The first was Grandpa Floyd. He was a Baptist preacher who paid for seminary by gambling at cards. He had the swagger of Johnny Cash. He was an army chaplain in World War II during D-Day and in Paton’s Army. He also served in Korea and baptized black soldiers as members of his church back home. Only after the war did the church come to realize they had been desegregated! Grandpa was a generous trickster.
He was a good husband, a good father, a good grandfather. He built the family’s house. He stood at the pulpit and gesticulated the spectacular difficulty of the Bible and when his time was upon him, it was obvious to everyone. He lost all his weight and his hair went perfect white. He stood out in the kindly sunshine of his big garden and his overalls hung loose from his shoulders and enveloped his skeleton frame like a farmer’s shroud. His eyes went further and further away.
The last lucid conversation I had with him blew my mind. He told me about what it was like being a chaplain after D-day. He sometimes had to do 20 funeral services or more a day. It was his job, he felt, to never let a man’s death become commonplace. He always strove to make a soldier’s life vivid and to clearly communicate the severity of the loss. Grandpa thought about death a lot; about the worth of it, the waste of it, the point of it.
When he went to the hospital, my mom and the aunts enlisted me to take the late bedside hours because they knew I was an “artist” who kept late hours anyhow. I sat reading a magazine next to his emaciated body and silhouettes passed the doorway in the blue hour before dawn. He got up (when farmers get up) to go to the bathroom but had a cathedar in and I had to coax him back to bed. “Come back, Grandpa. Lay down, Grandpa, come back.”
He was pissed, naturally, and struggled at first but then returned to bed. Then he looked at me. He didn’t recognize me as his grandson and said, “I like you but sometimes I think you try too hard.” Then he breathed heavily for a time and said, “You’re a good man Charlie Brown.”
It was the last words he ever spoke to me. When the sun came up, I made the long drive home and never saw him again.
Did I tell you about the weirdest, most amazing job I’ve ever worked? No? I will. It was Alexander House, a home for developmentally disabled adults where I worked for FIVE years. I cleaned the bodies of old folks, I laughed with them, I struggled with them while they were having fights, I watched movies with them, I made meals, I dispensed medicine, I cried when they cried, I tucked them in at night. Retarded folk (certainly a non-politically correct term) see the world in a different and completely individual way. After five years living with these people, I came to love them like friends and family. And, for two of them, I helped them die.
The first “client” who passed during my tenure was Amos. He was a persnickety old codger, almost 80 years old, which is super old for a person with DD. When he got angry, he would bite his forefinger and scream. When he was happy, he would let out a chuckle that made everyone around him laugh. He progressed from standing to a walker to a wheelchair to his bed.
But while he was in his wheelchair, it was my job (as appropriately mandated by the company) to facilitate his needs and wants within his rights as a citizen and member of our community. And Amos was very gay. This meant that I had to wheel him to a porn store and push him down the gay porn aisle. When we passed a title called “World’s Most Monster Cocks,” he gesticulated wildly his approval. As I wheeled this developmentally disabled man up to the counter to purchase (with his money) “World’s Most Monster Cocks,” the cashier eyed me suspiciously. Ha ha ha!
Amos’ death was slow. He was on hospice for six months. At the end he weighed nothing and struggled to breathe. It was a pretty brutal process. When he died, it seemed as though there was someone else in the room, someone we couldn’t see.
Oh, and Amos’ favorite color was red. He adored the color red.
Grandma Betty was next. I’ve heard about spouses that go right after their partner dies but Grandma held on for a good long while. After Grandpa Floyd died, she was no longer a preacher’s wife and it seemed as though, to some degree, the old rules no longer applied.
My aunt Elizabeth, god bless her, took such good care of Grandma and drove her to the beach often to hear the ocean saying ‘hush’ over and over to the shore. She took hilarious pictures of herself “passed out” on a couch with a gigantic bottle of wine – an absurdity because she probably never touched a drop and only ever said “damn” once.
Here is Grandma’s legacy. She was a conservative Christian woman. She did not judge or cast the first stone. Her purpose was mercy. As conservative as she was personally, she knew and understood and forgave the difficulties of her children and her grandchildren and her neighbors. She was the sort of Christian that Christ would probably want people to be: a heart overflowing with charity and gratitude and humility and grace. She knew that she did not have all the answers. She was a good lady.
When she was ready to die, she told my mom and the aunts that she wanted to go home. “I want to go be with Daddy,” she said to her daughters.
Her skin became as frail and see-through as tissue paper. It was shocking to look at her body on the last day. Her breathing became a labor and her eyes did not close. My family gathered about her bed and we cried and we stroked her mottled hand and told her that she was loved. It was the bedroom that Grandpa had built for her. The sun slanted in through the shades. I think we gave her permission to go.
Blanche was a 70 year old woman and she was a sassy, salty old broad. Because she was a “client,” I would stay up with her all night and ask her questions as we watched the classical arts channel. I’d say, “Hey, Blanche. What do you want for Christmas?” And she’d shout, “A new rump!” I’d say, “Hey, Blanche. What do you want for Christmas?” She’d look at me suggestively and say, “… A handsome dude…” HA! I asked her these questions because she loved Christmas more than any person I’ve ever known.
She was also on hospice for a long time. And she knew that she was going to die. She would describe to me that she would get to meet Elvis in a small cabin in a green valley. She described meeting the daughter that her family forced her to give up after she had been raped. She also loved the hell out of popsicles.
When the pain was too excruciating, it was my job to administer morphine by eye-dropper into her mouth as prescribed by the hospice nurses. Once, at about three in the morning, totally high on morphine, Blanche lifted her shaking hands into the air and shouted, “GOD! IF THERE IS A GOD! I’M SO SORRY!” I do not know to what she was referring but she seemed to glow with some sort of saintly, otherworldly vision.
