Wednesday, June 05, 2013

The Last Coke: A Death in the Family

On Wednesday, March 27 2013 at approximately seven o'clock in the morning Michael J. McAuley drew his last breath.  To the vast majority of existence this event held little to no significance.  A drop in the existential bucket, as it were.  He wasn't a great man.  He wasn't a world class athlete.  He never invented anything that changed the course of humanity.  He never cured any diseases.  He wasn't a renowned general who conquered foreign lands or earned glory on the battlefield.  He wasn't a famous criminal or political figure.  All things considered, with all of the wondrous possibilities the universe held and all of the incredible, unbounded potential for human achievement, the life of Mike McAuley was relatively -and admittedly- unremarkable.  Were it not for the fact that he was my grandfather, I would never have even batted an eyelash at news of his demise.

"Grandpa's been in the hospital since Monday."

It was Friday.  The call came from my mother.  Though oddly out of character for both my mother and grandfather, I wasn't particularly alarmed.  My mother didn't seem to be particularly upset that her father had been in the hospital for a week and the situation reeked of the mundane.  The man had survived the Great Depression, WWII, 50 some odd years of marriage, a major heart attack and accompanying triple bypass surgery, a bout of stomach cancer, and a solid seven decades of smoking.  He was in relatively good shape considering his age.  His mentally faculties were largely intact and he was pretty spry considering the wear and tear he'd endured.  He wasn't running any marathons, but the motherfucker would still shovel his own driveway.  It would take him a while, but he could still do it.

You should come down and see grandpa he's in bad shape.

It was Sunday.  This time it was a text from my brother.  As I dialed my brother's number, the wheels in my head began to turn and the unthinkable began to disprove itself.  It's strange, I suppose, to have been worried about the possibly eminent death of an 86-year-old man, who even by today's standards had what would be considered a "pretty good run." I mean, considering everything that he'd been through, in recent years I found myself kind of surprised that he was still alive.  But the thing was, he was still alive, and until that state was challenged I - like pretty much everybody else - took the whole fucking thing for granted.  In a gross and necessary perversion of the scientific method we tend to assume the immortality of those closest to us until proven otherwise by qualitative evidence to the contrary.  Until we see the cold, rigid corpses of our loved ones with our own eyes, we can convince ourselves that they will never have to face the Grimmest of Reapers. 

A half an hour of deliberation with my wife and the various, conflicting voices in my head later and I was on the road for the minimum six hours it would take to make the trip back to my hometown and the hospital where my grandfather, grandpa - Grandpa - had been stationed for his Final Mission in the very bed and room where he would eventually die a few days later.  Looking back, I feel kind of bad about my half an hour or so of hesitation.  At the time we were in fairly dire financial straights and we could ill afford the time off that my wife would have to take from work.  In addition, I had conflicting reports from my mother about the severity of my grandfather's condition, though I later realized that as well as she seemed to take her father's death, she was not immune to the very human sentiment of denial.  There were no guarantees that he wouldn't have lasted until the end of the week until after what turned out to be a fairly pivotal job interview and when my wife would have her regularly scheduled time off.  On the other hand, there was no guarantee that he would.  Fuck it I finally told myself.  If I went down Sunday night and it cost us a day's wages plus gas and food and my grandfather lived for another ten years, would that really make a difference in the long run?  On the other side of the coin, if I didn't go down and he kicked the bucket the next day I'd always be kicking myself for caving to fear and uncertainty.

It was 11:00 p.m.  I parked a block over from the hospital on a side street in front of an old friend's house to avoid parking charges in the hospital parking lot.  If those bastards wanted my hard-earned cash for the privilege of parking my car while I visited my (possibly) dying relative then they'd have to fight like hell to get it.  The car trip up was mostly a blur, save for the vivid recollection of a harrowing expedition on some god-forsaken 18 km stretch of twisting back roads my GPS lead me on for no good goddamned reason that had or would ever pass through my mind.  In times like these, I had no idea what thoughts should occupy my thoughts, and so my thoughts were largely occupied by the attempted occupation.  Being alone in a car for six hours would normally be for me a little slice of heaven.  This time it had been a sort of purgatory, a gray patch bounded on either side by black and white. 

