Defining moments in our lives don’t happen every day. In fact over my forty-two years, I can count them on one hand – the usual graduation, marriage, birth of a child… Sometimes though, they come out of nowhere, seemingly unexpected and slap you in the face, forcing you to take notice. I had one of those “what now?” moments earlier this week when I had the honor and privilege of being the last one with my grandmother on her very last night on earth.
Between the moment when my mother first called to tell me my 94-year-old grandmother had taken a turn for the worse and the time I arrived at her nurse home, I wondered how I’d handle being the only one there as my grandmother passed from this world to the next. As it happened my mother after great deliberation went on a much deserved vacation and was a good 18 hours away. Her other two siblings and the other grandchildren also lived many, many hours from my grandmother. I was the closet and only relative in the area. I didn’t hesitate and assured my mother that my grandmother would NOT die alone. I resolved myself not to fall apart and to be strong for everyone – a role I’m not used to playing. I worried how I’d stay awake all night, but in the end the night passed quickly and I never tired.
My grandmother lay in her bed, her respirations fast and labored. She looked so tiny, so fragile, nothing like the grandmother I remembered from my childhood. I held her hand and talked to her letting her know I was there. She never squeezed my hand or looked in my eyes or spoke a word to me, but I know in my heart she knew I was with her. Through the night I sat at her bedside, listening to the oxygen machine and my grandma’s breathing. I prayed for her, I read a book, I fielded phone calls and emails from concerned relatives, and I waited. The nurses were wonderful and cared for her with respect and tenderness. Around 9 PM or so the hospice nurse came in to assess her. I thought just maybe my grandmother might be doing a little better and the call would be a false alarm, but no. The nurse told me that my grandmother was “actively dying” and most likely would not make it until morning. My mother wouldn’t make it back in time. At this realization my tears began to fall.
My grandmother and I weren’t especially close, but I loved her and have good memories. Memories of eating buttered toast cut into triangle in her warm kitchen, of sneaking into bed with her early in the morning and putting my cold feet between her legs to warm them, of the green and white polka dot hat she wore to Geauga Lake so we could always pick her out of the crowd. She made it through the night into the early morning. Around nine the next morning she quietly took her last breath. At peace now, she suffered no more. She had a good life, a long life. I was glad I’d been there for her. Someday down the line, I hope my future granddaughter would do the same for me. Over the days after her death as I wait for the arrangements and our final goodbye, my own mortality stares me in the face. It forces me to look back on my life and ahead to my future and settle back in the present. Life goes on. It’s up to me to take mine in the right direction.
My daughters are saddened by great-grandma’s death, but don’t seem to comprehend death yet. Does anyone really comprehend it? In fact, aren’t we all from the moment we’re born, actively dying? My youngest wonders how grandma got to heaven, what she’s doing there and what she’s eating. She told her preschool teacher she got to go to a funeral and have a party with the enthusiasm of a five-year old going to the zoo. Both girls are excited about traveling to the city were my grandmother lived most of her life and where she’ll be put to rest. They’ve already packed their bags. The oldest wants to be sure the hotel has a pool. They’re excited to be alive. Yes, life does go on. And as a friend of mine pointed out to me earlier in the week, they have the right idea. And I think they do. Someday when it’s my turn to go, I hope my family says a quiet goodbye as I leave them behind and then goes on to party.
What about you? What are your thoughts?