When I was young my family spent Thanksgiving in Ohio with my grandparents. Both sets of grandparents lived there, but we traditionally had the meals at my Mom’s parents’ house. Between the meals we ate every two hours or so, the men could usually be found falling asleep on couches and chairs watching football while the women were busy playing cards in the kitchen.
It was at one of these holidays when I first noticed my Grandpa’s thumb shaking. He placed his fork back on his plate as he chewed on some stuffing, placed his hand on the table, but his thumb didn’t stop moving. It shook back and forth, back and forth. Somewhere in my childhood brain I filed it away as something that “just happens to old people.”
We didn’t know about Parkinson’s Disease, or at least I didn’t. His hand trembles were just part of who he was, as was the way he slowed down as the years went by. That’s a normal thing to expect with the years, right? I just imagined that his frailty was a natural progression and there was nothing to be done about it.
Before too long, he couldn’t drive anymore. Whether it was his shaking or the way his limbs didn’t listen to him anymore, I’m not sure. He’d try to get up from a chair and his legs wouldn’t respond. I’d pull his arms to get him started and I’d see the struggle on his face, the struggle to regain control of his body. Grandma would help him up the stairs, a step at a time and with a good grip on the rail. He worked less in the garden, took less trips out. The frailty worked over him and little by little took his freedom. But to me it was just the cost of age, the cost of a long life, and I never questioned it.
Until my Grandma died.
It happened at night, when they were going to bed. She complained of chest pains and he knew right away what was happening. That’s when my Grandpa did what I never imagined he was capable of doing. He lifted her from the bed and carried her down the stairs. He carried her to the car. He drove to the hospital. He picked my Grandma up again and walked her into the cardiac ward and called out for Myrna, my brother-in-law’s aunt who worked there as a nurse. From the depths of his soul he pulled the strength and control to do all these things in the moment they were needed.
Sadly, it wasn’t enough to save her that night. God took an amazing woman years before we ever thought she’d go. My Grandpa was left alone.
In a short time he moved into an assisted living home and found a new doctor for his parkinson’s. The new medications pulled him out of the molasses and let his limbs free. In those visits I saw the familiar guise of the disease with its rocking, shaking, endless movement. It was very far progressed and we all knew there wasn’t a lot of time left.
We went to church with him in the home’s little chapel. The priest walked in and Grandpa sat down near the front, in the section where he and his wife would have sat at their own church years before. He no sooner sat than the quakes settled and he was the familiar Grandpa from my childhood Thanksgivings. No shaking, no movement, just his eyes closed in prayer.
I don’t know if he was with her or with God. Perhaps both. His peace was so deep that not even the disease could stir him. There in the presence of God, a simple act of worship did what no drugs could do, if only for a little while.
A few years later I made the drive back to Ohio when my Mom told me he was in his last few days. I saw him there in the bed, the disease having wasted him away. He weighed half of what he used to, with morphine dripping into his arm and labored breathing. He was so weak, so parched. It wasn’t what I wanted to remember.
I didn’t stay that night. I drove back home. There was no need for me to see it happen. I prayed from afar.
My father’s parents, now in their late 80s, are dealing with the problems of advanced age. My Grandma says she doesn’t have much time. She’s been saying it for years, we all joke, but lately the jokes haven’t had the same strength in them. I talk to her about dying and with a shaky voice, she tells me that she’s scared. She’s scared to leave all the people she loves, the family, the friends. She knows that she’ll be with her other family soon, her parents, her brothers and sisters, but still she’s afraid of what’s to come.
I know I’ll miss her when it finally happens, but it doesn’t scare me like it used to. When Grandpa carried my Grandma down the stairs and rushed her to the hospital, he gave me a glimpse of something so deep in his spirit, something so rare in all of us, that it’s only ever seen in glimpses or in stories. When he sat down in that church and I saw the strength of it overwhelm the wasting disease that would eventually take his life, I knew what that power was. One day my other Grandma will leave this world, just as my Grandpa, my parents, sister, and even I will go; but I know, I believe, that there’s nothing to fear in it. As sad as I’ll be to lose them in this life, I’ll be so much happier inside to know that all their suffering and limitations have been stripped away and that they are in the presence of God in the full strength of their spirit.