As I got to the hospital I kept running various scenarios over and over in my mind of explaining to various medical and security personnel what the hell I was doing there at that time of night without a pressing medical issue and eventually being tackled to the ground or tasered for trespassing because I obviously DIDN'T BELONG.  As it turns out, hospital security is actually pretty lax in Smalltown, Canada, and I wasn't stopped by any staff until I got to the second-floor ward where my mission intel had directed me and I had deeply penetrated their defences.  The nurse who stopped me began her expert verbal exercises to prepare me -quite deftly and gently - for rejection and immediate tasering until I mentioned my grandfather's name and the reason for my nocturnal transgression.

"I'm here to see Mike McAuley.  I was told he might not have much time left."

Even before the words left my mouth it had been hard to formulate the sentence.  Consider the possibilities.  Or the end of possibility.  Thankfully, I didn't need to say anything else.  With a knowing look, the nurse led me to my grandfather's room, which was only a few doors down from the ward's desk.  Though I wasn't sure at the time what the outcome would be, I realize now that she did.  When you see death on a daily basis you start to recognize it and can spot it at a greater distance.  It must be a great gift and a curse to be able to look at a man and just know.  Just fucking know.  

The last time I'd seen my grandfather before that night he had been a man.  He walked, and talked, and laughed, and yelled.  That night I saw only a shadow of a man.  I didn't want to disturb him, but the nurse turned on a small light and my leather jacket seemed much louder than normal.  He wasn't really asleep or awake but somewhere in between shifting restlessly in his bed.  He looked over at me when I introduced myself and I wasn't sure he recognized me at first, but later asked me about my wife and children by name so I am certain he knew it was me that night.

"I'm dying."

Perhaps there was something to be said for the loss of one's mental faculties as a sort of buffer from knowledge of the inevitable.  I had no idea how to respond.  How to respond.  Is there an appropriate response?  How the fuck do you comfort a dying man?  What words are adequate to ease the pain of Knowing?

"I know.  That's why I'm here."     

After about an hour or so of watching him drift in and out of consciousness in a sort of non-sleep and occasionally chatting with him whenever he was awake, he finally told me to go because he was tired.  I didn't want to leave, but he seemed insistent and I was tired and mentally drained.  I found my way out of the hospital and back to my car and woke up the next morning at my parent's house. 

The next morning I went back to the hospital for what would ultimately be the last time I would ever see Mike McAuley alive.  Although, as it turned out, there would be no more conversation because that morning he was far to groggy to engage in any meaningful dialogue beyond the assent or dissent made through shakes of the head or grunts resembling words.  Shadows of words.  

He'd already signed the do not resuscitate order and earlier the day before had denied further medical procedures after getting the straight dope from his doctor.  All that was left now was to wait for the end.  His end.  The last medical order was a move to palliative care in a comfortable room to die in, though he would never make it that far.  His doctor had even given my grandmother the go-ahead to give him whatever he asked for to eat.  That, to me, was really the telltale sign.  The Last Meal, which was a staple for the death row inmate, was the true signal, the true acknowledgement of the End.  There was always something symbolic about the breaking of bread together, something common to the hearts and minds of humankind much like death.  Food was life.  The last meal was one final little act of rebellion against that eternal fast.  It was the culmination of all other meals and a reminder of each meal that had preceded it.  The last meal was an assertion of life in the most fundamental sense and a defiant acknowledgement of one's own mortality.

My grandmother was there in the morning as well, and it wasn't until that day that I saw how strong she was.  I thought she would be the one breaking down as she watched her husband dying in front of her while dutifully shoveling rice pudding into his mouth.  But she was the one who held her shit together while other people were falling apart around her.  She asked me if I was alright as I incrementally learned about my grandfather's increasingly grim prognosis. 