Possibly my favorite co-worker at Alexander House was Tomonori, a Japanese fellow who struggled with English but seemed to have no limit to his benevolence and kindness. There is not a nurse in the world that could not learn from his example. And we were together when Blanche died. She lost all her weight. Her eyes stopped closing for hours and then turned black. Her breathing became the death rattle, liquid in the lungs, which sounds like a flooded motor trying and trying to turn over. It is a grinding sort of breathing that the body does when the mind is gone.
And then the air in the room became so heavy. It is the Psychopomp, the guide, the messenger of death that helps transport a soul from this world to the next. Logically, it is simply the dark weight of knowledge that a person that you know is not going to be alive anymore. But in actuality, it feels like there is a presence in the room. It makes sense that humans personify it. It feels the same way that it would feel if someone were standing behind your shoulder, even if you couldn’t see them. You can feel their weight and mass and shadow and breath.
Tomonari and I used the stethoscope to listen to Blanche’s heart as she passed. When you die of “old age,” your heart doesn’t “stop.” It doesn’t turn off like a switch. It just gets quieter and quieter and quieter and quieter like a song fading out. You still think you can hear the melody and rhythm even after it’s gone.
She died a week before Christmas and we filled her stocking with roses.
I took Blanche’s death very hard. Yes, it was just a job I worked. Yes, she was just a “client” but I had known her for years and, when she was incontinent, I washed her naked body in the shower. The sight of an old woman’s naked body was shocking to me at first, being only 24 years old. And I had felt a deep sense of purpose while caring for her and now that was over. I couldn’t get her sharp blue eyes out of my head.
I tried to explain my enormous loss to my friends but I felt that they couldn’t understand how truly close I was to this developmentally disabled old woman. So I decided that the best way to express my grief was by way of a horribly taboo practical joke. Ha! Good thinking 25-year-old Nathan!
Here was the idea: Let’s create a fictional, younger version of Blanche! Her name would be Esther and she was only 24 years old. She was a cool, beautiful hipster girl, much more relatable than an old DD woman. I got some of my best artist friends together and told them the plan. We would reconstruct a fictional character at a funeral party that “she herself had planned.”
The writers, her “friends,” began to construct her persona. Esther Barnam Almann found out at the age of 23 that she had inoperable cancer. Loving parties, Esther spent the last year of her life planning her own “funeral party.” She wanted everyone to have free Pabst beers, wanted them to play Twister, wanted her very favorite bands play and wanted to be present at her own funeral party via video!
We sent out press releases for the party, entitled “Esther’s Dead: Her Last Wish,” that “she” herself had written. She explained, very eloquently, to the editors of local papers that it was her last wish that her funeral party be a big affair. Esther explained that because the editors would only be receiving this press release in the event of her death, they should contact her best friend Nathan for any pertinent details.
So I ended up getting many messages from the editors of the papers. They asked, “Is this just a really interesting setup for a show or is this an actual person that has died who is throwing a party?” I wrote back a very clever letter (which I wish I had kept!) that supplied enough information to either believe that this was a fictional character or a real person who had died. One of the papers wrote back that they were sending a reporter and a photographer and wanted to be put into contact with Esther’s family. I responded politely that the family (her brother, mother and father) were happy that the show was taking place according to Esther’s wishes but that they were taking her body back to Chicago for the funeral and burial.
In the meanwhile, all of the writers and artists “in on it,” were beginning to spread the word. They would say to friends, “Did you hear that Esther died? Oh, you know Esther. She was in the band the Slants. You haven’t heard of the Slants? Well… she lived across from Stumptown Coffee on Belmont. She was a secretary for a law firm on the waterfront. She liked flying kites… You’d totally recognize her if you saw her.”
So the evening was upon us and the reporters were there and the crowds showed up to get their free Pabst beers and, according to her wishes, everyone got their free beers. All of Esther’s favorite bands played. My band played and we did a cover of one of Esther’s best songs. One of her favorite musicians, Nick Jaina, played a set with a black and white slow motion film of a bullfight projected behind him. And all through the night, Esther’s close friends stood up to offer eloquent eulogies. Each one came as a beautiful surprise as we heard new stories and new jokes about her and new insights into the gorgeousness of her character. It became clear that, in death, the character of any person is reconstructed by way of the ripples that echo out through the memories and stories of those that they have known.
But most poignant was Esther’s personal videos that she wanted shown throughout her funeral party. We found an actress that had just moved to town, gave her instructions and she came through in a powerful way. Once Esther realized that she had inoperable brain cancer and had a short time to live, she started filming herself at various places about town to describe to the people at her party what it was like to be dying.
Sometimes, she would be at a popular bar, telling everyone how thankful she was to be ordering a whiskey and flailing about, laughing like someone with nothing to lose. Other times she was sitting in a recognizable coffee shop, admitting that she was having trouble with the idea of not being around anymore. Then was a video she took of herself in her bedroom just jumping on her bed and freaking out to her favorite music. Then a two minute video in which Esther was crying on camera and was so totally and honestly scared to die. Then came a video, the last, in which she raised a drink (in our favorite bar) to herself and asked everyone in the audience to go ahead and live while they still had the chance.
Everyone cried. Even those of us who knew she was a constructed character. Especially those of us who had composed Esther and her fictional death. She was real. We had named our character Esther Barnam Almann because she was “All Men.”
I walked out to the curb after the show and wept.
The story in the newspaper was entitled “Over Her Dead Body.” Weeks later, on a random street corner, a person who was at the funeral party came upon the video actress who had played Esther and freaked out.
She was alive!