Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Gramps, you have no faith in medicine

My grandfather, a good and decent man, is also a fatalist. Having only known him during the latter third of his 89 years, I don't know if he was a fatalist at age sixteen or if this is just a more florid manifestation of old-man crankiness. I can only go on the hearsay of my other relatives, who are sneaky and untrustworthy.

Because I have a bunch of his grizzly Lutheran genes, of course it's easy to ascribe my own fatalistic streak to heredity. But the strains may be different. Since we were earlier speaking of Didion, let's read this quote from her psychiatric report (from The White Album): "...she feels deeply that all human effort is foredoomed to failure... she lives in a world of people moved by strange, conflicted, poorly comprehended, and, above all, devious motivations which commit them inevitably to conflict and failure..."

My grandfather's fatalism has less of the paranoid about it; he was, after all, in middle age during the 1960s. His is more pragmatic: things are cocked-up and getting worse. The outer manifestations of his worldview are so utterly grumpy that it's tempting to write them off as trivial and commonplace. Indeed, he's not wallowing in misery all the time. But everything, everything, down to the bamboo intruding into his garden, is symptomatic of decay and a herald of impending suffering that one would be a fool to ignore. This is a tough way to live. I didn't really see this clearly until last week in California.

I had driven an hour up to his place to pick him up for a doctor's appointment (he'd recently had successful surgery for colon cancer, and we were all concerned that he'd want to drive on his own). He'd agreed to at least have me accompany him; we hadn't yet negotiated who would drive. I arrived, walked up to the front door, and knocked. "Hey," I heard from behind me. There he was, sitting in the front seat of his 1988 Honda Civic, hands on the wheel, seatbelt fastened. "Let's go." I laughed; there would be no negotiation.

We drove down to the hospital, 45 mph on Highway 101, safely as can be. Just before Christmas, he'd been given a new lease on life: the doctor gave him about a 50% chance of surviving surgery itself, and cautioned that the cancer may well have spread. He did, and it hadn't. Now, it's obvious that being old hurts. A lot. But he bitched this way ten years ago, twenty even, and perhaps even eighty. "All the new thinking is about loss / In this it resembles all the old thinking," wrote Robert Hass in Meditation at Lagunitas. On this particular ride, Gramps bitched about the yuppification of Healdsburg, dead deer in the road, development in Santa Rosa, the declining quality of medical care, etc., clinging to his automotive autonomy with all the tenacity of one who will imminently lose this too.