Right now, I’m sitting across a table from my grandfather. He’s remarking for the hundredth time today that he can hardly see, though he’s spotting specks of planes flying in the sky and clearly enjoying bathing in the sunlight streaming through the westerly huge windows of the dining room of the rehab/nursing facility he’s moving into today. Sitting in a wheelchair, he seems content for the moment.
Meanwhile, I’m exhaling in the relative peace.
This is the man who first exposed me to electronics and soldering when I was so young, maybe five or six years old. I remember him having a sharp, skeptical mind, a vigorous devourer of news and debater of politics. The youngest of a huge brood of first-generation Russian immigrants that fled when things went south there in the early part of last century, he was a World War II veteran in Europe, using his fluency in Russian and German as a field translator. An electrician by trade, he worked on “high steel” helping to build many of the largest buildings that still stand in downtown Hartford and Denver. He survived the war, the job (which was ended by a 30-foot fall), a heart attack, and a series of strokes about ten years ago. Throughout it all, he’s been my Opa (German for “grandfather”).
Now, he’s barely recognizable. Those strokes that caused aphasia for a few months were the starting shot for a slow, inexorable decline. He lost interest in news and politics. His short- and long-term memory slipped away, bit by bit. His default reservations about others grew into something approaching xenophobia. And bit by bit, especially as I became more and more involved in his care, I learned about this other man who was more and more separate from the kind Opa I knew when I was younger.
I suspect my failure – or, perhaps, unwillingness – to integrate those two personas is simply a self-defense mechanism. Surely I want to preserve the better memory I have of Opa, separate entirely from the husband of my grandmother that so irredeemably slipped into irrationality and disablement through the ravages of unexercised, untended old age.
In some ways, it is far more important to me to understand the process by which he got where he is now, rather than the end state he has settled into. Recalling it now, the occasional odd behaviour and inappropriate comments over the years that only in hindsight were laid bare as hints of what was to come, I’m forced to consider, contemplate, and recoil from the prospect of my own decline, presumably (hopefully!) many decades from now. As much as I have ever prized my own mental state, I’d like to think I now have a more nuanced appreciation for it as well as a thoroughgoing awareness of how fleeting it may actually be. And, in the background, terms like dementia, dignity, and end of life have shifted from comfortable abstractions to present conundrums and likely permanent riddles.
Why talk so publicly about what is a usually shrouded in silent time away from work for caregivers, greeted with sympathetic, impotent condolences from friends and coworkers? Because nearly everyone must face these or similarly challenging circumstances, but our glossy collective expectations have little time or patience for the grit of real life and the grim choices and hard work that it demands, except perhaps as a gaudy spectacle. It’s too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that success and satisfaction must come from hustle and deals, a Series A and a smiling spread in BusinessWeek – and, if we stray from that plastic, purely linear path of ambition, we are somehow sullied. Through the course of the last weeks, I’ve discovered that I have far more constitution than I ever dreamed possible, allowing me to care and provide for family through thick and thin, and keep pushing ahead, inch by hardscrabble inch, in my business, its products, and my book, never sacrificing one part of my life in a gambit to attain glory in another.
Next time I see him, I think I will silently thank Opa for his part in this.
– Written on or around March 17, 2011
Update, September 1, 2011
My grandmother (I call her Oma) wanted to have her husband’s obituary published in the local paper. It was, but that seems like quite a memory hole to me — the paper’s website only retains obituaries for 2 months (!). So, here it is, hopefully in a place that will have a little more permanence in the world than that.
Daniel Agayoff, 89, of Hadley, MA, husband of Anna Marie (Döebberin) Agayoff, passed away on Wednesday, July 6, 2011 at Hadley at Elaine surrounded by loving family.
Born in 1921 in Fall River, MA, youngest son of the late Daniel and Mary (Opanacenko) Agayoff, he lived in Canterbury and Enfield, CT; Denver, CO; and Santa Barbara, CA before moving to Hadley four years ago. A veteran of World War II, he attained the rank of Seargeant within the U.S. Army Signal Corps before being honorably discharged in 1948. Daniel was then a union electrician for 30 years, working to help build many of the largest buildings that now define the skylines of Hartford and Denver before retiring in 1983.
After retirement, Daniel found joy in various hobbies, including a continued interest in electronics (such as installing custom-built remote controls into the family television before they were widely available), classical music, current events & politics, and a newfound love of painting inspired by Bob Ross.
Daniel is survived by his wife Anna, beloved daughter and son-in-law Darleen and Charley Emerick, and grandson and granddaughter-in-law Chas and Krissy Emerick. He was predeceased by three sisters, five brothers, and his two sons, Daniel and Jerry.
There are no funeral services or calling hours. Burial will be at the convenience of the family.