They simply mean too much.

He never really left us in the spiritual sense, as well. His stories still live on and his presence still surrounds the valley. The small engine shop he owned in Jackson – now known simply as the last location of a failed art gallery – still features the same antique gas pump as a decade ago. The two houses he built for himself and my grandmother – one on each side of the Teton pass – still stand as reminders of his skill.

And his memory lives on, expanding as we drive through the valley, suffocating my fear of death, helping me understand that, as hippie-dippy as it sounds, we all live on in those we’ve influenced, and that there’s no point in focusing on death.

Death is simply the point where life ends. And up until that point, life is life. Life is only life.

After that point, life is the only thing we remember.

5.

We don’t go to those who are dying to say goodbye, because goodbye doesn’t need to be said face-to-face. Instead, we go to celebrate life. We go to spend time with those we love, regardless of the outcome.

This past week, it turns out, I didn’t say goodbye to my grandmother. Quite the opposite, actually. I spent a week wondering how I had jumped the gun, how I had assumed the end was near when the end most certainly isn’t near and I was a damned fool to believe that the end even mattered.

My grandmother may have twenty more years in her. Or not. We don’t know.

No one knows.

We do know that she’s getting better. That she has a very curable form of cancer, and that she could be healthy in no time.

That, as long as she’s living in the valley that raised her – a valley that she, in turn, has helped shape – she’s alive, and we can’t focus on anything but being alive, because there simply isn’t anything else.

Fear of death be damned.


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