Posted by: Hannah | 03/22/2011

the end

My grandfather died.

On March 7th, he slipped away in his sleep.

He had cancer. We didn’t know until it was too late to do anything about it. Until the end, all of his more unlovely character traits – stubbornness, independence, hatred of doctors, misanthropy – got in the way of helping him enjoy his time. He lived out the last months of his life alone, surrounded by clutter, dirt, decay and a thousand thousand memories of sorrow.

He thought no one cared what happened to him. He pushed everyone away, cursing & swearing & insisting that he was fine. His last words with his older brother were a stupid fight about, of all things, frozen fish shipped in from Japan.

When he was finally ensconced in the hospital, shrunken in his gown, chin caved in because his dentures were out, jittery and with a nicotine patch as a poor substitute for a 70-year habit, he softened. He pleaded with his grandkids to come and see him. He mourned the ones who were too far away to make it home. He snapped at me when I arrived at the hospital, half an hour late because of traffic, angry that I wasn’t there when he wanted me.

He lashed out. The nurses thought he had dementia. Mom explained he was always full of anger, tapping into some wellspring of rage that came out when he was afraid. And he was afraid, those last days. Terrified. I will never forget the awful fear in eyes.

It all started mid-February. My uncles called my mother, panicking. He’s too thin, they said. He’s not eating. He’s gone downhill bad. You need to see him.

She’d been away for a grand total of three days.

When she visited him, she was shocked. And scared. He said he couldn’t swallow, so he couldn’t eat. He’d been fighting a wound on his neck since Christmas. Claimed it was a blood blister that wouldn’t heal. Wouldn’t let anyone look at it. Wouldn’t go to the doctor. She finally convinced him to let her look. It had grown from a tiny spot only two months ago into an open sore about an inch in diameter. Ultimately, it would prove to be a malignant carcinoma, a massive tumour that blocked his esophagus and made it impossible for him to eat.

He wanted to die at home. He knew he was dying, but didn’t want to start the machinery of hospitals and doctors. The family agreed to let him try. He claimed he had no pain.

So, we tried. But it wasn’t working. He refused to sit still. Every time he was left alone, he would try to get up and go to the bathroom. He would fall. My mom found him on the floor more than once in a two-day span. She finally overrode his wishes and called an ambulance. Her cursed her out while the paramedics strapped him down and started fluids.

In the hospital, the oncologist thought the throat tumour would respond well to radiation – if we could get his weight up to a level that would tolerate it. Subdued, he agreed to try. A naso-gastric tube was inserted. He started to perk up a bit. Things were hopeful. This was on a Wednesday afternoon.

Thursday morning, we got the call. He’s been haemorraging all night. The naso-gastric tube has been removed, it’s full of blood. Test results are coming back. He is full of cancer. It’s in his bones, it’s in his organs. Come right away if you want to see him.

He died on Monday morning. I spent Sunday in his hospital room, with my mom. He was lucid in the morning, but very weak. Refusing all medications. At one point he said all he wanted was a little ice cream. We raided the nurses’ station fridge, found some strawberry, fed it to him one tiny spoonful at a time so it wouldn’t choke him. Gradually he started to lose his grip. He thought he was at home. He kept asking us to feed the cat, to turn off the outside light, to lock the door. He pointed over his left shoulder and said he’d be more comfortable in his own bed.

Every time my mother left the room, he tried to get up and follow her. The last conversation I had with my grandad, the man who taught me all about a different way of life, involved me pretending to be my mother while I gently held him in the bed and told him he couldn’t get up anymore. Shortly after that, we asked the nurses to give him something to help him sleep. He never regained consciousness.

Through it all, I never cried.


Then, the funeral. The community came out in the rain for the simple graveside service. The minister gave a heartfelt eulogy that didn’t gloss anything over. She talked about his love of animals – about how he treated his animal friends far better than the humans in his life. She talked about his temper and his bitterness.

She also talked about his sense of humour, which was wonderful and caustic and cynical. She talked about his generosity to the church his ancestors has built, even though he swore she’d see him dead before she’d see him darken the door. Smiling at us all shivering in the cemetery, she glanced heavenward and said “I guess you won that bet”. And we all, his family who loved him in spite of him, his neighbours who valued him and protected him from himself, we laughed.

I will miss him so much. His ashes were buried next to my grandmother, gone six years ago. His house goes to my uncle, who is cleaning it out and fixing it up, who wants it to be a true family home for us all. He’s already planning summer barbeques and a big Christmas dinner.

We are all taking a lesson from my grandfather’s story. We are drawing closer together in his absence, distant branches of the family sending me friend requests on Facebook, trading emails, trading stories. It is his legacy. Perhaps, it would not have displeased him.



  1. Do I detect a Watership Down reference in that last sentence? I like it.

    I’m sorry for your loss – I think his legacy was wonderful. When my fun-loving, singing, joke-reciting uncle died, we spent the wake laughing up a storm at stories about him. I think that’s the right way to go.

  2. Yup, Watership Down. He did kind of remind me of General Woundwort, except in the end he turned out to have all the usual human emotions & attachments. Maybe more like Bigwig, actually.

  3. oh, sniff. Hannah, you wrote him a proud tribute.

    and your description of your last conversation with him broke my heart. for both of you. for the vulnerability of us all, in the beginning and the end.

    i want to go see my own grandfather today…i’m still too sick, leaking germs out eyes and nose and mouth. but this spurred me there more than i can say.

  4. Thanks, Bon. I hope your cold clears up soon so you can go see your grandfather. I think about him a lot, as you know.

  5. What a beautiful, thoughtful tribute, shining light on the best and the worst and reflecting the complexity of our relationships.

    Your last conversation with him, oof, it’s heartbreaking. But so lovely that you could hold him and give him that sense of security he needed.

  6. Oh, Hannah. This was lovely. Heart and love to you and your family. xo

  7. I’m so sorry…thinking of you. xox

  8. I’m glad I finally got a chance to read this, Hannah. Thinking of you.

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