It was cancer.  Not very original in this day and age, I know, but there it is.  They found it in his brain, his lungs, his liver, and his jaw before they just stopped looking.  After learning the score from the doctor, my grandfather had finally refused any further treatment because there was no point being poked and prodded when there was nothing that could reasonably be done to treat him.  I can only imagine how it must feel to acknowledge one's own eminent end.  That to me was the truly horrifying part.  At this point in my life I can still reasonably make an argument for my own immortality.  I know that one day it's possible my mortality may try to assert itself, but that day was far off.  The far worse fate for me wasn't necessarily that I would die but that I might come to accept it as a viable option.  I suppose my fear was that acceptance equaled defeat in some way.  Death may be inevitable, but that didn't mean I had to accept that inevitability.  Did it?

"Coke?  Did you say you wanted a Coke?"

It was my grandmother.  My grandfather was mumbling something in between mouthfuls of stew and rice pudding.  I couldn't make it out at first, but then through tired and worn-out lips I heard the last words I would ever remember hearing from my grandfather.

"Coca Cola." 

By this point there was nothing to be done, and a bottle of Coke was the least of his worries, medically speaking.  There was a vending machine around the corner.  Two bucks and a couple minutes later and I returned with what would be my grandfather's Last Coke.  We poured some of the bottle into a cup, and as he sipped the brownish/amber liquid through a straw it suddenly became clear.  It wasn't random.  The Coke had been there the whole time.  Family gatherings, friendly visits.  My grandparents' house had always been stocked with cases of pop, but always and foremost Coca Cola.

Looking back now, it was clear.  The one constant through all the years was Coke.  It was the common thread that ran through every family gathering and stitched together a patchwork of generations.  I can't even begin to count the number of conversations, meals, arguments, board games, movies, sleep-overs, trips to the beach, holidays both religious and secular, and warm summer evenings that had been punctuated with small sips or long pulls of Coca Cola.  I suppose it was a hell of a legacy.  It wasn't healthy by any stretch of the imagination, its misuse having been linked as a contributor to issues such as obesity and tooth decay, and was only to be taken in small doses as an occasional treat if at all.  But as a symbol it was Pure.  It was a heritage of sorts.  It was the kind of heritage that was bought at a store, the only kind of heritage we have left and, really, the only one worth having.  If blood truly was (as the saying goes) thicker than water, then the blood that ran through my family's veins was a dark brown, carbonated, sugary-sweet liquid.  If we had a family crest, it would depict a red cylinder with the all too familiar white ribbon and accompanying text in that unmistakable font.    

Grandpa died at 7:00 this morning.

It was Wednesday.  It was another text from my youngest brother.  I'm not sure if he actually used the word "died" or how he phrased it exactly.  I'll leave the exact wording for the historians to decide.  I do know that though I supplied the last Coke, he shared in the final moments of the man's life.  A dubious honour, to be sure, but one he earned.  I felt no pang of petty jealousy at not having been there at the End.  His End.  I didn't know how to deal with death.  At least, not the death of another.  I wouldn't know what to say or where to look or how to Be.  

I know that for all the time I had with the man and for his fairly lengthy life span I now only wanted more.  More time.  More life.  I didn't want someone who had been there my whole life not to be there.  I didn't the burden of living passed to me and my generation.  Not yet.  His death made it abundantly clear that not only had I already inherited this strange and terrible gift but that I had been thoroughly squandering my inheritance for years now.  My grandfather had stories to tell.  What stories would I have for my grandchildren?  If only he had held on for another week.  Just one more week.  I could have told him about the new job that I got for the first time on my own merits.  Not just a job, but a career.  I could have told him that I'd finally made something of myself.  It was the start of something, hopefully a prelude to many more bigger and better somethings, but it was finally a modicum of success.  I finally pulled my shit together.  I could have told him about that part of his legacy.

But he never knew about any of that because instead he died on Wednesday, March 27, the day before my interview.  And now he'll never know about any of it.         

"Your name tag is on the table over there."

It was Monday.  As soon as I got to the funeral home and hung up my leather jacket the attendant or whatever the fuck he was called led me to the room where my grandfather's wake would be held.

