My grandfather, my inspiration

Personal Stories | March 4, 2022 | Klaus Kytayko

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A photo of the author's grandfather

My Grandpa J was diagnosed with dementia around 2015. At the time, I couldn’t have imagined him as he is now, at 99, curled up in a wheelchair, barely mobile, only faint hints of recognition in his glassy eyes as he surveyed the crowd of onlookers that resembled his family. But this was no longer imagination: it has become my new reality. 

This may be a tragic story one could spin of my grandfather’s life and of all life itself: a cycle of birth, growth, decay, and the death which repeats with each life that enters this world. The beginning is held high with reverence whilst the end is spoken about with muted, hushed voices. Death: a taboo, an open secret kept loudly silent, hidden away, too painful to acknowledge.  

As anyone who has witnessed a family member succumb to disease knows, the person they are in their last few years is seldom the person they want remembered. The dementia had ravaged my grandfather’s mind, but it could never rob him of who he once was. He was a jovial, outgoing, and brilliant man; a man who had survived the horrors of Stalin’s Holodomor and Hitler’s barbarous war. He was a soldier and a prisoner of war; he was Christian Orthodox, a church man who sang in choir and—age betraying him—a man who had a love for technology from the “good old days” of the war where he tinkered with radios to when he’d been gifted his very own iPad to talk to his family when we’d still lived abroad.  

A hoarder, the result of an upbringing of scarcity, Grandpa’s house was practically an antique store, random knickknacks mingled among cameras, printed databases, 50-year-old moonshine… His garden was no different than the interior of his home; a backyard known to me only as “the jungle” for its assortment of plants, flowers, crops—even sporting a bee farm at one point. Childhood visits were spent wandering through that lush labyrinth which, while modest, still dwarfed a miniature me with its splendour. Though the green leaves thinned as his age continued to climb, it wasn’t until my family begged him to move into a nursing home that he finally gave up tending to it. 

The stove had been left on one too many times, and everyone knew the dementia was too much for him to continue living on his own. And so, that antique store my grandpa’s house resembled came to be realized: the professional cleaners opened shop with what they’d cleared from his house as he was forced into a new normal to which he reluctantly became resigned. It was the right choice and seemingly the only choice at the time. 

The dementia hadn’t robbed him of awareness yet and he often remarked how faulty his memory had become, how he couldn’t drive anymore (they revoked his license when he was diagnosed at 94), and how restricted he felt in the nursing home. He even went as far as to break out on multiple occasions in the dead of the freezing Thunder Bay nights. This awareness, entwined with his deterioration, was the most difficult part for me to witness. And whilst I’ll never truly know, I believe it was probably one of the most painful things my grandpa had to endure in his old age. He’d had always been a fiercely independent man but with his mind slipping, he found himself confined, confused, only permitted to reminisce upon the freedom he once had. In my mind, my grandpa has already passed, but I cannot mourn him because he’s still alive—in body alone.  

It is for that reason that I have become an advocate for medical assistance in dying. Regardless of whether my grandpa would have gone through with it, he wasn’t even presented a choice. This life that is handed to us, that we continue to persist in, exists solely because we inhabit this “being” that is ourselves. It is through the lens of selfhood that we meter all interactions, all events, all our joys, and all our sorrows. It is the autonomy we possess over ourselves that gives value to what we do; to choose to drink tea instead of coffee, or to choose to die in lieu of an existence devoid of that autonomy which defines us.  

Just as stories exist in a plethora of genres, death, too, is not relegated to tragedy. The narratives we weave throughout the years is what gives rise to meaning within the transient world in which we inhabit. If nothing else, do we not have the right to determine how our final act comes to a close?  

Klaus Kytayko is a volunteer with the GTA Chapter. He is a philosophy and law student at Carleton University, Ottawa living in the GTA. 

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