My grandmother died this past weekend, at the age of 90. She had been suffering from Alzheimer’s for a long time, hiding it for the first five years, unable to for the last five. She has needed continuous care, in home, for the last few years; her caregiver has helped my grandfather bathe, toilet, dress, and feed Nana. The family has stepped in with regular visits most days of the week, mostly to keep my grandfather connected.
My mother, who has easily been the most generous in the care of her mother, says, “If my mother had known what was coming, she would have put a bullet in her brain. She would never have wanted people to do so much for her for so long.” I know what she means. My family is relatively affluent (or at least, my grandfather has the money he needs to pay for full time care, everyone in the family is employed, and both of my mother’s siblings are more than comfortable). Yet, we struggled with meeting her needs. My grandparents’s house is downtown; we’re all out in the suburbs. Every visit included a round trip 1.5-2 hours in Chicago traffic. Visits might include chatting with Grandpa, but they might also include changing multiple diapers for my grandmother, sometimes wiping her after a bowel movement. They always involved feeding her with a baby spoon and giving her a breathing treatment. After watching all of this, I honestly would rather die any other way. Cancer, spider bite, lightening, burnt at the stake, or a good old-fashioned car wreck: I would take any of it over ten years of Alzheimer’s.
Which is why I think it’s good that my grandmother didn’t know what was coming, why it’s good that none of us know what horrors lie ahead. As hard as it was to watch her suffer, as hard as it was to deal with the constant guilt over not being able to do enough, and as hard as it was to deal with the misplaced resentment over the logistical difficulties presented by the situation, I’m glad she went out the way God intended. What a terrifying legacy it would be, for this mighty, selfless, beautiful woman to say, “I kill because I care,” or “I’m better off dead,” or “It would be wrong of me to ask anyone to take care of me,” or “My only acceptable role here is as caregiver; I’d rather die than receive your care.” What a message to all of us to follow: give, but never take; never let them (even your family) see you sweat; God gave me Alzheimer’s, Glock gave me a choice.
If we knew the sum total of all the agony we would face in our lifetimes, I doubt many of us would be able to go on. If I knew now that I would have to bury one of my own children, I’m not sure how I would keep upright, or especially, be open to even having that child. Maybe I would fall subject to the same fallacy that the pro-aborts do when they say, “It’s better to have an abortion or use contraception than to have a child who is guaranteed to have an unhappy life.” The fallacy is thinking that there is any life out there that doesn’t contain Adam’s share of misery, that a life that is planned and goes the way we want is the only happy life, and all those other lives are examples of failure.
I think the only failed life is that which is closed to love. A failed life can include being hardhearted to the poor, closed to the vulnerability of romantic attachments, shut to the risks of friendship, and obstinately averse to receiving the love of others.
My grandmother’s diary records her demise, her writing, “What is happening to me? I can’t remember how to do things.” Maybe she did know what was coming; maybe she had the generosity to say yes to her life so that her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren would have the opportunity to see value in all human life, no matter how unexpected or mangled.