My grandad was lying in his hospital bed, eyes closed, tubes down his throat, shallow breathing, pale. Only 24 hours earlier, we had still been chatting. This seemed so surreal. He hadn’t been feeling well, so I had urged him to go to the hospital and get a blood count. I had taken him to the hospital in the morning on my way to work, and I was supposed to pick him back up later that day. When I arrived back at the hospital, a doctor came to see my grandad and me. He told us that they had found some irregularities and that he needed to stay the night to get some more tests run the next day. I can remember the look on my grandad’s face. He looked frightened, but he was still joking. I love him so so much. I will never forget those last days we spent together in hospital.
That same evening, quite late already, my grandma called. My grandad wanted me back in the hospital. That didn’t sound like him at all. I figured something serious must have happened, so I got in the car and drove. When I arrived in his hospital room, my grandad was fine. Or so it seemed. He talked to me, and I asked why he had wanted me there in the first place. Everything was fine. He asked me to stay – so I did. I found it odd, and I was a little annoyed too, because I had to get up really early the next day to go to work – but still.
Only half an hour later, he started to act weird. He started to say funny things that didn’t make any sense. He wanted to go home. Let’s go home. Get me home. He kept repeating those sentences over and over again. Getting out of his bed. I panicked. What was I supposed to do?! He also wanted to go to the toilet: let’s go to the bathroom, and then we go home. I rang for a nurse to come. She was quite annoyed and angry that as a visitor, I was still in the hospital that late at night. She put my grandad back into bed, shoved a bedpan underneath his buttocks and left us to it. He looked at me, tears in his eyes: I can’t go like that. He was such a proud, strong man, and this in itself felt humiliating to him. Now I tried to get him out of bed. Get him to the toilet. Allow him the dignity he deserved. At that point, he had become quite delirious.
In a dim hospital room, I tried to walk him to the toilet, but by the time I had pulled him to the edge of the bed, he wet himself. He was crying. I rang the bell once more. Please, we do need help. This time the nurse took me a bit more seriously: Is he not usually this confused and delirious? Far from it, he is the smartest, most discerning person I know. My grandad knows things before anyone else knows. He observes and comes to his own conclusions. He can read people like nobody else can. My grandad was trashing about, saying over and over again to get him home. Please take me home. I will always remember those last words. Take your loved ones home. Don’t leave them in hospitals or hospices to die. Just don’t. I have seen the fear in my grandad’s eyes, and all I wanted to do was take him home. I regret telling him to go in for a routine check. It might have been worse if he had become delirious at home. But he might just have gone to sleep and never woken up again, peacefully closing his eyes forever in his bed at home, where he was born and raised – had lived his life. But instead, he was wheeled away for emergency examination in the middle of the night, and I was left in that empty hospital room all by myself.
Take your loved ones home. Don’t leave them in hospitals or hospices to die.
Just don’t.Insight Number One – June 2008
You know when there has been loud noise or a fight and all of a sudden it’s very quiet – my ears were left ringing, and my head felt really light. What I remember from that night in the dimmly lit hospital room is: turn the fucking lights on. If there is an emergency: turn the lights on. Even if there is no emergency: turn the lights on. It makes you think straighter. It makes the bad seem not so bad. It takes some of the monsters away. Monsters don’t like the dark. Scary thoughts don’t either.
Leave the lights on. If it’s dark: Turn the lights on. Always turn the lights on.Insight Number Two – June 2008
But even the light, even the brightest sunshine, couldn’t have prevented what was about to happen next; – After what felt like an eternity, a stern-looking doctor entered the room. She briefly informed me that she was the doctor, that she had examined my grandad, that we knew that he had been suffering from lung cancer and that a metastasis in his head had ruptured and started bleeding. He wasn’t going to make it through the night. If there were any family members that I still wanted to call, then they should come to the hospital now, because by dawn he would have taken his last breath. And on that note, she left. I hadn’t known.
Cancer? Spread? I hadn’t known. I was 26. I hadn’t known. I wonder if he had known. I can only guess what had happened that night. Either he was so scared being in hospital all alone or he knew what was about to happen next. Intuition? An innate knowing that speaks to us when we are about to leave this planet? Does death touch your heart and whisper into your ear: It’s time to go. I don’t know. But I had been with him earlier that day when the doctor had told us that they were not sure yet why his blood tests were so bad and that they needed to take some more tests the next day. So how was he supposed to have known? How was I supposed to know? I guess doctors have to deliver a godzillion bad news per day. And I guess they need to keep an emotional distance to keep functioning in their jobs, but at that moment I couldn’t function anymore. My brain couldn’t function. But I was left to function. I had to. I called my grandma, telling her to get the neighbours to bring her to the hospital. And while I was waiting, my grandad was wheeled back into the hospital room. He was lying in his hospital bed, eyes closed, tubes down his throat, shallow breathing, pale. Only 24 hours earlier, we had still been chatting. This seemed so surreal.
My grandfather was supposed to die before dawn that very Monday morning, but he didn’t. His brain had stopped working, but his heart kept on beating. His heart that had been beating for his family, for my grandmother, for my mum and me. He had loved us. With all of his beautiful, strong, resilient heart. I’m very sure of that.
I remember the times I went fishing with him. It had all been so peaceful. And the times we had spent sitting around the fireplace in the garden, watching the sunset. We had never talked much. But I loved his calm presence. We never needed to talk – we just knew.
