Tuesday, May 19
Nobody chooses how.
This probably isn't going to be any more fun for you to read than it was for me to write, and I'll tell you right now that there's nothing to be learned here, no greater life lesson that you can actually apply in your daily life, but all that said:
My granddad, Richard Clark Gillett Sr., had a fairly well-to-do upbringing in the Northeast; joined the Navy and came close to losing a leg, or perhaps more than that, hooking airplanes up to catapults on the deck of the USS Boxer; came home and attended two of the best universities in the country; assembled a distinguished career first in the federal government and later in the private sector; and raised five brilliant, highly accomplished children, the oldest of whom was my dad.
Sometime on Thursday, Granddad slipped while taking a walk and hit his head on a rock. He was unresponsive when they brought him to the hospital, life support was removed Thursday evening, and he died Friday morning.
I'd get pissed about it if I thought there was any point, but there's something that really seems unjust and undignified about a man with that kind of life résumé going out that way. Granddad deserved better than to have all those accomplishments culminate in Alzheimer's, slip, hit head on rock, die. Remember the part in "Grosse Pointe Blank" -- 'cause everything comes back to that movie, obviously -- where John Cusack's secretary tells him "We all have to go sometime, sir, but we can choose when," and he shoots back, "Nobody chooses when"? I think a more appropriate way of phrasing that would be to say nobody chooses how. That, I guess, would be the closest thing to a meaningful lesson that I've brought out of all this, but it doesn't add up to much.
In Granddad's case, the Alzheimer's diagnosis he got a few years back was a particularly cruel one, because in his family -- both the generations that came before him and, arguably, the generations that came after -- your mind, your intellect, were always the most important thing. Looks didn't matter, money didn't even matter that much except as an expression of how smart you were and how much you'd been able to profit from it. Granddad's dad was an executive at some fairly high level in the General Electric hierarchy, and he'd spun his electrical-engineering expertise into dozens of patents; Granddad attended the best schools and read everything he could get his hands on, all the better to display some mastery of history or art or politics or whatever the topic of conversation happened to be; all five of his kids went on to excellent colleges and have forged professional careers that anyone would be lucky to have. That ability to use one's mind, more than anything else, was what Granddad prized, and that, more than anything else, was what was taken away from him the last few years of his life.
I've never spent that much time or energy being afraid of dying, but the last few days brought home to me just how afraid I am of everything that leads up to that. I'm afraid of losing my ability to think clearly. I'm afraid of losing my ability to see or hear. I'm afraid of not being able to drive, of needing someone to help me around. I'm afraid of losing control of my bladder or my bowels. I'm even afraid of the silly, superficial shit, like starting to sag, or getting a spare tire, or being less attractive to women, or having women my own age become less attractive to me. The sheer inevitability of death means there's little point in getting worked up about it, but the stuff leading up to it, well, that's a crapshoot, and if a guy like my grandfather can get laid low the way he did, how can I be sure of the way I'm going to go out?
I guess the best that I, or that any of us, can hope for is that we'll be remembered not for the way we died but for the way we lived, and maybe that's the positive that Granddad's legacy will take away from all this. And it doesn't have to be anything big -- maybe it's just a story about the Fiat 1200 roadster he drove way back when, or marveling at the collection of derby caps he'd amassed on the hat rack just inside the front door. Or maybe it's the fact that his favorite waitress at the Denny's in Keyser, West Virginia, remembered him when a dozen of us trudged in for breakfast on Sunday morning and that when one of my aunts said "Bring me what my dad always had," she knew exactly what it was.
Granddad deserved better than to go out the way he did, and just because there's nothing I can do about it doesn't mean I'm not going to be frustrated about that for a long time. But maybe it's up to us to make sure that our memories are the place where he gets what he truly earned.
ADDED: Baby sis, as has become typical, puts me to shame. (Someday you're all going to figure out that she's much smarter and a way better writer than I am, at which point this blog will probably fade, as Mike Tyson once so eloquently said, into Bolivian. But until then . . . )