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Gray Watson Personal Thoughts 1999.07.28
The Ebb and Flow of Life

Jim and Tim

1635 @ Work

[ I've been meaning to finish this for some time. I took notes at the moment but most of this has been written 3 years later. ]

Dr. Watson I Presume? I just came back from visiting my grandfather James (Jim) Rose Watson. It's very hard to see him this way since I remember him as larger than life. A big man who laughed a lot and loved his wife and family. A dedicated doctor who cared for his patients, worked hard, and did the "right thing". He spent most of his life practicing medicine in Pittsburgh, PA, USA. After he and his wife grew old, they retired to Sun City, AZ -- the land of gravel front yards and golf carts. His health has been slipping recently, and my parents and my father's siblings made the decision to transport him back to Pittsburgh to be closer to some of the family. This great man now lives in a room at a nursing home a couple of miles away. It probably will be the last room he will ever see.

I find myself comparing his existence with that of my newly born, 7 week old, little boy Timmy. Jim's hands and arms are covered with little cuts which never seem to heal. I scratched Timmy the other day pretty good (ugh) and it was completely gone the next morning. Both Jim and Timmy make noises when they sleep which I can only characterize as little cries. With Timmy I can almost watch his neurons connecting -- I watch him tracking his mom around the room, trying to keep his head upright, and in general trying to make sense of his little world. With Jim I see the mind of a great man slipping slowly away like someone is turning down his rheostat.

Jim has to be restrained on occasion so that he does not fight his care-givers or further injure himself. I come in for a visit and his arms are secured to his bed while he sleeps. We often have to restrain little Timmy as well. When he is breastfeeding, if his hand brushes his face he will turn towards it and loose contact with his mom so we often have to hold his arms during feedings. At night he is often wrapped up in a little blanket and is always in his crib which looks like a cage to me. We are careful to have him sleep on his back in an attempt to avoid SIDS.

I remember one time when the aids brought Jim back from his bath or maybe the cafeteria. To get him out of his wheelchair one of the guys just picked him up and all but threw him into bed. I remember seeing that look in Jim's eyes of complete and utter panic in his loss of control over his body. When Timmy was a little older and rolling around and trying to sit up, I remember seeing that same look in his eyes when he lost his balance. It was the same panic and desperation.

I specifically remember the noises and smells from Jim's room. The hiss of the oxygenator and gurgle of the catheter. In the distance I hear the omnipresent cries of another resident calling for his mother, saying hello, or singing -- who knows which. The place smells of cleaned up urine and excrement -- of hospital antiseptic -- of Jello and BO. It all brings back unpleasant memories of my time working as a software developer for nursing homes in Ohio. The good homes, usually church affiliated, seem to be okay with caring nurses, sunny facilities, activities, and generally pleasant surroundings. The mediocre ones were difficult emotionally for me to visit while the bad ones were painful. Regardless of the quality, these are all places where people go to die. No one is getting out alive. People can "live" there for years in a semi-vegetative state or they can arrive and die in a week. Either way, it is an existence that I would not wish on anyone.


Jim and nursing homes bring me inevitably to a discussion about death and dying. We don't like to discuss it here in the US. Like sex, it is a topic which is taboo. When Grandma says at the dinner table "when I die...", she is drown out by a course of "oh no grandma" like she's not going to be in grave soon. This makes us feel more comfortable -- less uneasy. Maybe it's that we don't know how to talk to old people about their demise. Maybe we are trying to avoid thinking of our own ends.

Jack Kvorkian (the so called Dr. Death) may not be a good roll model and maybe be a bit sick and twisted, but I think that his way of looking at it is better than current public opinion. People should have the right to take their own lives. Certainly there needs to be controls on it but the very old or the very sick should be able to have a party, kiss the loved ones on the forehead, and take a little pill. What is so wrong with this? If this violates your religious principles then you don't have to do it, but why should we impose our morality on anyone else?

The other day I remember hearing some congressman expounding passionately about how he didn't want people to kill themselves for financial reasons. Why the hell not? I wouldn't want my inheritance to my children and grandchildren swallowed up by medical fees just to keep me in a slobbery state for another minute. Nursing homes can be expensive prospects and social security and Medicare runs out in a hurry.

Certainly, no one should have to take a pill if they don't want to. No one. Certainly Jim did not make his wishes on this subject made and I would never assume to known what he wanted. This is only my reaction to his current state that I would never want to be in myself. I hope that by that time I'm that old the law will have changed so I can orchestrate the end of my life -- have some control over it and leave with dignity. But maybe when I get down to the end I won't want to pull the plug. Maybe that's the trick. Maybe we want to hang onto every last second of consciousness.

I am suddenly reminded of, and leave you with, the closing words of Lester Burnham from the movie American Beauty.

I had always heard [that] your entire life flashes in front of your eyes the second before you die. First of all, that one second isn't a second at all. It stretches on forever, like an ocean of time. For me, it was lying on my back at Boy Scout camp, watching falling stars and yellow leaves from the maple trees that lined my street. Or my grandmother's hands, and the way her skin seemed like paper. And the first time I saw my cousin Tony's brand new Firebird. And Janie. And Carolyn.

I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me but it's hard to stay mad, when there's so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once, and it's too much. My heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst. And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold onto it. And then it flows through me like rain and I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life.

You have no idea what I'm talking about, I'm sure. But don't worry... You will someday.

For of my thoughts about suicide please see my Suicide on 9/11 piece.

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