Zach lives in New York, where a Death with Dignity law has not yet been passed. After experiencing the compassionate death of his grandfather in California, he is sharing his grandfather’s story to advocate for Death with Dignity laws nationwide.
This is a bittersweet story about the death of my grandfather, involving a grateful testimonial to California’s End of Life Option Act and an attempt at summing up a man who loved me immensely.
My family has always had an odd fascination with the letter Z. I was the first one to wear the letter. Then came Zoe. But Zach and Zoe were not the only two Z’s in a competitively small immediate family. If you’re an Ashkenazi Jew, there’s a decent chance you had a Zaide – Yiddish for grandfather. I also have a Zaide.
My Zaide, Don, was born in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1931. His family moved out to San Francisco when he was 11 years old, and he remained in the Bay Area for the rest of his life (except for a brief stint in the Korean War).
In the 1970s, Zaide had the opportunity to buy a beautiful brick building in the Marina District. He became a quarter owner of the building, but what he probably didn’t expect was that a quarter of the building would end up occupied by his family. His sister and brother-in-law, himself and his girlfriend, and, at various points in time, three of my second cousins all lived in that building. Truly the modern-day shtetl.
After graduating from UC Berkeley and living in San Francisco on my own for a bit, I had the opportunity to also move in. It had the ultimate perk: I would be across the hall from Zaide.
Every day, I’d sit on his couch for hours, and we’d discuss anything from the history of organized religion to what is the perfect ratio of matzo and egg for the best-tasting matzo brei. As I’d walk out of his never-locked apartment, I would shout back: “See you tomorrow Zaid-o!” To which he would respond: “I hope so!”
I moved into the apartment when Zaide was 86. Neither he nor I expected him to live much longer than that, but he did. To top it off, until weeks before his death, he was self-sufficiently cooking for himself, his sister, and his brother-in-law downstairs. When the pandemic felt as if it was “subsiding,” I decided to make some changes in my life and move to New York. While tough for many reasons, the one standout was I wouldn’t be there for his death, an event he and I had openly discussed for years.
The Most Important Decision
On Tuesday, September 13, 2022, my mom called with the news I’d been expecting, talking about, thinking about, preparing for, and dreading for most of my adult life. Zaide was nearing the tail end of the slide. I made it to San Francisco just after midnight. It was Zaide’s 91st birthday.
Zaide had been an advocate for medical aid in dying long before it became legal. He used to say whenever he became a burden on anyone he would “just take the pill” and call UCSF to pick up his body for science. No casket, no grieving, and certainly no funeral. Unfortunately, he got his wish.
Choosing a quick death is not any more noble or brave than choosing to push through the last few weeks of life. It’s just different. We all are different that way. Some of us, myself included, hope to one day enjoy the liberty to make our own decision on the single most important aspect of our lives: our life itself.
I’m proud that Zaide chose the path to end it on his own terms, just as proud as I would be of him for choosing to push through it. He confidently, with full awareness and cognition, and with hospice and the support of our family, initiated the approval process for medical aid in dying.
With every passing day, I saw Zaide get weaker and weaker physically, and still to this day, the toughest part of this whole experience was not his death, but having him ask me on several occasions: Is it time?
On Monday morning, the medication was ready for pickup, but we were still nervous. It was Zaide’s worst day yet and, based on everything we knew, this was not going to be an easy mission. He was weak, but we could see in his eyes he was determined and ready. He told the doctor his name and that he was aware of the outcome of this procedure. No time for conversation or goodbyes. We had done that all week.
Three minutes felt like three hours. As I sat behind him, hugging his body against mine, I knew it was over. The breathing, the vibrations, and the unrelenting love of my grandfather slipped away.
We lifted his hand and his grasp on this world loosened. His hand dropped to the bed without resistance. I petted his head one last time on the melanoma scar my sister and I obsessed over as little kids. We loved it because it was a perfectly shaped Z.
Goodbye, Zaid-o. See you tomorrow. I hope so.
Zach continues to share his grandfather’s story – to bring awareness to the power that Death with Dignity laws provide dying patients. Share your story today.