I believe in responsibility.
I was fifteen years old when I witnessed my first death. I stood in the doorway, petrified, eyes glassy and tears rolling down my cheeks as my 93 year old grandfather writhed and jerked in the midst of a seizure. The second he lay still, my dreams of immortality vanished, and I was inducted into the real world.
As a child I had convinced myself that death was made up. My grandparents, in an attempt to give me religion, had sent me to bible camp. Jesus was reborn, the overly tan, peroxide blonde Kansas church ladies preached. He rose from the dead. If Jesus could do it, why couldn’t I? Because of my unwillingness to learn the teachings of scripture, I made a mistake. I put my grandparents on a pedestal. They were my Jesus, my wrinkly, raisin-like, shining beacons of divinity. They would never die.
When my grandfather’s Alzheimer’s, and my grandmother’s eyesight and hearing worsened I finally began to understand. Life was far from eternal. We moved them into our home the summer after I turned thirteen. The method seemed barbaric to me at the time: we bought a used RV, packed up a few of their things and drove towards Denver on a “vacation.” By the time my grandfather, as sharp as he ever was despite the dementia, discovered the plot against him we had already crossed the Colorado border. There was no going back now.
Both of my grandparents were steadfast in their desire for independence. They were hurt and angry that my mother, their only daughter, and my father, the son they never had, had conspired to bring them into an unfamiliar environment where their last shreds of dignity would be stripped away by a visiting nurse. We paid them constant attention. I can remember dreading when the food delivery would arrive. Perfectly portioned meals inside a non-descript cardboard container were thrown into the microwave, and placed on new dishes. My grandfather was always hungry afterwards, while I had to supervise my grandmother as she moved food around with her fork, complaining of too much food.
The responsibility was too much for my family to handle, so we transferred them into a nursing home full of the sick and elderly. I’m embarrassed to admit that I was relieved when they finally left the house. I watched them deteriorate from a safe distance with visits every other day, rather than seeing the human aging process at work when I awoke every morning.
Shortly after the death of my grandfather, my grandmother sunk into a deep state of depression. She stayed like this for months until one day we received a call telling us to come the nursing home. When my brother, my father, and I arrived it was already too late. My mother stood sobbing by the bed, the waxy shell of my beloved grandmother resting underneath the sheets.
That day I finally understood what my grandparents had been teaching me for the past few years. I picked up the phone and made funeral arrangements. I called the Kansas minister, held my mother’s hand as she sobbed into the mouthpiece, and took the phone from her when it became too much. I became what my grandparents had envisioned for me. I believe that my grandparents taught me responsibility, and left this earth knowing full well that I was capable of caring for my family as well as I had cared for them.