What the fuck is this? I thought.  I wasn't some greasy-faced, shoulder-slouching, gum-sucking teenager working minimum wage at the corner store.  I was a grown man trying to mourn the loss of a loved one.  Why the fuck did I have to wear a name tag?  I was a grandson of the deceased.  I shouldn't need a name tag.  I had every right to be there.  It was all the other gawkers who came to stare at my grandfather's corpse who should have had to wear name tags.  Why the hell did I have to cater to all these fucking mouth-breathers.  How close could they have been to the man when they couldn't even be bothered to know - or even have a general idea about - his family?  If you didn't feel the need to bother knowing my name before the death my family member, then why would you be curious all of the sudden?  Who am I?  I'm the grieving relative; just shake my fucking hand and move on.  I don't mind people coming to pay their respects and trying to mitigate their own sense of mortality and whatnot, just don't try to comfort me with your pathetically false sympathy and meaningless platitudes.  You don't know what to say?  Then take Rambo's advice and don't say anything.

I remember the two most common things the long line of random strangers punctuated by the occasional familiar face kept telling me to try to comfort me.  First, that he didn't suffer long and second, that he lived a long, "full" life.  Intellectually, I understood what these people were trying to point out.  I understand that as far as tragedies go, the relatively quick death of an old man would not register high on the Greek Scale of Ultimate Tragedy.  But to me, these facts weren't comforting, because the simple fact is my grandfather is gone and he's not coming back.  The nature or timing of the occurrence did little to mitigate my feelings of loss.

That's not to say that I was completely crushed or emotionally crippled by his death.  Looking back on the whole thing, I realized that the very things that seemed to cause other people so much grief were the things that were comforting to me.  When we're young we tend to build up our parents and grandparents.  They seemed larger than life with pasts shrouded in mystery, almost like figures from Greek mythology.  Gods and heroes.  Then when they die, the world you thought you knew comes crashing down as you begin to realize that your gods and heroes are mere mortals.  Just men and women.  Like you.  It's sad, but it's also comforting in a way.  Seeing my grandfather lying in that hospital bed tired, alone, afraid, suffering was what was most comforting to me.  I saw, lying in that bed, just a man.  Like me.  Just a man full of all the same weaknesses and strengths and potential for great and terrible needs as me.  I realized that there were no more gods or heroes and that, to me, was comforting.    

But I couldn't articulate these thoughts to each passer-by.  At least, not in the few, brief, terribly awkward seconds we shared together before going our own separate ways again.  Besides, They didn't want that.  They wanted a quick and easy conveyor belt process.  They wanted the McDonald's version of grief.  We had industrialized the entire process.  Death was no longer a mystery.  Death was now a business.  It was no coincidence that at the wake our family stood in two lines on either side of the casket for people to come and shake our hands and tell us how "sorry" they were.  It was an Assembly Line of grief.  It was a quick, cheap way for people to come and experience a whole bouquet of emotional fragrances and leave feeling refreshed and unburdened.  Satan-forbid that you break the Line for any reason.  The whole Machine might fall apart.  I would have much rathered an informal mingling where people could just grab a beer and hang out with the people we actually wanted to hang out with.  But far be it for me to rock the boat.  I played my part and helped churn out satisfied mourner after satisfied mourner.              

"When you die do you lose your legs?"

My daughter's innocent question originated after seeing my grandfather in his coffin with only half the lid open.  I was impressed with her powers of observation and willingness to learn, but the question brought back memories.  In the hospital on what was to be his deathbed, I had finally seen my grandfather's legs uncovered for the first time that I could recall in all of my thirty-one years.  I remember how small and smooth they were.  Tiny.  Not an old man's legs at all.  A child's legs.  It was as if some part of the man had never been touched - hadn't been able to have been touched - by all of the shit and general wear and tear acquired by wading through everything life managed to throw at him.  He'd managed to hold onto something - for lack of a better word - Pure.

