I never thought much about death until my grandpa got sick.
When my grandpa—who is the glue that holds my family together—got a small cut between his toes on his left foot last March, I wasn’t too worried. His doctor expressed concern and gave him the option of being hospitalized or having a nurse visit every day. My dad wanted him to be hospitalized, but my grandpa, who’s a stubborn man, chose to stay home. For a month a nurse visited my grandpa every day. My grandpa had diabetes so the nurse checked his sugar level through a simple blood test, cleaned and bandaged the wound, and sometimes injected him with insulin if his blood sugar level was too high. But his foot didn’t get better. It got red, then swollen, then began to turn black. Because of his diabetes, his body was having trouble healing.
One day while the nurse cleaned the wound she noticed the blackness and said that was not normal. My sister and I asked her what it meant. She couldn’t say. My grandpa’s doctor seemed to think his wound was getting better. But to everyone close to my grandpa, something was wrong. After my grandpa’s next doctor’s appointment, he was hospitalized. I found out about it when I got home from school. My dad was happy that my grandpa was going to get the proper treatment and felt he would leave the hospital in a matter of days or weeks.
Every night at dinner, we’d get an update on my grandpa. During his first week in the hospital in April, numerous tests found that my grandpa’s blood circulation was not working properly. He had two surgeries to unclog his arteries. My grandma, dad, uncle and aunt took turns sleeping at the hospital so he would not be alone. Then we learned that his foot had gangrene and he needed to have a toe amputated. That Saturday I went to see him with my sisters. He was cracking jokes, making us laugh. I was happy because for just one moment I thought my grandpa would be coming home. But when the morphine started wearing off, you could see the pain in his face. From his ankle to high up on his thigh there was a line of stitches like staples engraved in his skin. At times his leg would automatically kick up because it was not under his control.
During April, my family and I visited three or four times a week, and we spent the whole day there on Sundays. Every time I went into the hospital, I saw elderly patients and felt the presence of death. I had a strange fear that someone would die while I was there. One Sunday my dad, mom, sisters and I went to spend the day with my grandpa after church to let my grandma go home to rest. That day, things didn’t look so good. The doctor who had performed the amputation came in to check on the wound. It had begun to heal but the doctor said the infection seemed to have spread to the other toes and that there was a possibility it had spread even further along the leg. He said further surgery could be needed. My mom and I were just outside the door. From a distance I could see my dad’s look of worry and confusion. For the first time the thought that my grandpa might pass away was very strong in my mind.
In the morning as I took the bus to school I’d look out the window and wonder why my grandpa was going through this. When was he going to die and what would happen if he did? It seemed so scary. I tried to stop myself from thinking about it because I was afraid that my own thoughts would make it come true.
Around the same time, my doctor told me that I was at risk for diabetes too since it runs in the family. I realized that some day I might be just as sick as my grandpa or even worse. I even thought about my own death. Would it be painful? Would it happen in my sleep, or all of a sudden?
It was hard to concentrate at school. My chemistry grade dropped from a B to a C. My English grade dropped from an A to a B. My math grade, which had never been good, remained a D. Previously, my grades were everything to me. Now they just seemed like marks on a piece of paper that would be forgotten with time.
On parent conference night, my Spanish teacher told my parents that I seemed very stressed out and worried. The next morning at 6 a.m., my dad drove me to my bus stop and told me I shouldn’t worry so much. Would I like to see a counselor? he asked. I thought my dad was trying to be funny, but he wasn’t. "No, I’m OK," I told him, since I was barely waking up and not really prepared to discuss deep thoughts and death. I didn’t even talk to my friends about it—it was too personal.
Grandpa needed another operation
Soon after that, my dad contacted the chief surgeon to discuss what was wrong with grandpa. The doctor told my dad that the infection had spread but couldn’t tell how far. The doctor discussed two options. The first one was to remove the artery from his right leg and transplant it into his left leg, but there was no guarantee that the infection would be gone—it could later result in an amputation. The second option was to amputate the leg up to where the infection could be seen.
That night, I was in my room on the Internet and heard my dad talking to my aunts and uncles in the living room. I went into the living room and the whole family was there. But this was no party—the TV and radio were off and the room seemed dark even though the lights were on.
Late into the night, my dad and his siblings discussed whether the leg should be amputated. My dad and aunts were on the verge of tears at times and my uncle actually cried. If they transplanted the artery, would my grandpa survive? How long would he be in the hospital? Would he suffer less with an amputation?
As I watched everyone debate, I tried to sort out my thoughts. But I didn’t cry because I felt that whatever happened, it was meant to be. If he did die, maybe it was his time to go. At the end of the evening, they agreed that the leg should be amputated. They made the decision with enormous love mixed with fear, sadness and acceptance.
The surgery was scheduled for noon at the end of April. When I got home from school I was so worried. Could the worst have happened? When my dad got back from the hospital, he said grandpa was OK. The surgery had been delayed until 2 p.m. and then 5 p.m. We laughed when my dad told us that my grandpa was mad that he would miss his Dodgers game on the radio, which started at 5.
Grandpa was playful again
While he was recovering, my little cousins would go visit my grandpa and he would say hello and wave his brand new stump, which was bruised and covered with stitches. My cousins would totally freak out and try to run away. He’d also pretend to play soccer with his stump and joke about the nurses giving him a bath.
Everyone in the family breathed a sigh of relief when, after nine weeks of pain and suffering, he was moved to a rehabilitation center, where they taught him how to adapt to life with one leg.
In June, my grandpa came home. When he arrived, he had the biggest smile on his face. He was all dressed up in his best clothes. Slowly he learned to walk with a prosthetic leg. Although his health is still fragile, I don’t worry as much.
Even though my grandpa survived, I still had questions about life and death. When we die, what happens to us? Do we become nonexistent? Why do we die—and for what purpose? I was constantly looking for answers.
It was hard to talk about it with people. We all fear death, even though we don’t want to admit it. But I wondered—was death so bad?
In October, my friend’s grandmother passed away. Wanting to be someone he could lean on, I attended the funeral with some of our friends. My friend was happy that we were there. As I entered the funeral home, I felt at ease. The warm, cozy room was not filled with tearful eyes but with laughter and reminiscing about good times. My friend touched his grandma as though she were still alive. She lay in her coffin as if in a peaceful sleep. My friend put one of his guitar picks in her hand, because she had always been there for him. Death was not as frightening as I thought.
Death is out there probably waiting for me. I may die in my sleep, from diabetes or in some other way. Death forgets no one. It comes at any moment, whether you’re ready or not. Death has come to my attention but I don’t fear it—rather I fear not living a fulfilling life that I’m proud of. If someone I love dies, I know I’ll grieve. But death is a part of life.
Our House offers support groups for teens who have lost a parent and provides school-based groups in …
Los Angeles (310) 475-0299
Woodland Hills (818) 222-3344.
Sliding scale fee.
I Count Too! Free support groups.
Teen Age Grief, Inc. offers training materials for adult facilitators of school-based grief groups, and also will link teens to services. (661) 253-1932