Posted at 11:15 a.m. Sept. 25, 2015

Learning to understand


Arms open wide with love and acceptance:

Grandpa paying a visit to his late wife, Grandma Angie

I had to stand on the linoleum doorway of my one-bedroom apartment to get better phone reception the afternoon I got the call from my mom. She called to break the news about my grandpa. He decided to end dialysis—the treatment that was keeping him alive.

Grandpa started dialysis in June after one of his kidneys began to fail. Normally, someone with kidney disease can choose dialysis or undergo surgery for a transplant, but because of his age and physical condition, Grandpa’s doctor said a transplant would be out of the question.

Although it was her dad, her voice displayed more concern for my peace of mind than for her own. It took a while to process it, but for years, I’d been subconsciously playing out how it might feel to lose my hero. Suddenly, it seemed so real, and the anticipation of seeing life through a different lens started weighing in the back of my mind.

Most of my aunts, uncles and cousins were going to New Mexico, so I was relieved to find out the first day of College Algebra I was canceled, knowing I’d be able to attend what seemed like a reunion and take it all in without distraction.

There are so many circumstances that it’s hard to parallel one person’s choice from another’s, but one fact remains: More people who are terminally-ill want the power to choose whether to continue living, quit treatment or take their lives into their own hands.
The right-to-die movement, a movement that is for the dignity of the terminally-ill to “go out” on their terms, has been a pretty big topic in the media within the last few years.

One case that made headlines around the world was that of Portland, Oregon’s, Brittany Maynard, who at age 29, decided to take advantage of Oregon's Death with Dignity Act because of a prognosis given by her doctor who claimed “she had six months to live … after she was diagnosed with a likely stage-four glioblastoma,” according to People magazine. Glioblastoma is one of the most common and aggressive malignant primary brain tumors.

Maynard, like so many others, chose to die with dignity before her quality of life deteriorated. Grandpa made the same decision, and it seemed clear to me that this trip would be the last time I’d see him if he chose to end his life-supporting treatment.

During the eight-hour car ride and when we arrived at my grandpa’s home in Belen, New Mexico, there was a positive, stress-free vibe. It really felt like a family reunion with kids running around and the adults catching up, drinking beer and playing oldies. That Saturday night was a true celebration and, maybe, a way to cope with why we were all there. Grandpa ate whatever my family put in front of him until he decided it was time to take a nap. Meanwhile, the second and third generations laughed and had fun throughout the night, knowing tomorrow would be a day of reckoning.

Having slept near my grandpa on an air mattress in his room, I woke up to the voice of my cousin Drew standing over my grandpa in his hospital-style bed checking on him, with the excuse of telling him good morning. Still half-asleep, Grandpa offered his friendly smile and reply, then dozed off again with the help of a continuous positive-airway pressure machine strapped to his head and face.
Apprehension was gnawing at me most of the day, and because of a brief conversation I had with my cousin Michael and I about our grandpa, I felt bad: not disheartened, but guilty.

While standing by the radio in the garage to change the music, I brought up “the conversation” prematurely and ended up regretting it. I spoke to Michael about Grandpa deciding to end dialysis, the inevitable loss we’d have to face and the change that would take place because Grandpa would soon be leaving us. This didn’t go well with Michael. He hadn’t given up hope, and his optimism and passion for the life of our grandpa was cause to rebuke my objective sentiment.

Later in the day is when it finally happened. I saw my mom, uncles and other adult family members near the garage door with lawn chairs. Seeing the meeting unfold, I subconsciously wanted to avoid confronting this head-on. I wasn't ready for this—not yet. Up to this point, I’d been in the backyard having a water fight with my younger cousins, who had thrown more than gallon of water on me. Coming down from that wasn’t easy, but I changed my clothes as fast as I could and found a spot where I could listen with intent.

The moment was solemn, as my Uncle Tony filled us in on Grandpa’s latest doctor’s appointment and news concerning his health. We listened intently, leaning in so we would not miss a word or the slightest change of tone in his voice, as he briefed us from his heart. After processing his words, it was clear he was reiterating what all of us knew all along—Grandpa was throwing in the towel.

Grandpa’s other sons wanted to find a better solution; there had to be another way. We wanted Grandpa to know that what we want is what he wants, but we made it clear that we love him and want him to continue living, something I feel he hasn’t grasped in a long time.

The conversation among all of us grew heated. Frustration, at times, led to yelling, with tears taking refuge where words could not, and silence was heard just as loudly as the broken voices of my younger cousins. The tension could be cut with a knife—but we needed this. This is where healing begins.

The meeting was monumental for my family, and had the same vibe as an intervention you’d see on TV and a similar conclusion.
Uncle Tony and his family needed help taking care of Grandpa. We have busy lives; we can’t be with my Grandpa all the time. But, at the same time, they need a break. So a call to action was made, and changes are in the works to take better care of Grandpa while giving Uncle Tony and his family more support.

Out of the raw emotion and love that was expressed toward my grandpa, hope was born. Truth was unedited, no matter how ugly, and gave birth to new ideas. We acknowledged the situation in its truest light, empathized with my uncle and his family and opened our hearts to their discouragement and weariness.

Do you have more to live for than you have reason to give up? I think that’s what this trip was all about—sharing with Grandpa the love we have for him stored in our hearts, giving him currency to count after the party has ended and we had all gone back to our busy lives.