The sex and virginity topic has worn me out, so I'm turning to writing about death. Specifically, the process of dying, not the moment someone dies. The latter, in my limited experience of watching terminal relatives, is a somewhat quiet, peaceful thing. The human body dying over a period of weeks or months isn't peaceful at all.

My grandmother died almost 9 years ago, in 2005. She was 95 years old, and had congestive heart failure. She was the picture of what you think of as "dying at home of extreme old age." She spent the previous year or two slowing down - needing help bathing, being in a wheelchair, and talking to people who weren't there. Sometimes she was talking to her sisters (who had all predeceased her); sometimes she was seeing my brother and sister as young kids (they're twins). To this day we don't know why she talked so much about one particular sister when she had six. I don't know what kind of "unfinished business" there might have been. And we don't know why my brother and sister as young kids was significant to her -they were in their 40s when she died.

The next summer, July 2006, my dad died of cancer. It's July again, and not a significant anniversary, only 8 years, but I've been thinking of it. The cancer was small cell bladder, an extremely rare kind (1% of all bladder cancers). It's very linked to smoking, which isn't a surprise since my father spent 35 years of his life smoking like Don Draper. He even worked for a company with 1960s-style corporate culture - the heavy drinking parties, the male privilege, the woman as secretaries - in the early 1980s, probably the last gasp of it. He was surrounded by colleagues he thought of as bigger than life characters - some scientists, some not (he was a physicist himself). All but one of his colleagues are dead now - I think one lived to his 70s. Several died of cancer, a few died of severe alcohol abuse. So much for the glamour of the "old days."

He was given 3 months to live that April. The tumor got into his liver, as well as the spine at the back of his neck. He couldn't turn his head after that, so he wore a neck brace so he wouldn't snap his neck - I believe the tumor ate away his spine so it was weak. He had double vision, so he stopped driving.

He couldn't sleep in bed the whole night, so he stayed up sitting in a chair sometimes, and lost the difference between night and day. It got harder and harder for him to get up - he just didn't have the energy. Around this time he lost feeling in his bowels, and couldn't tell whether he needed to go. My mother and I got him Depends and tried to keep him clean, but we're not nurses - it was a challenge.


We tried to get him into a clinical trial, but the cancer was so fast moving that he failed the liver function tests. He wasn't healthy enough to withstand some nasty chemotherapy. And with that, a host of other things went wrong in his body: potassium levels, red blood cells gone awry by chemo, sodium levels, white blood cell count. The machine was breaking down.

A week or so before he died he wasn't so lucid anymore. He called for "Mom." My grandmother died in 1983, but he wanted her. He tried writing equations down for us, but we couldn't understand them. He was trying to fix things for his business partners. He spent years building his own computers, but in his last weeks he just pressed the screen trying to get something to happen. Sometimes he talked about people who weren't there, or getting something done that didn't make sense. He wanted to get my brother-in-law a deal; he wanted to fix up my aunt's bed.


The skin sank into his face because he stopped eating, and his eyes got hollowed out. He got dehydrated and tried to tear his IV out.

The morning of the day he died his hands and feet turned purple and got cold - always a sign, the hospice people said. It wasn't exactly a death rattle, but he was breathing shallowly, with short breaths - another sign.


He died when we were all standing around the bed, which sounds melodramatic. His eyes moved and he stopped breathing. I felt the hairs on my neck stand up, because I thought I knew what was happening. It was a quiet way to go, after a disease that progressed so fast we felt like he was being thrown off a cliff.