Sunday, July 04, 2010

My zeidy: assisted suicide and the meaning of life

What an ambitious title!!!  No way I can live up to that; sorry to let you down.

Still, I am thinking about parents, and zeidies, because of Batya’s post about her childrens’ memories of her own father’s old age and declining health.  Perhaps also because of a talk at our Shabbos lunch table today about assisted suicide. 

So you can see how I get started thinking about zeidies… like mine.

My own zeidy was felled by a stroke relatively young – maybe his late 60’s?  But he didn’t die, just lost one half of himself.  He wound up aphasic, in a wheelchair, for his last 15 years.  He watched us grow up, but couldn't tell us anything. 

It was not how he'd have wanted to be remembered - in life, he was a big, strong, independent, principled man.  In the nursing home, he was a mute or babbling fruit-eater (my bubby visited daily to peel fruit for him with a dumb disposable plastic knife) that we had to go and talk to on Sundays.

Now, assisted suicide is not the most cheery topic, but it was relevant for a few people at the table today.  Halacha (from what I understand) suggests that such a thing is antithetical to Jewish values.

Rabbi Avi Shafran suggests in this article (which I read some time ago) that society’s acceptance of assisted suicide is in part because we value only physical activity.  When a person is immobilized, we (here and now, in our society) tend to assume that person is not living in any meaningful way.

Now, I hate to say it, but a lot of us are going to end up there.  Coma, life support, vegetative states, a long, quiet descent… these are all relatively new phenomena in the medical world, and I suspect they are becoming more common.  Most of us don’t live lives of violence; we get things that linger and take our lives over the course of years, not in an instant.

So immobility – living trapped in broken-down bodies – is something that perhaps many of us are going to experience for some time.

Shafran writes that this phase of one’s life is hardly meaningless, but perhaps a time in which to “engage important matters — things like forgiveness, repentance, acceptance, commitment, love, G-d — perhaps the most momentous matters we will ever have considered.”  Well, all of those things plus watch Friends re-runs, when you can convince somebody (from within your immobilized body) to turn on the TV.

My zeidy was trapped in his broken-down body for a heck of a long time.  Fifteen years, wiping out most of my early memories of him as a big, strong, capable person.  Wiping out my memory of his speaking voice.  I do remember that he didn’t have an accent, but also that he talked “weird.”  I don’t remember why I thought it was weird. 

In my weird kid imagination, I ranked my grandparents according to their likelihood to die.  My bubby, my father’s mother, was first; she had very bad eyesight.  Then my mother’s father; he wore a hearing aid.   I hope this shows how young and healthy they actually were when I came along – glasses and a hearing aid were the worst of their problems!  They seemed ancient.

Next up was my mother’s mother.  Nothing wrong with her, but she was high-strung; maybe brittle.  And then… well, in the probably-never-to-die category, there was my zeidy.  I didn’t like him much; he didn’t feed me or even acknowledge me much, except for a few moments of silliness, like weird jerky driving, that mostly just frightened me.  But I knew he swam, he was strong,  he was made of better stuff; I grudgingly granted that he’d probably be the last to go.

And I just now realized:  he was.

But first, he had to spend 15 years dwindling.

I was maybe 11 when he had his stroke.  Not a baby; just a bit younger than Elisheva when my father died.  I’m sad to think that he did so much with her, for her, about her, for so much of her life and yet her memories will be fleeting and vague.  (“weird?”)

But even after the stroke, even in the midst of the gibberish he thought we could understand, he had one phrase left:  "oh, boy." 

Which is what he said the day we wheeled him over to see YM , his first great-grandson. 

"Oh, boy."

Did he wish the stroke had killed him instantly?  Or was that moment his shehechiyanu?

My brother always said it drove our zeidy crazy, having to sit mutely by in his wheelchair and witness the collapse of world communism, which was his greatest hope for the future of mankind.  Maybe.  Eli knew more about that stuff than I did… I just kind of said, “huh?”

I think we all, often, superimposed our own ideas on his silence, imagining moments he might be proud, or thoughtful, or discouraged; topics he might find interesting.  My father made us speak to him, tell him what was going on, anything at all.  (I mostly stuck to discussing my sisters, one of the few subjects we had in common at a time when they didn’t talk to him themselves much.)

But there were a few clear moments in the haze.  My cousin Jessica – a beautiful first and only baby for my zeidy’s baby, his youngest child and only girl.  My own son a couple of years later. 

Other moments were also clear, though less fun, like his frustration at our overly-long seder one year, for example.  I imagine just being able to roar his disapproval and demand to be taken home was a refreshing change from just sitting quietly like nursing-home furniture.  Frustration; tears.  We saw these, too, over the years.

Nobody would ask to wake up in that post-stroke nightmare, but in effect, I believe his strength before the stroke got him through it to the other side.  The other side was awful, and many of our memories of that time with him are awful as well.

In her post, Batya wrote that "the grandchildren have better memories" of the grandparents who died young and healthy.  But that’s not always the choice we’re given.  So I wonder:  is it better to meet your zeidy miserable at the end of a long life, and have only a few moments of real clarity… or never to have met him at all?

I know my answer:  I’m happy to have known my zeidy... and I have to believe he was happy as well for the opportunity to watch us grow up. 

There’s so much he would have told us.  But it didn’t all go unsaid.

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