Watching my grandfather's body slowly shut down, I knew it was for the best. He had long since lost the battle for a quality life. But, it was still difficult to watch his breathing become slower and more labored. I finally gave up close scrutiny of the various machines attached to his body. The warning beeps of the machines were a dull echo no longer to be heeded, instead of calls for increased vigilance as they had been in previous months. I held my mother's hand. We cried. And silently, we said our goodbyes.
Like in the movies, the steady monotone of the machines let us know when he died.
My grandfather didn't have cancer, or heart disease, or any other illness that we knew would take him sometime soon. At 84, he was an active, alert retiree who ran his own errands, called us every day and kept track of what we were doing. Just a few weeks earlier, we had been heatedly arguing about sports and politics at a restaurant while he simultaneously did the old-man flirt with the waitress.
Then he was struck by a car while walking in the parking lot of his retirement home.
At first, the accident seemed so trivial. The car barely nudged him. How could it cause much damage to someone in good health? At first, we thought he would just recover. He hit his head hard, but the doctors thought he would be okay. They did reconstructive surgery on his nose so he would still look good for the ladies at the retirement home. But he never left a hospital bed again -- from the time he was admitted to the ER until his death more than three months later.
Before the accident, our major concerns were about failing eyesight, diabetes and dentures. Living wills, organ failure and brain damage never entered the picture. When the doctor mentioned these things we were unprepared -- which turned into agonizing suffering for my grandfather and for the rest of us.
I don't know what was worse: watching my grandfather become incapacitated and dependent on machines for breathing and eating, or conversations with my mother about who would ask him what his final wishes were. Eventually, decisions were made by the slow elimination of choices. My mother and I were too emotional to make quality decisions with any sense of perspective.
Dignity and quality of life lost out to poor preparation and a legal-medical establishment ill-designed to uphold those values. My grandfather was always going to die. I regret that he did not die well -- and that I was not in a position to help him do so.
Marc-Paul Johnsen is a freelance writer and a master's candidate at a graduate theological school.
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