The indignity of aging

It's two in the morning, and I'm having a slumber party in a hospital room with Grandpa and Melvin. I am wedged between Grandpa's bed and the sink, suspended between two chairs made of vinyl, metal and right angles. I have a blanket, but no pillow. I am wearing the same clothes I put on when I woke up this morning, before I knew any of this would be happening. Had I known I'd be sleeping like this, I'd have worn different pants.

If I'd have been around during Grandpa's past hospitalizations, I'd have known this is how I'd end up spending the night. There are no posted visiting hours on this floor, but I assumed I'd head home around 11 or so, after Grandpa takes his last breathing treatment and his sleeping pill kicks in. Grandpa swears by Ambien (Zolpidem), by the way, and not just when he's in the hospital. He made me confirm with the doctor, the nurse and the nurse's aid, who had absolutely no say in the matter, that they were going to let him have his Ambien. When the nurse finally brought it, he hadn't yet received his last breathing treatment, so he told her he'd take it later. She looked at me sideways, remembered my persistent inquiries about the Ambien, then pocketed the pill. "I'll bring this back later, then." Should I be concerned or offended that she thinks I look like the kind of sketchy fuck that would scam medication from his bed-ridden grandfather? At any rate, my plan was to leave when the Ambien tagged in to carry Grandpa through to the morning. At 10pm, when the technician arrived with the nebulizer for his last breathing treatment, I called mom to give her an update, and to tell her I was getting ready to head to Grandma's. She seemed confused. "They're making you leave?"

"Well, I don't know. I assumed so. Aren't there visiting hours?"

"Oh, no. Not usually. They'll usually let you stay as late as you want. I mean, unless you don't want to stay there..." Her voice trailed off, hammering home the point of her disappointment.

"No Mom, of course I'll stay. I just didn't think..."

She cut me off, my concession apparently not convincing enough. "It's just, he'll call Mother if you go home. He gets scared, so he'll call her, and she'll go up there." She was piling it on thick.

"Well, they wouldn't let her stay up here last night, but I'll check."

"They wouldn't let her stay in the room, but she stayed all night in the waiting room." Damn. That's serious dedication. There is no actual waiting room on this floor. A half dozen chairs face each other along the hallway between the elevators and the nurses station. I imagine Grandma slumped in one of these chairs, trying to sleep in spite of the constant hum of nursing activity.

"Of course I'll stay, Mom. I just didn't know."

"Well, it's just that Daddy gets really scared, and he doesn't like to be alone."

Scared doesn't really describe it. Grandpa's longevity defies medical explanation, but I believe it's largely attributable to his profound fear of dying. Grandpa simply refuses to quietly accept his mortality. He will not be going gently into that good night. When his cardiac specialist asks him what he can do for him, Grandpa answers, "I'd like to live to be a hundred and fifty." The specialist tried to explain that some procedures might prolong his life slightly, but at the expense of significant discomfort. He said that sometimes quality of life is more important that quantity. Grandpa stared at him blankly, eyes wide, mouth hanging open. "Shee-it it is."

I've wondered if Grandpa is afraid of dying because he doesn't have the comfort of a religious expectation of an afterlife, or because he does but doesn't like the direction he's headed. Don't get me wrong - Grandpa is a good man, but he's a heathen, like me, at least in the eyes of Christians. He's not a church-going man, and I can't recall him ever talking about his own religious beliefs. He always demonstrated perfunctory respect at weddings, funerals, and the few other religious events he was compelled to attend, but he always made it clear that he was there against his will. I've wondered for a long time whether his discomfort was the result of an absence or excess of faith. If half the stories I've heard about my Grandpa are true, he's an unrepentant sinner by even the most lenient of Southern Baptist standards. If there is a God, and a Heaven, he's got to think he's going straight to Hell. I don't know if Grandpa's afraid of dying because he knows he's damned, or because he knows there's not a goddamn thing after this life is done, and holding on as long as possible is the best you get. Whatever the explanation, Grandpa is afraid of dying, and being in the hospital only exacerbates those fears.

I hang up with Mom and head back to his room. The nurse is delivering the Ambien. She tells Grandpa I can stay in the room, and he beams like a child. I pull up the chairs and she offers to bring a blanket.

"You comfortable, Davey?"

"Oh yeah, Grandpa, this is good."

"Do you need another blanket?"

"No, I'm OK, Grandpa. How about you? Too warm, too cold? You need anything before we turn in?"

"Well, no. I'm alright." He leaned toward me and whispered, "That sonofabitch didn't turn the furnace up again, did he?"

"I'll check, Grandpa."

Melvin and Grandpa have been engaged in a battle over the thermostat for most of the day, although Melvin doesn't know it. Melvin is cold, which makes sense, given that it is 17 degrees outside and the thermostat is set at 70. Grandpa would like it a couple of degrees lower. He says it helps him breathe. He lays in bed, covered in blankets. Melvin is up and around, and his gown offers little warmth and about as much privacy as the curtain room divider. Every half hour, Melvin turns the thermostat up to 75 degrees, and a half hour later, Grandpa asks me to turn it back down to 70. I'm not exactly sure why, but Melvin has decided that the nurses are to blame. He confides in me, "That goddamn nurse keeps turning down the thermostat." I didn't immediately confess, figuring that neither of the roommates was going to be happy with the temperature, and that this little dance probably represented the best we were going to manage by way of compromise. I told Melvin, you gotta watch those nurses.

It's midnite before the technicians and nurses and nurse's aids have finished poking and prodding Grandpa and Melvin. For the past several hours, I have been an uncomfortable witness to various indignities. The nurse's questions are embarrassing. There are persistent inquiries into the frequency, magnitude and consistency of bowel movements. Melvin walks around in a gown that doesn't quite cover his ass. It takes every ounce of energy and concentration for Grandpa to piss into a plastic container. He hasn't been out of the bed since he checked in last night. When things finally quiet down, just as I am beginning to fall asleep, I hear Melvin cussing behind the curtain. I ask him if everything's alright, and he tells me he's fine, and asks me not to come in. More cussing. I hear him fumbling with something in his bed, then his bare feet slapping the cold, tile floor. He's at the sink, and I catch a glimpse of him washing his underwear. He's still cussing under his breath. He is cold, and alone, washing his soiled shorts in a sink. Grandpa is snoring loudly, his body still quietly shaking.


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