I thought my grandma would never die.
And then she did.
Most of us have people who are constants. Parents, friends from first grade, siblings, ageless librarians. Those constants shape our experience as humans through their presence in our lives.
Forrest Gump’s mom is right when she says that “death is a part of life.” I guess when someone special has been around since day one, you think they’ll be there for the rest of your life.
My Grandma was 69 when I was born. I was in elementary school when she started forgetting about her pies in the oven. Eventually she needed help grocery shopping and folding laundry. When one day she emerged from the living room on a walker I accepted that she was officially aging… but a walker is a long way from dying, right?
I had the privilege of helping my grandparents throughout high school and college when they became house bound. Helping my Grandma get dressed, making their lunch, and doing chores around the house were the best parts of any summer I had before moving permanently to North Carolina.
Every time I went back down South for another semester of school I knew it might be the last time I saw either one of my grandparents in a relatively healthy state. That last goodbye hug of the summer always stung.
Medicine saved my grandmother many times. Hospital stays for sciatica, a bad knee, a coumidin adjustment, pneumonia, and the flu were all alarming, but every time, without a doubt, she came home after a few days. With each passing year being away from home distressed her more. Unaware of where she was and why people in scrubs were talking to her about this and that, she would plead with Grandpa to take her home.
We worked the word “dementia” into the vocabulary of Grandma’s health. But dementia is a long way from dying, right?
Today I close my eyes and let my brain soak in memories of phone conversations with my Grandma. I called home almost every weekend to check in. Over time my chats with Grandma became short and broken records, but I cherish those broken records. Despite the lack of diversity in conversation topics, Gram’s questions were still authentic and she was still interested in my life. When she picked up the phone she knew my voice.
“So, what do you for fun?”
“How’s the weather in Carolina?”
“How’s your car?”
“Anything good on TV lately?”
Her dainty voice was always chipper. I could tell when she mustered her energy for just a few minutes of conversation.
And so went my denial that some day her recliner would be empty. I thought my Grandma would never die. And then she did.
August of 2011 was a kaleidoscope of tears, driving, food, hugs, and more tears. A series of phone calls between my mother, Elliot, and I confirmed that Grandma was in the hospital with a brain aneurysm and a stomach aneurysm. On my first day back at work post-surgery I sat in my minivan sobbing. I slumped into my office with my sunglasses on so passers by wouldn’t ask any questions.
Over the next week or so my aunt and grandfather talked to doctors, nurses, and care providers who decided that surgery wasn’t an option. Grandma officially needed end-of-life care. The same week she went to the emergency room a hospice setting had invaded the living room and she was sedated 24/7.
A patient can be in hospice care for months or years. Unsure of how long Grandma had left, I was on stand-by around the clock to fly home at the drop of a dime. The plan was for Elliot to drive up soon after with Norton. Every time my cell phone rang I shuttered at the possibility that my mom was on the other end to say it was time to come home.
A few days passed. It was Welcome Week at Campbell– the students’ first few days back on campus after summer vacation. After a long and stressful day I went to Bojangles with my friends Beth and Catherine. Nothing solves problems like a biscuit and sweet tea.
Throughout our entire conversation I felt a tug. I had been highly preoccupied over the last week but this was different– something happening far way needed my attention. On the way back to campus I pulled my phone from the cup holder in the minivan and saw six missed calls from my mom. I knew this was it, so I braced for it and held back the tears until I dropped Beth off at her apartment.
“Do you think I should fly out in the morning?”
“I think you should come as soon as you can, honey.”
Grandma’s breathing was unsteady. The priest had delivered her Last Rites. At 11 p.m. we left Raleigh with dirty clothes and Norton’s kibbles thrown into the minivan. Elliot drove overnight from Raleigh to Warren after working all day. I slept, cried, and slept some more. When we pulled into my parents’ driveway around 9 a.m. I headed straight over to see Grandma.
The next few days run together in my memory. I think I slept later that day but I don’t remember. At some point I showered and changed clothes. My mom, aunt, and I spent the night at my grandparents’ to sit, watch, wait, and to administer Gram’s pain medication. We did Grandpa’s laundry and made sure the dishes were clean. My aunt, my grandparent’s primary caretaker, was busy with other health concerns that kept her away more than she wanted. Her typically soothing voice was often frantic and unsure.
I held Grandma’s hand a lot. I felt her velvet skin, her swollen joints, and I admired her sun spots. Her long life was evident as her fingers chilled to allow blood to nourish her body’s vital organs.
And then, after a day of hand holding and whispering to others in the house, mom and I watched Grandma breathe her last. I had never witnessed a death, and besides cry a lot I didn’t really know what to do.
As much as her body was ready to give up, no one else was. We summoned Grandpa, her husband for nearly 70 years, from upstairs to tell him. He and my dad both stood stunned at Grandma’s side. Dad wept while Grandpa kissed Grandma’s forehead and held her hand. Medicine couldn’t save Grandma this time. We couldn’t avoid death anymore.
Tradition and instructions from the funeral home floated us through the next several days. I passively experienced time passing. Emily and I chose Grandma’s funeral outfit– talk about a task you think you’ll never do. We picked through Gram’s massive collection of jewelry to find just the right pieces. Gram was very detail oriented and would have wanted everything to coordinate just right.
Details became the name of the game– funeral arrangements, the funeral program, where to have lunch after the funeral, where to store the food people were bringing by, what people should wear to the funeral, etc. I wrote Gram’s obituary, which was oddly comforting. She always admired my writing and it meant a lot to me that my words would have the final say on her life. Later that week Grandpa, a man of few words, said something I’ll never forget.
“Did you get a copy of your grandmother’s obituary?”
“Yeah, I wrote it for them.”
“Ah, that’s why it was so nice then.”
His compliment was the only bright spot in our visit home that week. Honestly, from the moment my mom made that initial phone call to the moment we pulled out of Warren to head back to Raleigh, everything just sucked. I think we all had moments in which responsibilities trumped emotions, but that didn’t make anything any easier. I was swimming upriver against my grief, unsure of where the shore was.
Eventually I found the shore. It’s closer some days than others. Sometimes when I have time to myself at home I lay down and relive memories with my grandmother. The tears stream freely as life with Mary McCarthy plays like a movie– trips to McDonalds for no special reason, eating pierogies at the Polish festival, watching Mass on Saturday morning after a sleepover. Endless scenes of feeling special.
Emily’s prom, 2008