Christopher Danzig’s honest tribute to his grandfather, the cancer that took him, and the palliative care that kept him strong.
A few days before Christmas last year, I watched my mom cry in church. She hid her face, scrunched with fear, grief and sadness, as the pastor led the congregation in a prayer of holiday thanks. My mom is more thankful than anyone else I have ever known, but trying to be grateful last Christmas drove her shuffling to the restroom for tissues, her shining blue eyes bloodshot and swollen. Her father was dying.
At dawn on Christmas Eve, I flew to Denver with Mom, Dad, and my younger brother to visit my grandfather and the rest of my mom’s family. As we stepped off the plane, Mom said, “We’re going to the hospital.”
I didn’t say anything. I wanted more time to prepare myself. I had never seen a dying man before, and until Granddad got sick, I had been a lucky 24-year-old with four relatively healthy grandparents. But now bone cancer was ravaging my grandfather’s pelvis and spine.
He was a giant man with a royal wave of white hair that I imagined on myself in 50 years. When we visited, his muscular, weathered hand always shook my small, moist grip with authority and security. Or he would grab my shoulders and squeeze—a quick jet-engine massage. His laugh was loud and deep and real. It startled and sometimes used to annoy my too-cool teenage sensibilities. When I was little, the two of us played checkers. His blue eyes—just like my mom’s and mine—would flash with his smile whenever either of us pulled off a double-jump.
Our car pulled up to St Joseph’s, and I started shaking. I didn’t know what to expect, so I imagined all sorts of vague worst-case scenarios. My only experience with this was through tragic movies and heartbreaking novels. My head was stuffed with the most tear-jerking scenes from those stories. As we approached his room, I set my jaw and tried to meditate. I held my breath for the last few steps. It was worse than I anticipated.
His door was open, and it was dark inside. The lights were off, and the small window allowed only a faint reminder of the world outside. I could barely see Granddad until I came several steps into the room. When I finally saw him clearly, I thought, This is the wrong room. That’s not him.
He lay on his right side facing the door, one arm crooked like a chicken wing, at an unsettling angle. His hair remained thick but was mussed from spending a month in bed. His arms looked too long—his once imposing six-foot-four frame had become emaciated. Every breath he took was loud and forced. A tube came out of his nose, and I saw the tan-colored bag of syrup that nourished him.
He could not eat real food. Doctors weren’t sure why. It might have been because the cancer ruined the neck bones and muscles required to swallow, or because of a severe reaction to a medicine they gave him when he first arrived at the ER. Or simply because he was dying.
Granddad’s mouth hung slack, a dark cavern where a healthier man would have worn dentures. His forehead was furrowed in concentration, as if he were trying to form words from the thoughts trapped in his brain. Even though his eyes were half closed, they still sparkled and scanned our faces. I couldn’t handle it. After just a few seconds, I retreated to the hall to cry.
I don’t remember ever feeling more desolate. As more relatives arrived, I crept in and out of the room several times each time my emotions became overwhelming. Mom’s two sisters walked in about five minutes apart, and broke down as they crossed the threshold. They both gave me weak hugs.
Then I saw Nana, Granddad’s wife of 59 years. Her small feet dragged across the floor, her shoulders slumped, and her red hair faded as if in an old filmstrip. Her bronze glasses magnified her puffy eyes. She was exhausted from the hospital visits, doctor consultations and her husband’s rapid deterioration.
I didn’t know what to say to Granddad, so I mumbled, “Hi. Merry Christmas. I’m glad to see you.”
When I approached the bed, I reached for his hand. Amid the sterile room, the cardboard sheets, the humming machines and the antiseptic smell, I needed to know the wilting body in front of me was still Frank McGregor.
I extended my fingers, and before I knew what was happening, he grabbed my hand as firmly as ever. His hand was cool and pale, and his uncut nails dug into my palm. I stood there for several minutes, not sure where to point my eyes, wondering if I should try to breathe more quietly or if I should search for something tender and consoling to say. I hadn’t seen Granddad in almost two years, and I couldn’t tell if he recognized me with my longer hair and beard. But he wouldn’t let go.
Mesmerized by Granddad’s Darth Vader breathing and with tears clouding my eyes, I envisioned the grim, inevitable future. Everyone I knew and loved would end up in that bed, wasted and drifting away in front of me. Mom, Dad, my brother, a future wife, best friends, unborn sons and daughters … and then myself. I never wanted to see this again.
He looked so tired, as if he knew what was going on, even if no one told him outright. It seemed clear that we needed to let him go. But the decision was not so simple. We had two hourlong family conferences at the hospital that weekend, led by the Palliative Care Team—a doctor, nurse, social worker, and chaplain. The 13 of us—including Mom’s four siblings and their kids—crammed into the visitor lounges, where downtown Denver and the Rocky Mountains floated outside the windows like vast and beautiful paintings.
