My grandfather died today. I’m sorry largely for those of us who knew him, as he was a very interesting and charming person, pretty much the definition of a class act. We will all miss his steady presence. Like his siblings, my grandfather was also a classic New England stoic who kept his emotional cards close to his vest. I’ll miss knowing that he was out there, though I didn’t get much of a chance to see him in recent years. (I was fortunate enough to visit with him earlier this spring, however.)
He was healthy and sound of mind for most of his long life. His final decline was short and without a great deal of suffering. However, caring for him was a bit complicated in these last months. My mother was able to be with him a great deal, and so were his other three children, my aunts and uncles. We’re fortunate in that respect as an extended family: there were some family relatively close to where he lived, and all of his children, even those quite far away, were able to afford travel to where he lived.
I’ve been thinking about that some today, in between feeling sad about his death and feeling worried about how my mom is feeling. I’m old enough now that these kind of issues are becoming very real to me, questions about how I will care for my own mother and for that matter, how I will be cared for myself, considering that I only have one child. Like most of us, I’d like to be able to insure that I don’t need to be cared for. I don’t want to be a burden on my daughter whenever that time comes.
As I was working out in the garden today, my first thought was that as a society, we still haven’t figured out how to manage the intersection of mortality and migration. We move in pursuit of careers, romances, an affordable life, looking for the good place or the good community. Our parents, our siblings, or other relatives are somewhere else, where we grew up, or chasing their own dreams. I know so many people who have had to wrestle with the consequences of all this mobility when a family member somewhere far away falls ill and has no other safety net in place. Or even when they do have a safety net: dying among strangers is always different, and to most of us, worse than dying among those we know well.
So I wondered: is there some better way to manage these issues? Some change, some program, some initiative? But it seems to me that this is the secular humanists’ equivalent of thinking that the dearly departed has gone to a heavenly reward. It’s what we say when we’re confronted with loss and stymied by difficulty: there must be a better way to do things, a policy, a reform. It’s a way of comforting ourselves when we’re faced by the scale and complexity of grand historical transformations. I’m sure there are ways we could make it easier on families, have a better safety net, help knit together fraying networks of kinship, but most of the things we could talk about along those lines are relatively unimportant.
The world has been in motion in a new way since the 18th Century. In many ways, we have it easy compared to the many spouses, parents, and siblings who waved a farewell to family members travelling across unbridgeable gulfs of distance and social life. If you left your parents to chase a gold strike in California or Australia, to join a colony in the New World, to fight for your country in some distant war, to take a factory job in a city far from where you were born, until very recently, it was reasonable to suppose that your first leave-taking was your last sight of family and childhood home. Now we worry about how to manage distances and worlds that are intimately and immediately connected by comparison.
Of course we don’t have an easy way to manage or understand how to be families spread across two or more continents. All of us, everywhere, are trying to join up three or four distinctive layers of historical experience and conceptual language that shape how we understand what it means to be related by blood and affection, and connect that inheritance to an ever-shifting landscape of movement and social change. There’s no fix or policy that will ever help us manage the momentous scale of this kind of transformation, to soothingly direct how we will become whatever it is that we will become.