I was 10 when Grandpa lost his eyesight. Many a time I would sit and watch him, childishly imagining what would happen if he suddenly regained his sight. Like magic. How wonderful it would be! Around the same time, Grandma became afflicted with severe dementia.
For the next decade, I saw my dad — working long hours to support his family of eight children — put the same effort and sacrifice into his relationship with his elderly parents. He went to the grocery store, paid their bills, and took them to their doctor and hair appointments. He brainstormed games that my blind grandpa could play. He offered to move my grandparents in with us, but they refused to leave their home. Dad did all he could to make sure they could stay where they felt safe.
As Grandma became weaker and embarrassed by her memory lapses and inability to clean herself, Dad gently made her laugh by reminding her of all the diapers she’d changed. It was his turn now.
Grandma was the first to leave us. She told the same stories over and over. She mixed up names. She misplaced her checkbooks and threw away bills. She lost her glasses. But you know what she never forgot? Her sense of humor and her love of children. She didn’t know exactly who you were when she forgot your name. But she knew you belonged to her and she loved you for it.
Most importantly, she never forgot who her best friend was. After 60 years, the spark between my grandparents glowed. During visits as a college freshman, I’d sit at the kitchen table with them, snacking on cheeseburgers. Grandpa, completely blind, became restless when Grandma sat quietly without talking. He would reach out his hand and search with it on the tabletop for Grandma’s. She’d wrap hers around his, and they’d sit until Grandma gently pulled it away to rise from the table. Till the end, he called her “Babe,” a sultry nickname which made me smirk back then, but makes me tear up now.
Grandpa, even though he grew frustrated with his blindness and her forgetfulness, never fell out of love with that wonderful woman. One terrible day we guided Grandpa into the hospital room where Grandma lay, and told him that she was no longer there. Because he was blind, he couldn’t see for himself. He asked us over and over, are you sure she’s just not sleeping? And when he convinced himself she was really gone, he leaned over her and, finding her lips with his fingertips, kissed her over and over passionately as he cried, a brokenhearted lover.
Palliative and end-of-life care is more than just a political issue to me. It’s a deeply personal one. It’s as personal to me as Sandy Bem’s is to her family. The difference is, I believe that we are cheated if we don’t let the story come to its natural conclusion. It’s not only the deeply concerning ethics of physician-assisted suicide that I want to shout from the rooftops; it’s the stories of people like Marty Perry, Sister Constance of the Little Sisters of the Poor and Tom Moreland of Saint Jude Hospice.
For two more years, Grandpa held on. I rushed home to Michigan when I got the call I’d been dreading; it was the summer before my senior year of college. I cried as I realized that my beloved Grandpa would never meet my future husband and children, would never see my face again.
My dad and I were sitting by his bedside, not long before the end, when he suddenly pointed to the wall. “What time is it?” he asked, his crippled, gnarled finger directed right at a clock. It was an eerie coincidence, my dad and I decided in the quick glance we shot at each other. “What time do you think?” we asked him back. He squinted his sightless eyes and said, “Looks like 1:15?” It was 2:20 p.m.
Then he asked me, “Honey, who is that standing next to you?”
His spirit, anxious to flee to its Maker, was no longer bound by physical constraints such as a detached optical nerve.
You see — after 10 years of wondering what it would be like if Grandpa got his sight back — I had gotten my answer. And I like to think that whoever he saw standing next to me was the guardian angel of the man I’ll marry someday.
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.
Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
'Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
Mariann Hughes writes from Maryland.