Thursday, August 28, 2008

Lamentable or satisfactory? / August 28, 2008

Today, Chad, his mom and dad and grandma, and Ethan all went to Chuck E Cheese. Ethan was ecstatic and had a great time ... and ate 3 pieces of pizza! That child is a fiend for pizza.
I took Benji to visit my maternal grandfather who lives in a nursing home in Cleburne, about an hour from Chad's parents' house. Every time we're in Texas, we go to see him. Often he does not seem coherent; he cannot carry on a conversation; sometimes he doesn't seem to know who I am; he is not in touch with reality. When I go, it is always very awkward; I talk to him, but I usually get a blank stare in return, and he doesn't answer back, and one-sided conversations are very bumbling and unweildy. I never know what to talk about, so beforehand, I make a mental list of things to tell him about. Then I get there, and I say them all within five minutes, left to fill the rest of the 55-minute visit with who knows what.
Being with him and seeing him like that makes me so dispirited and melancholy. But seeing all the patients of this facility make me feel that way. I feel so sorry for them. I pity them. But, here is what I thought about today: is that right? Is it right to pity someone in that state? What if they are happy the way they are? What if the world in which they live, even though it is not reality, not my world, is good enough for them? What if they're happier as they are, in their states of Alzheimers or recovered strokes or low mental capacity, than the rest of us? What makes me think that they deserve to be pitied, that their lives are somehow less valuable or not as satisfying as mine? If they don't know what they're missing, then are they really missing anything at all?
When I see my grandfather stooped in his wheelchair, only the right half of his body with motor skills, drinking his pureed food, and not responding to me, I feel deep sadness for him. (A tear is threatening to seep out right now). I wonder if he remembers his days as a working physician, all the patients who loved him, his wives, his family, the people he loved. But if he doesn't remember these things, if the nurses who care for him daily at the facility are his new family, and if he doesn't remember the taste of a good steak with potato wedges instead of pureed food, then is his state even lamentable?
When I see the white-haired lady in room 682 lying on her bed watching a soap opera, as she has been doing literally all day, I feel sorry for her because she's alone. But what if she likes it that way? Maybe she doesn't know any other life. When I see the brittle old man in room 654 sitting in his wheelchair grinning at everyone who walks by, my heart nearly breaks that he doesn't have a wife by his side or children sitting on his lap like an old man should. But that is what I think would make an old man happy. Maybe this man is completely content making conversation with the other residents.
As human beings, I believe it's our nature to have difficulty seeing beyond our own selves. Unless I stop to think about it, I assume that what makes me happy will surely make someone else happy. I can't help but feel sorry for these people when I visit the nursing home, but today, I am second-guessing whether any of these people actually are abject and commiserable. Perhaps their world is their own little reality and they are satisfied in it. Maybe my pity for them is rude of me. Like I said earlier, what makes me think that my life is more fulfilling to me than their lives are to them? The question remains...
Any thoughts on this, my readers?


Brooke said...

You ask a hard question, Hope. I don't claim to know much on this topic, but I find it hard to believe that people don't thrive when they have a community of some sort, in general. In the case of mental illness, it's even harder to claim to know what people need to be happy. But sometimes I can't help but think that if, in our society, we lived with our families (i.e. intergenerational households), and had that built-in, constant support system, some things would be easier: raising kids, running a household, caring for elderly members of the family--it seems so ideal in lots of ways.

But then I think I'm crazy for thinking that. You know?

Chad said...

I do not think that people like your grandfather are happy. And I think that your pity is completely rational.

Real happiness is tough to get in this world. Meaninglessness surrounds us and meaningless tasks distract us constantly. It is good to enjoy one's ability to work, raise children, keep a house, walk places on your own, etc. while one can. These fleeting moments are what make like meaningful and where God has provided a constant source of happiness for us who are able to notice it.

bullio said...

I know Hope, these are very hard questions. I don't have a lot of answers, and I too am dealing with this with my Nan. I think it's important to remember that even though these people may not be happy, or have much awareness of what it means to be happy, their lives still have intrinsic dignity because they were created in the image and likeness of God. I think we can be so utilitarian as a society and forget that. Whether we acknowledge it or not, I think our society often tends only to value life if it is "productive" and in some way and "wanted". I think this is a great tragedy.

Having said that, I also believe that we emphasize "happiness" too much, rather than understanding what true joy is. Yes, I think it is good to be able to work, play, walk ect.; and these can make us happy, but true joy is understanding who we are in the eyes of our Creator, not because of 'things' we can do, but because we were created by God with a purpose.

Your grandfather has done many things with his life. He was a physician who raised a beautiful family. It sounds to me that he lives a very full life, and it is right to mourn the end of it. I know I am with my Nan. I miss her!

I don't know why the end of life can be so lonely and isolating. I do, however, believe that there is a purpose to it, and although much of it remains a mystery to us, I believe that it is part of God's plan for us. Perhaps it is for all of us to better understand true joy. Perhaps it is to teach us to better love as God loves us.