During the meetings, Nana and my uncle Kevin clung to a silver-bullet procedure a doctor had mentioned before anyone knew the scope of his illness. The invasive treatment would, at best, extend Granddad’s life for a few months, and it would not improve its quality. They couldn’t release the only shred of hope, even though nothing could stop the cancer that was, quite literally, eating him from the inside. The doctors gave us a bone-scan report that showed Granddad had the disease not only in his spine and hips but also his shoulder, femur, sternum, ribs, tibia, and skull. More than half of the bone in his body was conquered.
“I have no peace,” Nana said. “Just in July, he went to the doctor for a prostate scan, and he was fine. How did this happen so quickly? Could somebody have seen this and prevented it?”
The doctors explained cancer affects everyone differently, at different speeds and severities. It was nobody’s fault.
After the meeting, the chaplain went up to Nana and hugged her. Sobbing into the chaplain’s arms, Nana whimpered, “I’m still hoping for a miracle.”
My mom said it was a miracle that her father spent a final Christmas surrounded by the family he had created and the three generations of people who loved him so much. She also said it was miraculous that a month earlier, Granddad had received three nerve blocks to treat severe back pain before doctors knew about the cancer. He should have been in agony, Mom said. Yet the blocks held off the pain.
On Christmas day, we all packed into his room, and one of my aunts brought her guitar so we could sing Christmas carols. As everyone got settled, someone fiddled with the microphone connected to Granddad’s makeshift hearing aid and accidentally jerked the volume all the way up. The speaker squealed, and Granddad’s eyebrows raised, and he rolled his eyes in annoyance. Only my brother and I saw. We both laughed. Granddad was still there.
I pictured him chuckling and shaking his head at the clan gathered around him like he was some sort of guru. In his lilting country-boy baritone, he’d say, “Why are all these people fussing about me? I’ll be just fine.”
We sang to him quietly, and the music helped us channel what we felt inside. Granddad was actually the noisiest one. He couldn’t enunciate words, but he aaaaaahed out the melody to each tune with gusto, always right on key, if sometimes a half measure behind the rest of us. He added his own harmonies on “Silent Night,” and some of us were so surprised that we stopped singing and stared around the room at each other, incredulous.
“I never knew Christmas carols could feel so raw,” my brother said later.
I learned a lot about Granddad’s life that weekend. I learned about his childhood on a Kansas farm, in a family everyone said was “poor as church mice.” He worked his way up to management at Martin Marietta, before it merged with Lockheed. He became the vice president of St. Joseph’s—the hospital where he was now a patient—and believed the lowest people on the totem pole were the most important employees. A few hospital staffers still remembered him. Each day when Nana bought lunch, the graying cashier in the cafeteria asked how Mr. McGregor was doing.
Nana told us that Granddad always hoped she would die first, so she would never have to mourn or miss him. To spare her from this.
Shortly before my mom, dad, brother, and I flew back to California, we had the second conference with Palliative Care. One of the doctors told us the blunt truth again.
“He has a terminal illness. He is not going to get better. The cancer will kill him.”
It was probably the sixth time we heard the sentence, but Nana—and the rest of us, I suppose—needed the repetition in order to accept it. It sounds cliché, but our family needed to transition our focus to making the last days of Granddad’s life comfortable, instead of trying to postpone the inevitable. The waiting room turned into the command center of our operation to find the best possible hospice care center. My cousins made a flurry of phone calls and Google searches, while my brother and I packed and tried to steel ourselves for a goodbye.
We went to Granddad’s room one more time, where Mom was seated next to him. I’ve never seen her so heartbroken. She looked as if she could barely lift her head, like a marionette with snapped strings. Granddad was asleep, and she tried to rouse him enough to see us leave. I leaned close and said, “Merry Christmas, Granddad. I love you, and I will see you soon.” He mumbled something, but I couldn’t understand him. My brother did the same, and we moved to leave my mother alone.
She bent over her father, devastated, close to his face and begged him, “Dad, open your eyes. Can you look at me? Can you open your eyes? Dad, please look at me.”
She knew this was almost certainly the last time she would speak with him. She had to go back to California, back to her job, back to the land of the living. I waited out in the hallway with my dad and brother, and I couldn’t understand her bravery. How did she have the courage to tell Daddy goodbye—to walk out that door and not look back?
It was hard for me to imagine my mom and dad as children who love and need their own parents the same way I do. In Denver, I saw my mom for the first time as an adoring daughter. I make fun of my aging parents too often—they’re forgetful, stubborn, and increasingly unable to use computers. And I hide the truth: I would love to fall asleep in my old twin bed with crisp sheets and listen to Mom putter around the kitchen. I wish Mom still made my lunch and that Dad would still get me out of school early to watch the Oakland A’s and buy Slurpees on hot afternoons.
I thought my parents knew everything and had everything under control. It’s ridiculous, but a part of me can’t stop believing that Mom and Dad will always be able to save the day.
In Denver, I could sense my mom fighting with the same longings. Though she’s almost 60 herself, she will always be Granddad’s little girl. She never stopped admiring him, looking up to him, needing him. These days, I keep imagining a miniature version of my mom clinging to Granddad’s big legs. And every time the picture enters my head, for an instant I forget he’s gone.