Why my grandfather isn’t like a chicken

Note: this post came from an old blog where it’s been in drafts for 6 years. I was hesitant to share it then as it was still a bit raw – but thought it would be worth digging out to share here.

My Nonno Pasquale was a funny guy…

He moved in with my parents back in 2002. I had just turned 14 and was probably at the peak of self-obsession. It became clear pretty quickly that he came from a different world than the one I grew up in.

The man never wasted food: apple cores, chicken bones, week-old leftovers – no scrap left behind. His favourite pastimes included day-time television (specifically Question Time and The Bold and the Beautiful), monitoring and reporting on the whereabouts of his ‘scoundrel’ grandchildren, and rehashing the weather report around Australia for anyone who may have not been in the room for the original broadcast…

… and then there were the chickens.

**Warning: Animal rights advocates may wish to head elsewhere at this point.

You see, my grandfather was born in Italy between two world wars. Times were tough in his little mountain-top town in the southern Italian region of Calabria. When he went off to  World War II he was captured pretty quickly, and as the story goes, the American POW camp was pretty awesome: they got bread everyday! As a result old Nonno Pasquale was a pretty tough nut. He knew the value of a dollar, he worked like an ox all his life, and if someone wasn’t pulling their weight he never hesitated to let them know.

Well, the chickens weren’t pulling their weight.

When a hen gets a bit old it seems she just can’t lay eggs like she used to, and if nonno was going to go to the trouble of feeding her everyday, well…

You're a goner
See ya

We’ll leave it at that, shall we?

In Nonno’s later years he struggled more and more with the pain of his crippling arthritis and decaying prosthetic hip. Having to move in with us after a fall was a bit of a blow for him. Giving up his driver’s licence, walking with a stick and eventually with a frame: each step away from the independence of youth toward reliance on others was obviously quite difficult for him.

He had worked hard all his life for his family, and now as he reached the twilight of his life, he found himself somewhat less ‘useful’. He did the best he could in light of the circumstances; he’d hobble outside to water the garden clutching his stick, which conveniently doubled as a pointing device when he took on his supervisory role while my father worked. As his pain worsened he would still drag himself out on his walking frame to collect the mail every single day. It was no easy feat for him – he would have to stop and rest a few times along the way, but without fail, the mail made it to the dining room table.

As the years went on I started to emerge from my burrow of teenage angst and got to wondering something: did nonno think of himself like he thought about those chickens?  Did he believe that if he was no longer ‘useful’, then he might as well face the same fate?

This was a question that weighed heavily on me for the last years of my grandfather’s life. I would often ask myself: how can I show him his life is still of value, independent of what he can or can’t do?  A lot of the time I failed miserably. As a young person constantly rushing here or there, at times I didn’t believe he could offer anything of value – except maybe a good laugh (he had a wicked, albeit often morbid sense of humour). Often when he would challenge me on something or try to share something with me I would visibly tune out and refuse to believe there could be any sense to what this old man had to say. I am ashamed to admit it, but for many years of my grandfather’s time with us, I barely even acknowledged his presence.

And then it came to me: did I think of my nonno the same way he thought of those chickens?

I know this is not just me, but part of a broader phenomenon stemming from our increasingly consumer-driven society: what Pope Francis would describe as the ‘throw away culture’. Just a couple of months ago he spoke on the danger this presents.

“To maintain a balance like this, where at the centre of the world economy there are no men and women, but where money is an idol, it’s necessary to throw things away… we throw away the elderly, behind which are attitudes of hidden euthanasia, a form of euthanasia. They aren’t needed, and what isn’t needed gets thrown away. What doesn’t produce is discarded..”

Pope Francis

“Attitudes of hidden euthanasia”. Every time I made my grandfather feel that he was not loved or valued, that his opinion was not important, that his years of experience had no bearing on the world of today, was I guilty of these ‘attitudes of hidden euthanasia’?

Ghandi once said “the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members”. If this is the case, I believe we have a lot to answer for. The elderly of our society, and those closest to death, can certainly be counted amongst our most vulnerable – and how do we treat them? At best, we might welcome them into our homes, but not without letting them know the inconvenience they are at times. At worst, we might find their pain and and incapacity too harsh a reminder of our own mortality and count them as a burden that needs to be relinquished one way or another.

Or, we could make them know their value is not in what they can do or what they have to offer – but in who they are, in Whose likeness they are created. We could spend time with them. We could bring them their favourite chocolate with their afternoon coffee, just so they know we were thinking of them. We could listen patiently when they need to talk about their pain or illness. We could walk with them through their suffering, realising that it is not our service to them, but their service to us: for it is in the most vulnerable of our brothers and sisters that Christ is waiting to reveal Himself to us.

“Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Matt 15:40)

If there is one thing I regret in life, it was that this saying of Our Lord’s never hit home until the last hours of my grandfather’s life. As he lay in the hospital bed barely able to move, he asked me for something to drink. I took his white plastic cup in one hand, and placed the other under his chin catching the drops that fell. When he had done drinking I wished him good night, leaned over, kissed his forehead and left.

God has revealed Himself to me in different ways, to different degrees throughout my life. Few more profound than the moment I met Him in the flesh in my dying grandfather.

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