It's funny the things you notice.  All through the wake I would periodically look over at my grandfather.  The thing I remember most was the thing I had never noticed before.  We pick up on the copious little cues that a living entity gives us as to its State of Being.  These things become so ingrained that we tend to notice only their absence.  The thing I remember about my grandfather at his wake was his not breathing.  This seems like a fairly obvious observation, but the movement that occurs in a living animal from breathing is so subtle and so common that we take it for granted.  The tiny movements of the chest and shoulders, almost but not quite imperceptible to the naked eye.

"How do you encapsulate a life in a few short minutes?"

It was Tuesday.  I was at the funeral, and this time the words were mine.  I was standing at the front of the church addressing a meager crowd delivering what I had just learned was the Eulogy at my grandfather's funeral.  After my grandfather's death a few days earlier, I had mentioned to my mother that I would like to say "a few words" at the funeral if it was alright with my grandmother.  I didn't want to have an official title.  In situations like this, that kind of official designation seemed to distract from the real purpose.  I didn't want to be a Eulogist.  I just wanted to be a guy shooting the shit and sharing a few memories.  Maybe over a beer.  A fringe element; one among many that day.  But instead I became a part of the whole drama in one of my least favourite places.

The church -and especially that specific church where I had wasted so much time and energy in my youth- was now only a reminder of a person I thought I used to want to be before my mind was freed thanks to the twin deities of Logic and Reason and in a more general sense the negative effects that Fear and Ignorance could have on a human being.  It was my intention at one point to dramatically swear never to set foot in a church ever again, however, considering the slate of weddings and inevitable funerals that have come and are coming up I didn't want to be "that guy" and when I stopped to think about it, that was exactly the kind of closed-mindedness and exclusionary tactic that contributed to my loathing of any and all religious institutions to begin with.

Besides, in my role as Accidental Eulogist, I was afforded the singular pleasure of delivering a decidedly atheistic and secular eulogy in the house of the (a) lord surrounded by (fairly) true believers and even receiving many a compliment afterwards.  Of course, perhaps that sort of subtlety was lost on my audience considering the nature of the social gathering, and it wasn't like I was waving a giant red flag or hijacking the event to express my disdain for everything they professed to believe in.  I made explicit and sustained mention of the finality of death, how my grandfather was gone and not coming back, and that nobody knows what happens after death.  Perhaps it wasn't as blatant a "coming out" as I had worried it might seem, though the pastor seemed to pick up on my theological stance (or lack thereof) as in his "sermon" he directly referenced and responded to several points I made.

It was then I realized that the clergy are trained and become experts in a very specific sort of rhetorical analysis specifically related to sniffing out potential challenges to the dogmas and doctrines and their own religious authority.  It was kind of satisfying in a way that the pastor -whose own speech proved that he had (at best) a cursory knowledge of my grandfather, which was to say none at all- and I were engaging in this secret Battle of Wills in full view of an otherwise oblivious audience.  Though we were both there to honour the life of my grandfather, we were also engaged in a Silent War.  And although his position in the program allowed this pastor to have the last word -another clever rhetorical strategy- and in his own mind claim the victory, I drew immense pleasure from challenging him on his own turf and putting him on the defensive.

"I can't tell you about death.  But I can tell you about life.  Each life is connected..."

I was almost done.  It was my own (not so) subtle atheistic version of immortality, full of easily accessible tropes about how each life affects the ones around it, and so on and so forth, so that the specifics may fade, but the effects/affects of a single life would be felt forever, and yadda, yadda, yadda. "The world will know... that few stood against many"-type deal.  Nothing too original.  I thought of recording my grandfather's eulogy here for posterity sake, but in the end I (mostly) decided against it, though I did cannibalize parts of it for this work.  But all I had really written was point form notes, a skeleton which I clothed in flesh and brought to life in that specific time and in that specific place, and to try to recreate it here would do no justice to the speech or to the man.

Perhaps the most difficult image for me was the sight of the hearse driving off with its gruesome cargo after the service.  As a pallbearer I was front and centre as they drove away, and throughout the whole process the closest I came to losing it publicly was watching the hearse drive off.  I suppose it was the finality of the scene.  That was the end of the whole thing.  Everything from that point forward would be, for Michael J. McAuley merely epilogue.

As for the rest of the story, that remains to be seen.         



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