It’ll be at least a few more years before my grandfather will be able to write his memoirs, seeing that he’s momentarily suspended. It never fails that when I mention his being frozen, people’s eyes get wide with wonder as they pull up proverbial carpet squares for story time.
Truth is, while commonly associated with sci-fi storylines and movies like "Forever Young," "Vanilla Sky" and "Austin Powers," cryonic suspension is actually a life choice people make.
The concept of cryonics involves cooling a recently deceased person to liquid nitrogen temperatures in order to keep their body preserved indefinitely. The goal, according to the Cyronics Institute, is to “keep the patient preserved until future science is able to repair or replace vital tissues and ultimately revive them.”
My grandfather's choice is so embedded in my family’s history -- he wrote for cryogenics newsletters and discussed his decision freely from the time anyone can remember -- that the only question I ever considered in regards to his being frozen was if I’ll be the one to pick him up after he is revived or (should the miracles of science take longer than my life span) if I’ll need to have kids in order to provide a chauffeur.
My grandfather, who was 88 when he had a stroke that rendered him incapacitated, had decided years before that he wanted his body preserved on the off-chance revival was possible. My mom carried a laminated business card in her wallet from the time she was a child, containing all the Cryonic Institute's numbers on one side and what to do in case of emergency on the other: "Pack his head in ice, notify ER personnel of his wishes."
“Upon death, freeze the head,” read the bracelet on his wrist. It’s a bracelet that I took to wearing years after his passing, even though I was afraid someone would read it on my own wrist and I would have my own head packed in ice before a refrigerated van whisked me away to an unidentified location in Michigan. It never happened to me, but that is exactly what happened to my grandfather the night of his death.
We’d all spent most of our lives knowing this day would come, but it’s not something anyone can prepare for, seeing that the number of people who’ve gone through the process can be counted on very few hands.
My mother was the lone family member with my grandpa when he died, on the evening of my 23rd birthday.
I was sitting in the dark on the floor of my bedroom in Chicago, like any directionless millennial trying to piece life together. I’m willing to bet I was already drinking when my mom called me from the equally dark porch at my grandfather’s house in Wisconsin.
My mom wasn't sure how much ice she'd need, but she had backup bags of frozen vegetables on hand. Little known fact: Frozen peas are integral to the cryonic process. She followed the instructions, putting towels around his head and surrounding it in ice. The idea was not to freeze the head, only to use enough ice to keep it cool. Turns out they had plenty; there were unused bags in the freezer for a long time after his passing.
My mom called the number on the card, and the medical examiner showed up shortly after, followed by the funeral director and his wife who drove his body to Michigan that night. My mother called the Institute days later, asking if she did everything correctly. As she recounted, “They assured me that dad was OK and that he was cooling down nicely.”
Since I was raised to expect science to take over where life left off, grieving took a different form. At the wake, tears were intermixed with explanations of my grandfather’s temporary resting place.
Like putting flowers on a grave, one can visit The Cryonic Institute. My aunt went a number of years after his death to see “where he was stored.” She noted, “Dad is with five others. They put six in a large round container. He is number 79, based on the order in which people were frozen. The only maintenance required is to add more liquid nitrogen once per week. There is no electricity needed as it is under pressure, so even if the electricity went off for some reason, there would be no problem. I would rather be in a grave with a tree and nature surrounding me than in a building with several people sharing a large cylinder.”
My grandfather lived a dynamic life. He toured as a professional roller skater. He did handstands on motorcycles, owned his own business, participated in triathlons and the Senior Olympics. He was an inventor, a comedian and a scientist. There wasn’t a time when he wasn’t engaging life, which begs the question, why was he so afraid to die? I think he simply wasn’t content with what little time we’re given. He wanted to live longer, and he found a community that feels indefinite lifespans are possible.
I never thought about having to decide whether I believed in reviving the dead until recently. As I grow older, I begin to fear the unknown of death more and more. Sure, rational thinking makes one question whether death is something that can be "cured," but what if? As the Cyronic Institute puts it on their website: “Airplanes, vaccines and computers that were all considered 'impossible' ideas less than a century ago are now everyday features of modern life.”
People have found it possible to believe in things far less tangible. If nothing else, banking on science might just be a way to find peace with the fear of eternal silence.