Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Buddhist Bell

September 03, 2007

Today is Labor Day. My regular AM talk shows won't be live on this holiday. Except for Dennis Prager. Dennis makes a point of working on most holidays throughout the year. It's more of a feat than it sounds, really. Performers who get behind a microphone every day for a living are doing something that rare and few people can achieve successfully: they present a consistent mental attitude EVERY day, on cue, without fail. Can you imagine doing that? How often is it that you come to work with a less-than-positive attitude? How about occasionally being mentally distracted while you go about your workday? It happens, doesn't it? It's understandable, too. We're only human, and it's next to impossible to come in 5 days a week to our workplace and be the exact same person, day in and day out, year round. And I'm not even mentioning the added pressure of being a performer on a stage in front of thousands or millions. Could you open your mouth and have every syllable scrutinized for 3 or 4 hours a day without occasionally sounding like you're running out of things to say? Do you have a mastery of facts, and enough well-rounded knowledge to speak in an entertaining fashion without missing a beat for hours on end?

Few of us do. And that's why I say that these guys on the airwaves deserve a break when they can take one. Those of us who enjoy their shows can almost immediately tell when we're listening to a recycled broadcast. For many of us who don't like to listen to reruns, we're left with little alternative to occupy our minds while we go about our day.

That's not the case for me this Labor Day, though. My grandfather is dying. He's upstairs right now, in his bed, struggling to draw his next breath. My morning started with my grandmother's voice piercing the stillness of my sleep, as she yelled into the intercom we installed a few years ago. I hopped out of bed immediately after responding back to her, and then hustled outside to climb the stairs to their front door. I live in their hurricane room downstairs, a 12 x 12, with my dog Phoebe.

As I scaled the stairs, I barely had time to anticipate what I would find when I got there. All I could think about was my poor grandmother's state of mind. She sounded awful on the speaker. I was roused from a sleep, so it all was a cloudy mix of fear, panic, and sorrow. When I got there, she was wide-eyed and frantic. He was in bed, reaching upwards into thin air, with a look of someone who was submerged in the water, trying to surface to the top. "I'm OK", he was saying, with a dazed, far-away look in his eyes. My grandmother was trying to catch her breath, explaining to me that he was slipping away, unable to breathe when she called me. She had apparently startled him back to consciousness when she screamed for me into the intercom by his bedside.

The EMT people called within the minute after I was there with them. Granny had mashed his 'life alert' button that he wears on his wrist amidst the whole ordeal. They were calling to see if they needed to send a rescue unit to our house. She was nervous on the phone to them, but told them it wasn't necessary to send one out at this time. My grandfather kept saying, "I'm OK, I'm ok", in an effort to keep her from sending them out to get him.

He's a proud man who doesn't like for people to make a fuss over them. At 85, he's well outlived his expectation for at least 10 years, by now. He's been on oxygen for 8 years, has heart disease and emphysema, and was an Army infantry soldier for 31 years. He smoked unfiltered cigarettes for 40 years, a pipe for ten years after that. Between the stresses that are inflicted on a body from infantry training for thirty-one years, and all of the smoking with heart disease, it's obvious that the only reason he's still with us is because of Granny's constant care and feeding of him. She tries not to take any credit for it, saying that he's held on this long because he doesn't want her to be left alone. And that's true, too.

I stood around and tried to ensure that this was indeed a false alarm. After it became obvious that my grandfather was conscious and somewhat cognizant, I tried to ease myself away from the room, not wanting to alarm my proud grandfather or embarrass him. We men are like that, and I can feel it from Poppaw that he's still a proud Indian, not wanting to admit weakness or that he needs others to do the simplest of things for him. I turned my attention to my grandmother, who was easing out of the bedroom with me, telling me of his symptoms just before she called for me, keeping a furtive eye back towards the bedroom the entire time.

The conditions and details are grave, and I can't bring myself to write them out at this point. Let's just say that the doctors have diagnosed him as of Thursday as being in the "end-stage". The end for him is near. I thank God that it is at least somewhat peaceful for him, and that he's not in some sterile hospital room, being attended by nurses he doesn't know. My grandmother warns me that it still may come to that, but at this point we're not so sure. He is pretty immobilized in his bed after not sleeping too well last night. For the past week, he has been in his recliner, unable to make it into his bedroom at night. The fact that he made it to the bedroom seems almost ominous, being in a horizontal state for perhaps the last and final time.

I went to the Winn-Dixie down the road to get Granny some food for lunch. She didn't ask me to do it, but I know she's too petrified to leave the house at this point. When I asked her what she wanted to eat, she grabbed her stomach and made a gesture to say that she didn't feel like eating. I said, "I know, Granny, but I'll get something that you can put back in the fridge to eat later if you can't finish it." After saying that she'd made some meatloaf yesterday that didn't turn out that well, I said, "Granny, I'm going down to the store anyway, so I'm gonna get you something from the deli—fried chicken, roast beef, or something." She told me that her and Poppaw like the chicken tenders they make there.

When I got back home, she seemed glad that I'd made the trip. Poppaw was awake, and almost lucid. I went in to talk to him briefly. I could tell that he wanted to say something to me as soon as I entered his room. I tried my best to relax, and to lean against his dresser, as if it was just any old day. What was it he was going to say to me? Was he going to have an awkward talk about how he's dying, right in front of me? Was he going to say the things one thinks might be said just before we pass? I listened intently as he asked me for some peppermint hard candy. "Sure, Poppaw", I said.

I got right back into the car and drove back down the road to Winn-Dixie. Peppermint candy. In a way, I was somewhat calmed by this request. Kinda Zen. With all of the obvious things in the air at this moment: tension, fear, panic…and my dying grandfather just wants some simple candy. I hope it's this way for me when I'm about to go. He's a model for me. Always has been. His precarious health is the reason I moved down here almost three years ago. It is now time to be there for both Granny and Poppaw.

I sat with my Granny in the living room as she ate one of the chicken tenders. I listened intently as she ran through all of her worries, nearing tears all the time. I tried to remain strong for her sake. "Granny, don't worry about everything that's about to come—I'll be here to help with the house, the paperwork, and everything else. You just need to watch out for your health, and don't worry about more than you need to right now." My attempts to reassure her were only mildly calming for her. She's a sharp woman, and has waited on my Poppaw all of his life. It's instinctual for her to be a chronic worrier, especially with his bad health for the past 10 years.

"You know, Granny, his life has been a blessing because of you. He wouldn't have made it anywhere near this long without you taking such good care of him." She tried to deflect my sentiments, but she and everyone in the family knows it's true. "I just don't think I can live here, in this house, if he…" she says as she begins to cry. "I know, Granny. There's no reason why you'd have to. Momma has plenty of room back in Virginia, and so does Aunt Erlene in North Carolina, and you could easily divide your time between both…"

Just about that time, we hear a little 'tinkle-tinkle-tinkle.' I looked at her with a quizzical look. She stopped eating, and a look of purpose quickly came across her face. "That's your Poppaw. He must be awake. That's his Buddhist temple bell I told him to ring if he needed to go to the bathroom."

No comments: