The Invaluable Life Lessons in Death — A Tribute to My Late Grandfather
The beautiful ways in which death teaches us about life, and a tribute to my Grandfather, Richard Z. Kohn.
*originally posted at A Different Hunger
Five months ago I took a job in New York city… A city in which I never imagined I would (or really even wanted to) live in.
My grandfather (Grandpop) had moved to the city about 20 years ago to pursure his acting career, and my family typically only saw him a few times a year for Thanksgiving, Christmas and the occasional birthday or special occasion, so I was excited to make up for lost time.
Once I moved to the city in October, Grandpop and I ended up going to lunch and dinner a few times. It was great to see him more times in the past couple months than I had seen him in the past few years. He also made it down for Christmas this year, which was an added bonus.
I’ve never seen a grown man laugh so hard, on the verge of tears, while watching Jackass’ film, “Bad Grandpa”. Especially the scene where the old man’s “parts” get stuck in the vending machine (link NSFW)…
It truly was a joy to watch.
I wasn’t sure what to get Grandpop for Christmas, so I decided to be original and give him a card, good for one free lunch and dinner in the city. I looked forward to following through on my masterfully creative gift.
Once I returned to the city, Grandpop and I made plans to grab dinner one day after work. Unfortunately on the day we were to meet, Grandpop called me to tell me he had to cancel due to a bad cold.
No problem. I told him to get well and give me a call once he started feeling better.
About a week or so passed and I hadn’t heard from him. Strange I thought, as we had started talking fairly regularly, at least once a week.
I decided to give him a call after work on Friday as I was on my way to give a baseball lesson in the city.
He didn’t answer so I left a voicemail:
Hey Grandpop. Hope you’re feeling better! Just wanted to check in on you and give you a ring since I haven’t heard from you in a few days. Hope all is well. Give me a call when you get this and let’s figure out when we can grab a bite! Talk to you later. Love you, Matt.
The next morning I woke up to my phone vibrating repeatedly. It was only 11AM and I was hungover, so I ignored the calls.
However, the vibrations continued… so I finally answered.
It was my brother.
Hey. I just got a Facebook message from one of Grandpop’s friends. He usually talks to him everyday but hasn’t talked to him in about 5 days and is super worried. Can you please go check on him ASAP?
My heart sank.
The other missed calls were from my parents so I dialed them immediately.
They told me that they had called the police to go to Grandpop’s apartment and see if he was there.
No one said it, but we all feared the worst… that Grandpop was dead.
I told myself he was dead so I wouldn’t be as devastated if that did in fact end up being the case.
Well, miraculously, Grandpop was alive… just barely.
Grandpop was found face down on the floor of his apartment after an apparent fall, where he had been for the last five days, without food or water.
It was a miracle he was alive.
I was the first one to the ER.
He was badly bruised and was slipping in and out of consciousness. His speech was gargled and the right-side of his body was nearly paralyzed.
But he was alive and I was overjoyed to see Grandpop was still with us.
The next week or so was a blur.
Once a man, twice a child they say is how the most fortunate on this planet begin and end their lives… We enter this world helpless, vulnerable and entirely reliant on our mother and others to nurture and care for us. Hopefully, we then set off to lead independent lives until we again are reliant on the (hopefully loving) care of others during our final days.
There’s something about seeing someone in such a helpless, vulnerable state that despite the heartache it causes, is eye-opening; even invigorating…
This simply is the cycle of life, and a testament to its beautiful impermanence. The beauty in this is that our vulnerability is in reality a celebration of our humanity. A celebration of our ability to heal, fight, recover and to show our love and care for those in need. The fragility of human life is undeniable, but so is our resilience and will to live, and Grandpop was a shining example of this.
Grandpop’s vitals were normal, but an acute stroke on the left side of his brain had taken its toll. His speech was exceedingly impeded and his right side was still paralyzed.
Fortunately, each time I was with him, his spirits seemed to perk up. With my parents several hours away in Maryland, I felt that I was serving a higher purpose; to keep my parents informed of Grandpop’s condition but more importantly to be by his side so that he knew he was loved and cared for.
When Grandpop wasn’t able to hold a conversation, I let him rest, but I wanted to make sure he knew he wasn’t alone. I asked him several times if he wanted to listen to music and who his favorite artist was, but I wasn’t able to make out his answer.
Surely, Frank Sinatra was a top pick, so I attempted to soothe his mind and soul by playing him some of Sinatra’s best hits. The lyrics to Sinatra’s hit, My Way,seemed exceptionally fitting for the way in which my grandfather lived, and the situation we faced:
And now the end is near
And so I face the final curtain
My friend I’ll say it clear
I’ll state my case of which I’m certain
I’ve lived a life that’s full
I traveled each and every highway
And more, much more than this
I did it my way
When Grandpop was able to dance and bob his hand to the music a few times, I knew that I had made a good choice.
I would often ask “Are you OK, Grandpop?” or “Are you comfortable?” or “Are you all good?“
He selflessly responded, “You relax. I just want you to relax.“
Despite Grandpop’s condition, we managed to have a few, short but meaningful conversations that I will cherish forever.
I couldn’t make out too many of his words to me or my parents, but I managed to understand a few…
Thank you all so much for being here. I really appreciate it.
I love you. I really do.
And best of all:
Get me the fuck home.
One night after feeding Grandpop some sort of nutritious pudding/jello concoction to which he audibly “yummmmed” his way through, Grandpop was more alert than usual. Just as I was leaving to catch the last train to my apartment in Brooklyn, Grandpop managed to call the nurse a smart ass.
This was exactly what I wanted to hear before taking off… Grandpop’s still got it…
But, unfortunately, Grandpop was still not improving. While his vital signs were fine, his motor skills were continuing to decline. His speech was increasingly harder to understand, his right side was paralyzed and he was unable to swallow, meaning he had not eaten in over a week (aside from a few scoops of pudding).
After several days in the ICU, his condition still did not improve. Reluctantly, my parents made the heart-wrenching decision to transfer Grandpop to hospice care at another hospital.
As you can imagine, this was very hard, emotionally and physically taxing on both my parents and I. We did our best to make sure Grandpop was comfortable and at peace.
My dad and I slept in recliners next to his hospice bed on what would be his last night on this earth.
It’s not an easy thing attempting to sleep next to someone knowing that with each breath they are closer to their end. However, each breath also meant that Grandpop was one breath closer to a far better place and I did my best to find comfort in that.
I woke up around 7:30 the next morning, got dressed and hugged my Dad and Grandpop goodbye as I headed off for work.
At around 10:45 AM my phone started ringing.
It was my Dad.
I grabbed my things and ran to the hospice.
In this hazy moment, with my mind racing, I was struck with an incredible amount of clarity.
I was able to connect the dots that had gotten me to where I was at that precise moment in time.
Five months ago I had absolutely no plans or a desire to be in New York city. But here I was, five months later in a new city, at a new job, leaving my office on 30th street. And my grandpa? He was only a few streets away, in a hospice on 28th street, slowly slipping away from this life into the next.
As I ran from my office to the hospice, through the lobby and into Grandpop’s room, fortunately I was able to be with my Dad and my grandpa during his final moments.
Despite the pain, I couldn’t help but be feel an immense sense of gratitude for God’s guiding hand throughout this process.
One night after heading home from visiting Grandpop in hospice, I texted my parents immediately after reading the following passage in the book I was reading:
“No one whom we have loved is ever totally lost. That is the blessing and the curse of memory. As Tolstoy wrote, ‘Only people who are capable of loving strongly can also suffer great sorrow; but this same necessity of loving serves to counteract their grief and heals them.’”