There are times when deciding where to go to grad school feels very weighty. A certain part of me is convinced that—despite being faced by a choice of four prestigious schools with great faculty and generous funding packages—I could really fuck this up. After all, if I don’t go to the right school, I won’t get an NSF grant, and then I won’t get published, so I won’t get job offers, and I’ll teach at East Jesus Community College in central Nebraska for the rest of my life.*
And then there are moments where choosing doesn’t seem like such a big deal at all.
At the very least, for the perspective that it gives me , I am glad that I have taken a mid-tour pause to visit family in Minnesota. It’s astonishing, but I haven’t been here in two years. The last time I saw my brother was graduation, and it’s been even longer since I spent any time with my cousins, aunts. and uncles. I’ve been far from the family orbit for some time, and it means that I’ve missed a lot: Thanksgivings, Christmases, weddings, and—in the last year—the steady decline of my grandmother. When last I was here, my grandmother was living at home, spending her days watching Fox News and vigorously nagging my grandfather. When I saw her yesterday—three weeks after a massive stroke—she was gradually disappearing into a nursing home bed, mute, immobile, and in transition to hospice care. This was the kind of jolt that, at the very least, puts things in a bit of perspective.
It’s a function of privilege, youth, and sheer luck that I have confronted very little death in my life. I remember the passing of my paternal grandparents—which happened during sixth grade—as a sad time, and the thought of them still strikes a melancholy chord inside me. With a decade of maturity, though, death has become more complicated. I know how I am supposed to feel about the coming death of my grandmother, but I can’t shake the question: is this actually sad? My grandmother is ninety. She has been unhappy for some time and done her best to project this on those around her. She hated nursing homes, hated old people, and hated dependence; her refusal of food during the last week seems like one last feisty testament to what we all know, which is that she has no interest in going on living.
And yet we as a family still cling to every sign of improvement, any hint of alertness or twinge of an upward trajectory of recovery. For whom, exactly, would another week of life be a victory: my family, or my grandmother? And are our responses founded on genuine sentiments, or a strong awareness of social expectations? As we are offered various options—rehabilitation, feeding tubes, respirators, medication—I can’t quite figure out who it is that is served by herculean efforts to save the life of someone who is, quite clearly, ready to go.
In a sense, it is one more example of how technology has gotten far, far ahead of our capacity to think about and cope with death. Yet if this sounds like an endorsement of “death panels”, it isn’t, at least not entirely. I don’t know if the end of life is ever going to be something about which we as mortals can think calmly and rationally. A life that one of us considers not worth living will always be worth something to someone; compassion can always be read as callousness from a certain vantage point. Even as I read this, an avowed non-believer and rationalist, convinced that there is no hereafter, I feel a surge of panic just thinking about the topic. And so I can understand why we, as a family, still talk as if my grandmother might pull through and make it a bit longer, and consense that this would, in fact, be a good thing.
All I know is that this is not how I would want to go. So, here it is in writing: harvest my organs and then push me off a cliff. As for my grandmother, I wish her a peaceful and painless end to a long and full life. It’s a curse, I guess, that I find myself trying to think when all I should be doing is feeling.
*To be fair, I’d probably like the students at East Jesus Community College more than your average Princetonian.