"It's time for Nana to die," I said the other day, instantly appalled at the words I had spoken.
At every funeral that had ever cost me a tear, someone had to say it. "It was time." How I hated that worn out platitude. The line was offered like aspirin, to be swallowed for temporary pain relief, on the deaths of the young as well as the old, regardless of cause.
I remember a young couple killed in an automobile accident. "God wanted them," someone said. "It must have been their time." I remember my great-aunt, dead of a heart attack in her late eighties. "She wasn't the same after her sister died," the relatives said. "It was time for her to go."
It never made sense, this notion that some people's "time" arrives sooner and more violently than others'. Nor was there comfort in the idea that death occurs at some secret, pre-appointed hour -- even when the hour is late. A person spends years working and studying and making something of himself. Is there ever a right time for him to turn to dust, for all his knowledge and experience to vanish beneath the ground or into thin air?
The time always comes too soon.
Yet here I was, telling my sister that that our grandmother was ready to die.
At 82, she bears no resemblance to the woman we used to know. Our fashionable Nana, who always dressed to the nines and smelled of perfume, who loved big dangling earrings even in her mid-70s, can't even sit up in a chair. Alzheimer's disease, which began its corrosion 15 years ago, has just about finished destroying her.
Her mind has deteriorated far beyond the fluffy, sometimes funny senility that claimed her four years ago, when we brought her to live with us. Now she knows nothing, except, perhaps, a vague recognition of our faces. She cannot speak. She cannot walk. She cannot feed herself. She cries because the sores that blister her body hurt so much.
Nana always liked to look nice. Even after her mind was mostly gone, she perked up as soon as we dressed her in a pretty blouse and put on her earrings. Now, strangers see her and look away. She would have hated that.
I've heard my father, with his typical lack of tact, say he'd rather someone "knock him in the head" than let him deteriorate so. "Don't be ridiculous," I told him, then realized that what he said wasn't ridiculous at all. Stories of people who prefer death to a life tainted with disease crop into the news fairly regularly these days. Who cannot empathize with them?
And yet, I would not have taken away my grandmother's last 15 years, as imperfect as they have been. Until these last few months, she extracted as much pleasure from life as the disease allowed.
Ice cream and Chinese food. Having her nails done. Her favorite records. When she could still walk, she'd even dance with us; she was a great dancer in her day.
Later, when her legs wouldn't work any more, she'd sit at the table, presiding over the clamor of our notoriously loud household. A true Italian, she loved the noise. Though she didn't understand it, she'd try to add to the conversation with her own nonsensical sentences. She'd say something silly in a tone of great importance; we'd all applaud, and she was happy.
As the disease took over, so did a new personality, more bawdy and humorous than the old Nana, who was such a lady. But occasionally, with a lucid statement, a look or a gesture, we'd see a glimmer of the way she used to be. Driving like a teen-ager in the streets of her native New York. Dumping oregano and garlic into a pot of sauce. Popping a toasted marshmallow into her mouth at a picnic on the Maine coast. The perfect grandmother who gave us a dream of childhood absolved of troubles and liberated from tears.
The glimmers are all gone now. The ambulance took her to the hospital the other day, and she won't be coming home again. We're not sure where she goes from there.
But wherever it is, it's time.
L Elise Armacost is an editorial writer for The Baltimore Sun.