My grandmother is dying. Normally, something so personal to my family would not come up in my public writing but I feel the need to write about it today. This afternoon, I sat by my grandmother's chair holding her hand. I didn't understand a word she said midst her groans and I don't even know if she knew who I was but she gripped my hand like a vice. She looked at me through half closed eyes and I told her she looked good in yellow. Did she know I was the same person as the baby pictured above her bed? To me, it didn't matter but it did matter to me and perhaps to her that someone, whoever she thought they were, cared enough to sit beside her and give her affectionate touch. And though she couldn't ask for it, I thought it would be alright to send her soul the feeling of peace and of being loved. It is all I can really give to her - my presence and a sense of peace as she lives how many ever days she has left on earth.
I got "the call," you know the kind, about seven months ago last spring when my mom told me my grandmother had suffered a stroke. I visited her at the hospital and then a nursing center. She tried being at home with care but that didn't work out, so my mom and older sister found a great assisted living home for her close to my mom. Since she started there, we have had to keep moving her to higher and higher levels of care to where she is now in the memory unit. Over the summer, we went through her whole house and sold what we could via garage sales and advertisements. The rest is spread out between my mom, older sister, and I.
Eight months ago my grandmother was living independently in her own home and still driving. Now she is in a memory unit unable to really speak or do anything for herself. It still blows me away. Two visits ago, I showed her the video of me on the flying trapeze in Seattle. She could still carry on a bit of a conversation at that point and she asked me, "What was it like?" I'd never heard my grandmother ask that question before and for a moment, we got to connect on a genuine level, a level we hadn't connected on since I was a little girl, if ever. It felt like a break in the clouds of blue sky on an extraordinarily rainy day. Such a little thing, a short conversation, but to me, it's a memory of gold I will always treasure.
I know that next call, the final one, can come any day now. We suspect her fast decline is due to a series of small strokes and you just never know with those. This might sound unfeeling, but I'm thankful her decline has been fast. I used to work in nursing homes and saw first-hand how lingering in this state for a long period of time can truly be worse than death. It is not the kind of death I would wish for myself and I do not wish it for her. Death can be a release. Still, I cry to think of it.
Up to the age of thirty-two, there hadn't been a lot of death in my immediate family. I remember my mom and grandparents going through my great-grandfather's house when I was a child though I don't remember him and I have a scrap of memory of my great-grandmother for whom I'm named, but as a child, the only other close death was my great-uncle, my grandmother's brother. He died when I was a teenager. At nineteen, I lost my most beloved cat, Emily. She came into our backyard when I was four and I was instantly in love. We were connected in a deep way from that point on and I still believe she was an "angel" sent by God to be with me. It wasn't until I was twenty-four I lost a grandparent. My grandpa, the one I was closest to, the one I look so much like, died at the Veteran's home. Going through all the things at his and my grandmother's house this last summer brought much of that grief back to the surface for me. Then, just over a year and a half ago when I was thirty-two, my step-grandfather died. Nine months later, my paternal grandfather died. Five months after that, my great-great-aunt died (I'm friends with her son, my cousin). Aunt Grace's funeral was the last time I saw my grandmother outside of a hospital or nursing home. Weeks after that, she had her stroke. Two months after that, my step-mother's mom died. During this time, I've also experienced loss in other ways: loss of relationships, loss of trust, loss of old beliefs and ways of thinking. In short, it's been a lot of loss in a short amount of time.
I have a question I answer every month: "What image, piece of music, word or two, or color, describes what life has been like lately?" This month, I think my answer is going to be sitting in front of a gravestone. I've been digging a lot of graves lately and burying a lot of what was once precious to me. It's the season of loss. I'm letting go, pulling roots out of the ground, standing beside a funeral pyre watching the flames rise to the stars, knowing that the empty feeling inside is exactly what it's supposed to be. In a strange way, those strands of loss around my soul are even comforting. Like a good cry, such loss empties you out and you are left by the riverbank with the rain falling on your face and nowhere else to be.
Post Script: My Grandma died this morning, September 24, 2013, two and a half days after this post was originally published.
Labels: Family, Grief, Loss