I kept pleading that we take my grandad home, allow him to pass away in our home like he had asked me to. We agreed to take him home on Thursday if he hadn’t died by then. Those four days and nights, my grandmother and I didn’t leave the hospital room. We stayed with him the entire time, taking turns sleeping on the narrow guest bed and holding his hands. I will always remember those hands. Resting so peacefully on those white hospital sheets. Those hands telling the stories of hard labour, of houses being built, of babies being held or carrying his daughter to the grave when she was only 29. I was singing songs to him, hoping he could still hear us. Hoping to comfort him. To make him feel loved. At one point in his life, he had been someone’s baby – my great-grandmother’s baby – and I was wondering what she would be feeling if she could see him helpless like this. I always wonder about that when I see people: All of us are someone’s baby. What would a loving parent have to say?
I do believe that those amongst us who are dying do still hear us. They are not gone yet. At one point, my grandmother was holding one of his hands, and I was holding the other and then all of a sudden we looked at each other. He had squeezed both our hands at the same time, he was going to wake up, he could hear us after all. I rushed to get a doctor all excitedly, but when he came and checked both his eyes for any movement, he confirmed that my grandad was braindead and that we should consider taking him off the oxygen machines that kept him artificially alive. Squeezing our hands had been his last farewell. His last physical effort in this lifetime. His last labour of love.
My grandmother didn’t want to take the decision. So future events were left up to me. I was 26. Twenty-six is just a number. To a ten-year-old, a twenty-six-year-old is an adult. A grown-up. A person who has his shit together and knows what to do. But now I’m 37, and I still feel like an eighteen-year-old. No matter your age, you are never prepared to take life-changing decisions. Especially not if it means altering someone else’s reality. – I pictured my grandad: proud and strong. Pipe in his mouth, shovel in his hands, a sly glimmer in his eyes, his Dalmatian by his side. My grandad knew what self-worth is. Self-esteem. The feeling that you know who you are to the very core of your being. He didn’t allow anyone to walk all over him. He didn’t take any shit from anyone. He was the most honest, most direct, but also most tenderhearted person I know. One can tell that I loved him, and I still do. And so did many a people. His funeral was an endless stream of people wanting to say goodbye to him. People kept coming and coming, honouring his lifelong integrity.
Bearing that picture in mind of integrity, of pride, of independence, I decided to allow the machines to be switched off and the tubes to be removed from his throat. If he had to die, he should be left to die in dignity; – Die the way he had lived. I know that this is a very controversial topic, but if one hasn’t gone through days like those, one cannot really judge. All our stories are different, and so are our emotions and decisions. The plan was to switch the machines off and take him home on Thursday to grant him his last wish and to allow him to die at home in peace. In the early morning hours on Thursday, he took his last breath and was gone for good. You know the saying that dying people only leave the planet when nobody is watching, well my grandfather had waited until I had fallen asleep doubled over his hospital bed with my head resting in his lap. I had woken up with a jolt, and I knew that he was gone.
After my grandfather’s death, I went back to work straight away. I had to. If I missed more lessons of my teacher training, I could lose my job. So I returned to the everyday grind. Some months later, my tutor took me aside after my practical exam, and he said: you are very resilient. Am I? I didn’t know what the word meant. Even after 7 years of studying English, I had never come across that word. At least not consciously. You are fortunate if you don’t know what it means. Your vocabulary is telling. I didn’t think I was resilient. I figured there had been nothing else left to do. It’s my students that kept me going. I had a reason to get up in the morning. They were so kind and so willing to learn, and I showed up for them. I showed up for my future. There is no use living in the past. One of my students asked me if I was still feeling sick because my eyes were all puffy from crying. I could barely speak, choking back the tears. I couldn’t reply. What was I supposed to say anyway? Lie to them? Tell them the truth about what I had just gone through? They were thinking I had had a bad flu. I couldn’t respond. The compassion in his eyes let me know though that he understood. He might not have known in detail, but one can know without knowing.
A few weeks later, I woke up in the middle of the night, and I had to throw up. It all came gushing out of my body: all the emotions, the hurt, the anger, the pain, the disgust, the disbelief, the hospital smell. All of what had been buried deep within; my body hurtled it all out. I was lying on the cold bathroom floor of my tiny apartment, sobbing, my body heaving with tears. I had had to hold it in for too long and now it was all being released. When I returned to work the next day, I remember a colleague’s snide comment, saying: oh, that was a quick recovery. I know what he was alluding to or implying: having a nice lie-in, right. Well, far from it. It wasn’t a quick recovery. I’m still recovering. I will always remember the grief, but I learned to share it. To talk about it. To express it. To allow my body to rest when it wants to release past pain, even if it is just for two hours. Bodies know so much if we just listened carefully.
And when it comes to resilience, I don’t know about that. Am I resilient? I love my life and I am always trying to be joyful, even in the face of everyday challenges. I used to hate that I am so serious. Mostly, I don’t get other people’s jokes and I don’t think that they are funny. I’ve always wanted to be more lighthearted and more easy-going; to put my brain aside for a bit and to just be. But quite recently, I have come to embrace my serious self. It is my core rationality within my overtly emotional self that has allowed me to weather the storms that I have had to face. My seriousness has allowed me to make sense of my deeply emotional experiences and to feel my emotions and express them instead of gilding them over with jokes.
So another thing I learned experiencing my grandfather’s death is that the things or character traits we might loathe most about ourselves are maybe the ones that keep us afloat; that help us to express our uniqueness and to help us make sense of the world surrounding us. I still don’t have all the answers as to why my grandfather had to leave us that day, and in such a way. The exact same date my mother had passed away 22 years before – Mother’s Day weekend. The exact same date. We will never have all the answers as to why things happen to us, but we can decide how to weave those events into the tapestry of our lives in order to create our unique, bold, joyful canvas, despite, or because of, the hurt we have gone through.