A Thanksgiving Goodbye

How do you prepare for someone to come to the end of their life?

Thoughout the fall, and leading up to our Thanksgiving trip to Florida, where I would see my mom, stepdad and my grandfather, I kept hearing health updates about my grandfather. In addition to perpetual headaches and constant nausea, my grandfather has emphysema. After a recent trip to the doctor, my mom was informed that this, or something else respiratory-related would be the cause of his death. It would probably not be soon, but it could be. It could be six months or more. The doctor told her that her father has a very strong heart, and that is why he has lived past his 93rd birthday. My grandmother was one of six sisters, and of the sisters and their spouses, my grandfather is the only one left.

I was glad that we would get the chance to visit with Nat on the Thanksgiving holiday because it would give me the opportunity to say good-bye. 18 years ago I said goodbye to his wife, my grandmother, as I left to go back to school. She passed away during my 14-hour drive back to college. My last conversation with her, one more comment about my needing a haircut, included a goodbye that was truly a goodbye. I prepared myself for a similar experience again.

About 2 weeks ago my grandfather need to leave his apartment in an assisted living community due to his continually falling down. After about a week in the hospital, my mom checked him into a nursing home. He could no longer walk. He could no longer feed himself. He needed help.

I thought I was prepared for seeing him, but I wasn’t. The first night we arrived in Florida, we stopped by the nursing home. He was sleeping in his room. He looked very old. His skin looked like parchment stretched across his skull and he was lying very still. I wasn’t even sure that he was still alive. He had also lost a lot of weight. The only way to describe him was that he looked old.

We came back the next day to visit with him and he was awake and in therapy. Over the next several days, we saw him at least once per day. His degrees of lucidness changed drastically. He always seemed to know us, including the kids, but at times his words, which were slow in coming, just didn’t make any sense.

He was rushed to the hospital the day before Thanksgiving because the nursing home staff was concerned about the tremors and twitches of his arms and head. They had gotten progressively worse during the day. The ER doctor found no medical cause for these, but admitted him to the hospital due to dehydration. We visited him in his hospital room after Thanksgiving dinner and took our traditional family picture. We gathered around his hospital bed and told jokes and had a good time. This was the best he was during our entire trip.

I have not posted the picture because it is too heartbreaking. We are all smiling and Nat is doing his best to smile, but it just doesn’t come across in the photo.

We visited him again when he came back to the nursing home and it was pretty disturbing. He seemed very out of it. The kids did not seem to understand completely what was going on, although, based on his quietness and somber attitude, I’m pretty sure that Peter, like the rest of us, understood that Nat would die in this place. Maybe not soon, but it was coming.

I said my last goodbye to a man who answered to my grandfather’s name, but he was not my Grandpa Nat. He was a very old man in a wheelchair who had trouble speaking and even more trouble understanding what was going on around him. I am waiting for the phone call that could come anytime telling me that this man has followed my grandfather and moved on.

Jeffrey L Cohen

Jeffrey L Cohen