Bubbie! Bubbie! Bubbie! came the excited cries as my three grandchildren rocketed into the house as my husband and I were putting the finishing touches on our Friday night dinner. This was the first time we have been able to have the whole of our Montreal family here together since the beginning of the pandemic. The children were happy to be together. The two boys tore off to “their” room and started plundering the box of trucks and Legos. My granddaughter showed me her new book and snuggled onto my husband’s lap to have a serious discussion about Percy Jackson. He is reading this series along with her. My eldest daughter, her husband and her mother-in-law unloaded the potato kugel and the cake that was her contribution to the dinner. My youngest daughter and her wife opened the wine. We lit the candles, said the blessings and had a lovely Sabbath dinner. Later we wrestled the boys to bed while my granddaughter retired to my bedroom and spent an engrossing time trying on all my jewellery. Then we all cleaned up together and gossiped.
The children slept over and the young couples were able to have a quiet lazy morning while we served chocolate chip pancakes and refereed some inevitable disputes over which videos would be watched, and had delicious snuggles and a hilarious game of BOOM/BANG. This is a game, invented by my husband, where a stuffed toy is very naughty while being bounced off the ceiling.
By the time their parents came to pick them up we were exhausted but happy and satisfied. “What good grandparents you are!” you might be thinking, but you see I have my own agenda.
Many years ago I was a hospitalist working on the neurology ward of my hospital. I was mostly taking care of stroke patients. Admitted to the ward at the same time were two men, whose stories have shaped me to this day. One man was an old Jazz musician, a man who had come to Canada in the 1940’s. He worked in the resort hotels around St. Agathe, in the Laurentians, where he married a Quebecoise woman, settled, and had four children. He suffered a serious stroke and was in very bad shape. He had complication after complication. I spent a lot of time and energy trying to keep him from dying. What was remarkable was that he was never alone. His wife was almost constantly at his bedside, as if trying to keep him alive by her force of will. It was not only her, however. Someone from his family was always with him, a child, a grandchild, even in-laws and cousins. They always sat vigilant and helpful at his bedside. They washed and shaved him, massaged his limbs, worked with the physiotherapists to get him moving. When he could finally eat again, his wife brought him his favorite dishes to tempt his appetite. “What a good family you are,” I remarked as his son-in-law helped him to the bathroom and back with great care and attentiveness. “You don’t know who he is,” the young man said. “He’s very sick now since his stroke, but he has always been the kindest, most helpful, sweetest person.” Every family member and friend would tell us some variation of that story. Against all odds, he got better. He recovered his speech and walked out of the hospital on his wife’s arm.
At the same time and in the same room, there was a man who seemed the complete opposite. He was admitted because of intractable back pain. The work-up revealed multiple metastatic fractures and a lung tumour. He was a deeply angry man, convinced that everyone had an angle and was somehow out to get him. Even the most routine pleasantries and elementary kindnesses of medical care, drew a snarl of distrust. He was clearly dying, and we were trying to make him comfortable.
“What do you want?” he would say to me, “don’t think I’m going to donate money to your stupid hospital.” He treated the nurses even worse, calling them names, using racial slurs. When I called his son to let him know that his father was very sick and would probably die he said, “Well let me know when the bastard is actually dead!”
I don’t know what in his life made him so angry and distrustful, but I do know that he died alone and in pain.
Those two men made me think about my life, about the inevitability of illness, disease and death. We will all be patients someday and I know which one I would rather be. So perhaps, it is only my enlightened self-interest that leads me to make a cake with rainbow icing and an ear on it for a three year old’s birthday. Or maybe it is love.