My grandfather, Herb Levy Williams, died yesterday morning, just four days shy of his 95th birthday.
It was a good death.
Herb—though cloudy with the early stages of dementia—made the clear-headed decision that he was done living. And despite his flawless heart, his former-athlete’s body, he willed himself to die.
My cousin Janie visited with Herb on Monday, one of his last lucid days. She asked if he wanted some acupuncture (my family is a traveling dispensary of alternative medicine) and Herb replied “No! That’ll just make me stronger.” Hospice was called in Monday, and by Thursday morning, Grandpa Herb’s heart reached its own finish line.
Herb died peacefully and with great dignity, his wife of 70 years—70 years!—by his side, holding his hand as his body grew still, losing warmth. There was no life support, no monitors. Just a man and his wife and a final breath.
The last time we saw Grandpa Herb, he was propped up in his nursing home bed with just his lower teeth set into his jaw, the upper row just as likely to be soaking in some fizzy water as tucked absentmindedly into his underwear drawer.
It had been a year since we last visited Herb and just as one year in a young child’s life binds together volumes of new skills, conversely, a year in a very old person’s life is an unraveling, a list of what has been lost forever.
“Is that Col?” Herb shouted at his great-grandson. “How old are you now? How many fingers do you have? Are you in charge of everything?”
Col unfurled four fingers shyly, counting out his age and Herb grabbed and shook Col’s soft hand in a moment of wordless male bonding tinged with cheerful dementia.
And despite the twinned smells of urine and Clorox, the stooped people with haunted minds ghosting through the halls, Col smiled at his great-grandfather, disarmed. Herb grinned back. And though neither of them would ever be able to articulate the value of that brief encounter, I felt my own body relax in gratitude. This is why we came.
By the time Col was born in 2005, Grandpa Herb was already a thin, shadowy knock off of his former self. That he was walking five blocks to Piedmont Avenue to purchase an occasional something or other at 90 years old, was impressive. Three years earlier he took me and Dan on a “favorite quick hike.” Dan and I followed behind as my 87 year old grandfather scrambled over fallen logs, zigged and zagged uphill, dodged poison oak and gave us a tutorial on the names and uses of the native plants. It didn’t so much matter if he matched the wild iris or shady madrones with their proper bios (which he probably did); Herb was in his element, showing us what he loved.
On that same hike he told us of how he courted Joyce. He laughed, telling us how they met on the Long Island Railroad, both returning from an evening in Manhattan. Joyce’s date had been a friend of Herb’s and asked Herb to see Joyce home. This was 1937 and without the instant connection of cell phones and e-mail, their romance is steeped in a classic hue that will never be available again. In the sepia tinged photos from that time, they look like movie stars, tall elegant, and carefree, posing on the beaches of Trinidad, where Herb was stationed during WW2.
I had been preparing Col and Rose, reminding them daily since hospice arrived that Grandpa Herb was dying. To them Herb was now dying forever, a static state, rather than a passing season, the very last season.
“Everyone in Berkeley is very sad about Grandpa Herb.” I told the kids one night at dinner.
“Let’s make Grandpa Herb a present!” Col replied. “Let’s make him a clay bunny with sequins.”
“Honey, he’s dying, he doesn’t need anything more.”
“Oh. Okay. But what about a clay horse, and we could paint it pretty colors and send it to him!”
“He really doesn’t need anything anymore sweetie.”
It must be virtually unfathomable to a boy who last night slept with a fishing pole, stuffed ram, and mini gardening book that one might no longer need anything.
“Col, can you think of something to give Grandpa Herb that isn’t a thing?” Dan tried.
Col thought for awhile, stumped, and then said tentatively, “a clock?”
Col and Rose were visibly shocked when I told them yesterday morning that Herb had died.
Rose: “Grandpa Herb’s dying?”
Me: “No honey, he’s dead.”
Col: “Why isn’t he dying anymore?”
Me: “Because he died; he’s gone.”
Col: “But where are his bones?”
Me: “Still in his bed.”
Col: “But what about his skin?”
Me: “His body is still in bed, it just doesn’t work anymore. His heart stopped beating.”
Rose: “Did my heart stop beating?”
Later that morning—the kids quietly munching peanut butter and honey sandwiches while our car stopped for the hissing steam train, thin winter sun warming my face—the tears came. Tears for all that passes with a life – the stories, promises, successes, know-how, regrets; the history of millions of small moments lost. That father who tossed shrieking daughters into the air in their Long Island backyard. The husband that twirled his wife on a dance floor, an entire exchange contained within their eyes.
And then gratitude followed the sadness; gratitude for life, for Herb’s lucky, charmed life, for his good death. Gratitude for my own children who are just at the start of their own lives. And the hope that my children might someday hold the impossibly soft hands of their great-grandchildren, and smile.