What My Grandfather’s Death Taught Me About Life

By Zoey Di Mauro

As he lay dying, almost every word out my grandfather’s mouth was a joke. It was as if all the wit he had was concentrated into the few sentences he was able to manage between breaths on his oxygen mask.

“Can I listen to your breathing?” a nurse asked.

“Everyone else does,” he replied.

OK, maybe it wasn’t the Late Night Show, but for a man suffering from an acute worsening of pulmonary fibrosis, it was pretty darn cheerful. He was happy to visit with the many people who graced his hospital bedside. He frequently requested his favorite food, Oreos, and priests administered the sacraments daily.

On the last night of his life, a terrible coughing fit left the doctors convinced that he needed more morphine, and with that he was essentially asleep until he stopped breathing, several hours later. Every day before then I had walked into a hospital room filled with people talking and laughing and hovering over my grandpa. He would drift in and out of sleep but when he awoke, there was light in his tired eyes and always a teasing comment.

That morning however my grandpa seemed to be gone and an old body was in his place. His mouth was agape and the noise issuing from it sounded like the most laborious and terrible snoring I ever heard. To my own shock, it seemed hard for me to see his humanity. A man I had known from my birth until yesterday was suddenly foreign.

And yet, there was his wife, holding his hand. His daughter, my mother, was sitting on the bed at his feet, trying to be close to him. My uncle left the hospital just briefly to find a stereo and then was at my grandfather’s side, picking out sad country songs to play to him. Perhaps for them too it was strange to see the man I intellectually knew as my grandfather looking so unrecognizable. But it never showed. His outward appearance, of course, had no effect on how they cared for the man they loved.  

We so naturally see humanity as an amalgamation of traits: walking, talking, breathing, speaking clearly, thinking critically, ten fingers and ten toes, etc. But the minute we try to add up all the qualities that define us as human, we can quickly think of a person who possesses exceptions to the “rule:” someone who’s deaf, the paraplegic, the girl with autism, the man in a coma. These impediments may make life more difficult for those who have them, and may make it more difficult for others to relate to them. It certainly was harder for me to show love to my grandfather when he couldn’t see me or acknowledge me. But whatever awkwardness I felt was overcome by a deep belief that he lost no ounce of worth or humanity because he was in a state of dying. Like me, he was created in the image and likeness of God.

In some ways, our society as well as popular culture today has made a place for people who are “different.” For one thing the Americans with Disabilities Act requires accommodations like handicapped bathrooms and prohibits employment discrimination based on disability. Likewise, I can easily think of television shows that have a character with autism, or a person who uses a wheelchair. But in reality, acceptance isn’t always a picture perfect as it seems on the big screen.

Madeline Stuart, for example, is a beautiful strawberry blonde from Australia who recently became the first professional adult model with Down’s syndrome. Stuart walked at the New York Fashion Week this fall and is the face of the cosmetics company Glossigirl, among many other professional accomplishments. However when she first was born, her mother Roseanne was met with many who did not see Madeline’s life as a gift, or deserving of the same treatment as any other human being.

“A lot of the information in the hospital they gave me was so negative – old pictures of people with Down Syndrome and their tongues sticking out and overweight, it was horrible… The doctors didn’t give me any hope, even when she went in for open heart surgery at eight weeks of age,” Roseanne told the Daily Mail.

There are a million things that my grandfather accomplished in his life that will inspire me throughout mine: his life of faith and service, his selfless care of my ailing grandmother, and his gracious hospitality. But in his last day he taught me a few other lessons: appearances can be deceiving, that we should fight against our prejudices of what a “normal” person is or does, and that the helpless can help us grow most of all.

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