Wednesday, August 13, 2008

More insomnia. Guess I'll write about Granddad...

Several years ago--almost a decade now, I think--I spent a night sitting in a Calgary Hospital room with my Granddad.

He’d gotten sick on a plane trip back from a holiday with most of my immediate family. Nobody was sure whether he’d make it through that night.

I didn’t know it at the time, but he was actually in pretty good shape, compared to what came down the line a few years later--in some pretty awful discomfort, but awake, alert, and aware. At least till he fell asleep, at which point he was seized by a violent fit that went on for hours.

The spasms and anguished cries had little, if anything, to do with his illness. For years he’d been assailed in his sleep by personal demons whose origins I can speculate on, but now nobody will ever truly know. Eventually his nocturnal struggles became so violent that he and Grandma had to have separate beds.

I’d heard about his sleeping disorder before, but that night was the first time I saw it. It was amazing to me that this man who could only barely breathe when conscious was capable of such energy while asleep. He kept tossing and turning, groaning and mumbling, yelling, grabbing and punching at the air the entire night. Even if I’d wanted to sleep (or was able to sleep while sitting in an uncomfortable hospital chair), I wouldn’t have been able to. Not with the flurry of activity happening in the nearby bed.

Over the years, especially the last couple of years, I saw Granddad continue to fight whatever nightmares plagued him. On more than one occasion I saw bruises and cuts he’d incurred when his slumber became so animated he threw himself over the restraining bars on either side of his bed (this from a guy who had trouble getting out of bed to his wheelchair unassisted).


There were a number of times I went for a visit and simply couldn’t rouse him. On those occasions I settled for holding his hand while he thrashed about in the bed, at least till he realized something was holding his hand and tried to hit it (then I’d put a hand on his shoulder.)

The message Aunt Susan left Tuesday morning said the staff at the Nursing Home hadn’t been able to wake Granddad up. My initial reaction was, “And…?” Pretty much everyone had been unable to wake Granddad up at some point in the last couple years. I started to do what I do most Tuesdays: sit around procrastinating before finally getting down to writing sometime late in the afternoon.

However, after about half an hour, something was bugging me, some loose thought nagged at my borderline subconscious. I decided I’d visit Granddad, see what was happening on the scene, get a better sense of why someone thought not being able to wake him up was important enough to call Susan over.

When I arrived, I was surprised to find Susan already there. Like me, the call had struck her as something worth ditching work for to investigate (unlike me, she was actually working when she got the call.) I looked at Granddad, lying in bed, chest rising and falling in rhythm with his strained, crackling breathing. His arms lay still at his side. He was sleeping as peacefully as I’d ever seen.

That was how, ten seconds after walking into the room, I knew the situation was not good.


After midnight, talking to my sister on the phone.

“I don’t know whether I should come or not,” said Lisa. “What do you think?”

I said, “There’s nothing anyone can really do for him. So you’ve got to do what’s best for yourself. If you think you’ll feel better coming, then you should come.”

She decided to come. I wasn’t surprised.


Having worked for several years in palliative care, my mother’s been around more dying people than most. And she says she’s seen some of them hold on to life, waiting for people to come say goodbye before they let their bodies go. That’s the kind of thing I’d really like to believe...

So when she told me to tell Granddad Lisa was coming, I did as I was told. Reluctantly.

Three in the morning, and I’m yelling in a deaf, comatose (if that’s the right term) person’s ear that his granddaughter will be there in 13 hours.


14 hours later, Lisa walks into the room. Granddad’s still hanging on.

She got there in time to say goodbye. The stress I’ve been feeling for the last hour evaporates. She made it. I can relax.

I go home. Eat some potato salad. Lie down in bed intending to get some much-needed sleep. Close my eyes.

The phone rings. It’s Lisa.

Granddad’s gone.

Get out of bed. Back to the nursing home. I don’t think I’ve been gone more than an hour.


Without Granddad’s gurgling breathing, his room’s eerily quiet. Uncle Ed and Lisa sit in silence. Lisa’s taken off Granddad’s oxygen mask (Ed: “Is that a good idea?” Lisa: “I don’t think it’s going to do any harm.”) He lies there, eyes closed, mouth open. Just like Grandma did.

Ed goes to be with Susan. Lisa and I sit with Granddad, waiting for the funeral home guy to arrive. I’m suffering mild visual and audio hallucinations. Over the next half hour, on different occasions I could swear he moans, that his hand moves, that his chest is rising and falling under the sheet.

I also see the lights in the hallway outside the room flicker, but Lisa tells me that’s actually happening.


After his body’s taken away, Lisa and I pillage the room. That sounds awful, but wheeling the television and the rest of my grandfather’s worldly possessions out of the nursing home, I did feel like I was doing something fundamentally wrong.

It was awful, but neither Lisa nor I wanted to go back and do it the next day, and it did have to be done. Best to get it over with.


Talking to my sister, later.

“I’m glad you had a chance to say goodbye, but I’m surprised he held on as long as he did.”

“We had a little conversation last night,” she says. “In my dream, he said he’d wait for me. So I shouldn’t speed to get here.”


Granddad appeared in one of my dreams a few nights ago. But I don’t remember what he said to me, if anything. Even before he went deaf, we didn’t talk much. But I still enjoyed his company. I hope he enjoyed mine.


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