In the last few weeks, not for the first time, my much-adored grandfather has taken ill. I’ve heard a lot of people comment recently that the hardest thing about watching loved ones slide into old age is observing the loss of dignity. With a huge amount of love, I feel the urge to disagree.
On Sunday night, it was my turn in the family rotation to sit at my grandfather’s bedside on a hospital night shift. He’s a seasoned old fisherman, and I’m certain he hasn’t slept a full night since he was a swaddled infant, but lately it’s not unusual for him to wake up a dozen times and more during the night. Sometimes he goes right back to sleep. Sometimes he wants to talk. Sometimes he wants to shuffle slowly around his hospital room. In the mornings, he’s exhausted.
Throughout my childhood, my grandfather was a figure who loomed lovingly over my little reality. He was my hero. He could do anything. When I was too little to reach the ripe salmonberries, he’d fashion a hook on the end of a long stick so I could snag the branches and pull them down. When our family was processing salmon at our backyard cannery, I loved to stumble behind him down to the beach as he gave the fins and bones back to the ocean. As children, we were anxious about his sternness not because we were afraid of him, but because we hated to disappoint him. We loved to sneak into his shed to run our fingers over his tools. We learned love from the tenderness with which he cared for our grandmother, from her steady hand when she sent us out to his workshop with tea and cookies for him.
When I was away at university, my grandparents would call every few days. Every conversation ended the same way: “Keep your pencil sharp”, he’d admonish me. Every time I left Bella Bella for another semester, I’d have pocket money for more books. “No funny business”, he’d say. “You’re there to learn.” Behind the gruff tone, I knew the pride was there. Behind his quiet tone now, I know it still is. Beside my desk, I kept a photo of him in his dress shirt and sweatervest, his slacks and his pocketwatch. It was a constant reminder of what I was striving for.
One of the greatest blessings for me about moving home is being near to my grandparents again. They raised me as much as my parents did, and their love will always be the standard I use to measure myself. When my community work led to me being nominated in the tribal council election, I remember standing in the back room of my office on the phone with both of my grandparents, listening to their advice. He told me he’d always be beside me. He told me to always speak with truth and integrity. The eagle feather that’s now tattooed on my arm is, in part, a homage to him and to those words. It’s a promise to speak as though I’m holding a real eagle feather in my hand.
I’m sorry if I offend you when I talk about the intimacy of old age. It’s not an easy thing to talk about, but I think we shouldn’t be afraid of that vulnerability. It’s an incredibly difficult moment when you’re sitting at the edge of a hospital bed, rubbing your grandfather’s back, and you realize that one of the giants of your childhood seems so suddenly to be so small and fragile. When his vision gets clouded, I feel like the anchor line of my heart has broken loose. But on Sunday night, in the frightening clarity that sleeplessness sometimes brings, I realized people were mistaken when they said that old age is undignified.
It was the fourth or fifth time he’d woken up and needed an arm to shuffle around the room and stretch his restless legs. He seemed so small in his hospital gown, but his grip was still strong. As we turned slow arcs in the low light coming in from the hallway, I realized he hadn’t traded his independence for indignity. He’d assumed a new grace and a new way to give gifts and wisdom to three, almost four generations of descendants in his life. As a child relating to my adored grandparent, could I ever have imagined him leaning hard on my arm? Kissing him on the top of the head and telling him I loved him? Feeling the bumps of his spine like a chain of islands under his thin hospital gown when I rubbed his hunched back?
Of course not. But there is a strength in learning to be unapologetic about needing the care your loved ones are giving you. There is a strength in allowing yourself to be loved. There is a dignity that can never be sacrified because it has nothing to do with bodily infirmity, and everything to do with the integrity of your love and your sense of family. One thing about my relationship to my grandfather didn’t change with my adulthood, and will never change: the ferocity of my respect and affection. And the humble dignity he’s grown into as he’s accepted the care he needs from us is proof enough for me that he’s sacrified nothing of his character at 91.
When he laid back down to sleep, I curled up in the chair beside his bed. Both of us were wrapped up in identical blue hospital blankets. Even with the white noise of his oxygen and the indefinite buzz of a television in some room down the hall, I couldn’t imagine sleeping. Every time he woke, even while my heart was aching with the wish for a restful sleep for him, it still felt like a gift to hear his voice calling for me. To know that one of my cousins, my brother, my mother or her siblings will always be sitting tireless beside him – that’s a blessing he’s still giving us every day. He’s inspired us to an even deeper love. His old age is a lesson in tenderness, in trust, and in the generosity of letting us reciprocate the strength he taught us from the time we could toddle along behind him.
The little girl in me still feverishly believes my grandfather is invincible and immortal. The grown woman he helped to raise knows I need to be grateful for every smile and slight, tired nod I get when I walk into his hospital room. I learned patience from watching him mend fishing nets. I learned independence from watching him ride his bike well into his 70s. I learned strength from watching him hoist totes full of salmon for granny to clean in the back yard. And say what you will about the infirmity of old age, I will argue to my last breath that I learned dignity from the weight of him leaning on my arm while his slippers shuffled across the hospital halls.
I know this is true, and I know who taught me truth.
With fierce love –
A beautiful old man’s granddaughter