When I was 16, I received my first lesson in human compassion.
I was in my junior year of high school and campaigning for a position in student government when it happened. I got home from school one day and found my father waiting for me. He told me it was time to drive to Corvallis. For what, I already knew.
My father was silent the whole drive, not unusual for him, but with a look altogether different from his normal stare of indifference towards the road. His eyes were seeking for something with desperation, and his shoulders were drawn up, accentuating the feeling of anxiety that permeated the car. It was to become a theme over the next few days.
The trip was one we had made countless times before, the destination always being my aunt and uncle’s house in Philomath. But this time that changed. We were headed to the Corvallis Good Samaritan Hospital, where my grandmother lay in a bed, comatose, with her four children and two grandchildren rushing from all over the Pacific Northwest to be by her side.
She had been in Philomath for a year or two. Her health had deteriorated to the point where she needed 24-hour care, and the only means to that end was my retired uncle Wes (related to me through marriage), who could provide the necessary care.
Before that, the majority of the responsibility had been mine. As my father was single, I would stay with her after school, her watching me when I was young, and then me watching her when I got older. It was an arrangement we had had all my life.
She was more often than not my baby sitter when my parents were still together, and I spent many an hour listening to her tell me stories about her childhood in Depression-era Tennessee and my father’s childhood in the ’60s and ’70s. We also discussed death quite a bit. My maternal grandparents lived in Iran (and still do), so my contact with them had been all but nonexistent; my paternal grandfather, her husband, died when my father was 13, so she was my only regular contact with someone facing the winter of one’s years.
She had grown up in a strict southern Baptist family, and though she walked away from her oppressive father and life on her 18th birthday, she still held basic Christian values.
But this isn’t about religion. It’s about compassion.
In our discussions, she always conveyed to me that she didn’t want to linger at the end of her life. She believed in the afterlife and Jesus and God’s heaven and all that muck, and was very adamant about it. She also had strong reservations about science and medical technology and abhorred the idea of being kept alive by a machine.
When my father and I walked into her room at Good Sam, I saw that her worst fear had become a reality. The toll from 60-some-odd years of smoking was finally being paid, and as a result of her crippled lungs, she was hooked up to a respirator.
We were the last to arrive and joined the rest of our family in the semicircle surrounding her bed, some of us taking turns holding her hand and praying for her to come out of her sleep. At one point she did, but only long enough to mumble some words about her mother being in the room and for those of us who actually were to get a look at her glazed white eyes.
After that she fell back even deeper into the comatose state, with her breathing slowing down and her body becoming limp. I stayed in the room a little longer, then joined my uncle Wes for a much-needed cigarette.
When we returned, the situation had worsened. Her pulse had begun to slow down, and the mood in the room descended further down until the most emotional members of the family began sobbing and praying louder. Her doctor poked his head in the room, and my father, his brother Wes and I joined him in the hallway for an appraisal of the situation.
The doc informed us that the chances of her regaining consciousness were somewhere south of highly unlikely, but that she could be kept alive for weeks by machines if need be and the family wished to do so. The doc discussed the options in detail with us, and afterward, my father and his brother had both left our circle to regain their composure and join the group inside her room.
None of the family in the room was in a state of emotional stability, and instead of deciding on a plan of action, conversation went by the wayside. Over the next few hours, pairs of us would go for food or drink or smoke and talk about what should be done, but with no consensus ever reached.
Eventually the doc came back into the room, and the only family members to join him in the hall were Wes and I. One of the options the doctor offered earlier was to increase the morphine drip my grandmother was receiving to help speed along the process of dying. Having been her last two caretakers, my uncle and I discussed it, and knowing her wishes had never changed and only had become more fastidious, gave the doctor the order. The next morning, back in Beaverton, my father and I received a call at 4 a.m. that she had passed, silently, peacefully and quickly; just as she wanted.
Why have I related this insignificant piece of my past with you? Because in Florida there is a similar situation playing out right now, only the subject in the bed is younger, the family is harshly and publicly divided (parents vs. husband), and Gov.Jeb Bush is weighing his options, having already publicly supported the portion of the family fighting to keep their loved one alive. It’s just another chapter in the battle over the death-with-dignity concept that has been so divisive in the last decade and will continue to be, even in my family.
It is now Wes’s turn in the bed. Right before school started, while taking a break from a beach house remodeling project, my father and I had a conversation about what had happened with my grandmother and what could happen now with Wes. Shaking his head and looking out at the ocean, he called Wes and me “cold-hearted sons of bitches without compassion.” He said it half jokingly, but the scorn felt by everyone outside the decision at the time (and to this day) was present in his tone.
“Fuck you” was my reply. “That decision was one of the hardest of my life. Who is it that really lacks compassion – he who puts aside his personal feelings for the sake of the others, or he who puts aside others’ feelings for the sake of his own?”
He thought about it for a moment and then returned to the project that we were working on, hopefully having learned a little something about compassion.