This personal ambivalence reflects a more general ambivalence about my grandmother's condition. Now that she is more alert, she is more aware of where she is and who she has become. She is at that point of inflection captured in Flowers for Algernon where Charly knows he's not as smart as he used to be, but isn't yet dumb enough to not know he once was smart. Personally, I feel grateful that my grandmother emerges, now and then, from her fog. But is it really better for her?
Here is some of a conversation I had with her today. I've unintentionally paraphrased a little, but here is my best effort at memory.
Her: At first, it was okay, but then everything was on my shoulders. I didn't like it. But I went along with, with....
Me: the plan?
Her: The plan. I went along with the plan... [pause of thirty seconds, closes eyes] But the trouble is now there is no plan.
Me: Not everything goes according to plan.
Her: You're right! Not everything goes according to plan. [pause of thirty seconds, closes eyes] The trouble is, I need a plan. It keeps you going. [points to knees, seems to chuckle sarcastically] This is my plan.
Me: Sometimes there is a plan but we forget what it is. The plan is to enjoy moments and look forward to good ones. So the plan now is, [my sister and her son] come in two weeks. But sometimes we forget the plan.
Her: You forgot the plan?
Me: No, you forget, I forget, the point is that we forget the plan, and so we have to trust.
[pause, and some unrelated conversation. The next part took place in Hebrew, perhaps because my grandmother didn't want the nurse to hear?]
Her: Eineni rotza lishkoach (I don't want to forget.)
Me: Af echad lo rotzeh lishkoach. Az mah la'asot? When we forget the plan, we have to just think hinei el yeshuati eftach v'lo efchad. (No one wants to forget. So what can we do about it? When we forget the plan, we have to just think ‘Behold, God is my salvation, I will trust and not fear.') We can only trust.
On paper, this conversation looks too coherent. It wasn't that way in person. My grandmother would drift off mid-sentence, would grope for words, and would often seem to be fully under the sway of her dementia. Most of the people around her don't move slowly enough to even let her express her thoughts, and to stay with her, you have to think imaginatively, literarily, like a crossword puzzle where only half the clues have solutions. To tell the truth, I'm still not sure she was really talking about the ‘big issues' that I thought she was talking about, or whether I was reading all of that in. I know I wanted her to be having a meaningful conversation. I wanted our time together to be different from her time with the nurse or my mother, and wanted to feel a connection, having come all the way from New York. So I might've just read it in. I do know that within five minutes, she had forgotten the conversation even happened – when the nurse said she heard us speaking another language, my grandmother had no recollection.
Euthanasia is the constant subtext, always unspoken, of this phase of my grandmother's life. She has, on several occasions, told my mother to "do something." And today, she told me that "you shouldn't allow this to happen." But she is never unambiguous, and never more explicit. And I am certain that we would never take her life even if asked. Dignified death seems like one of those aspects of life, like drug use or the defiance of sexual boundaries, that are, to me, obviously true, but are beyond the parameters of normalcy and thus consigned only to the weird. I know that I would rather be dead than in my grandmother's condition, and I don't mean that in a dramatic way. I have admiration for those who, like Admiral Nimitz just a few years ago, plan their deaths in a dignified and orderly way. (Nimitz actually had files prepared, and killed himself and his wife on January 2, in order to make an additional tax-free gift to his children before dying.) And I know that in other countries, euthanasia is either legal or (as in France right now) a hot political battle. But that is me, and them. Not "us."
I should be a better grandson. I should come more often, instead of once every three months. But then again, when she forgets my visit within a day or two, what am I providing her? What is the point of this existence? Merely to uphold our antiquated notions of the value of human life? I believe that, with mindfulness, every moment of life can be sacred. But what about when the mind has become damaged, and cannot remember, cannot, in a fundamental way, be mind-ful? "There is nothing there," my grandmother said, and from the context it seemed to me she was referring to her mind, now stripped of memory, personality, and control. My grandmother doesn't watch TV, but I almost wish she would.
One of the last things she said to me today was "I feel pity on you." I asked why. She answered, "Because you come, and this is such an outstanding place. And this is the window. It lets everything in, and lets everything out. But they don't give you any–"
Then the nurse came in.
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