Going home, for me, involves many of the cozy things you might expect—fires in the fireplace, my mom’s apple pie, snow falling outside the windows while we play board games late into the night. But for the past decade, being at my parents’ house in Michigan has also involved hours spent in a place where I feel least at home: Among the dying.
Yes, we’re all in the process of dying—we walk every day among the living and dying. But death feels so much more palpable and impossible to ignore in the nursing home where my grandmother lives. Grandma turned 100 in May, and is no longer strong enough to make it out of her button-controlled bed into a wheelchair and then into a car for the 15-mile trip to my parents’ house. All of our visiting with her now happens at the nursing home, where nothing smells right, sounds right, or feels at peace.
Last week we visited her on Thanksgiving, a piece of pie in hand to sweeten her day with a taste of home. Grandma was sitting in bed asleep, a spoon still in her hand and dots of bright, abstract chili splatters marking her “bib.” She still feeds herself (mostly, if she can stay awake), she still exercises, pedaling a bike-like device with her hands, and her mind is usually surprisingly sharp.
Still, Grandma is 100. It took us a while to wake her up enough to see a spark of recognition in her faded blue eyes, as my dad gently removed the spoon from her hand, dabbing at a bit of chili on her chin with a napkin dipped in her water glass.
As we chatted, we raised our voices to an unnatural level, allowing us to be heard above the TV on the other side of the curtain. At this volume, we were loud enough to attract the attention of Grandma’s roommate Leta, who is tireless in her attempts to get in on our conversation. Leta has Alzheimer’s, and while we hate being rude, engaging her is like opening Pandora’s box: There is no end, which only makes Grandma grouchy. We are her family, and she wants our full attention. We want to give it to her, too. Each time we end a visit, as I kiss Grandma’s cheek goodbye and smile into her eyes, I am forced to inwardly acknowledge this might be our last visit.
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I have never gotten comfortable with the idea of death. Of course, I have plenty of company in that place of discomfort, especially here in America. But even though my aversion to death is common, I’ve still always felt a certain amount of guilt about feeling this way.
The guilt, I suspect, mostly stems from being raised in the church, where there was a sense that, as Christians, we were supposed to “long for heaven”—that heaven was our true home, and God was our true father, and anyone who wasn’t praying for Jesus to return and whisk us all away (somewhere up in the sky with gold-paved streets) was probably not a true Christian.
While death is something I avert my eyes from, aging, so far, has been a good thing. I like being wiser and knowing better who I am with each year—feeling more and more comfortable in my own skin as time passes. I was surprised by how easily I embraced turning 40. It was a celebration of making it through so much and finding myself on the other side more whole and happy than I had ever been. But I assume there is a tipping point, a moment when growing older ceases to be an unfolding and begins to fold back in on itself—a realization that my body doesn’t work like it used to be, and that chronic pain has the power to eclipse joy.
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For now, though, my family is young and we carry that joy around in us, like a bright light that emits warmth for others to bask in. Taking that joy to my grandmother’s nursing home may not be fun or comfortable, but it is our responsibility, even as we long to shrink away from the sights, smells, and sounds of the old and dying.
It has become our tradition when we’re in Michigan for Christmas to sing carols up and down the halls of the nursing home, pushing Grandma in her wheelchair at the front of the parade, where she feels like queen for a day. When she was young—even well into her 70s—Grandma’s trained voice was a beautiful soprano, and she played the piano like a dream. Now, when her family is surrounding her, making music in four-part harmony, Grandma is as close to heaven as she will get on this earth.
We pause and sing for a while to a group of people sitting in the lobby just outside the dining hall. As we finish singing and turn to go, wishing them a Merry Christmas, several of the residents reach out to touch our hands—especially the hands of our three teenage daughters, so young and soft they seem to radiate goodness powerful enough to be contagious. Others seem to have forgotten us, lost in reverie. Their eyes are misty with tears, focused on a faraway spot that takes them beyond the nursing home, beyond place and time. Here, we are all out of place in our own ways, suspended somewhere between young and old, life and death, the now and the not yet.