I’m no stranger to death. Sadly. But since 2010, I’ve become a lot better acquainted than I ever wanted to be. First there was my aunt, then my uncle. Then last year I lost my beautiful friend James. By the end of 2015, I lost both a step-sibling and my mother.
The new year saw the death of several key idols in my life. When I was a latchkey kid, music was my babysitter, my teacher, my preacher, my lover and my friend. Losing the trifecta of David Bowie, Glenn Frey and, the most painful of all, Prince, leveled me emotionally.
I don’t expect that to make sense to people who didn’t have to rely on imaginary people and faraway idols to find their way out of personal darkness. But for me… knowing those lights have now gone out… I feel the loss acutely. Especially when real life losses have already shattered me.
And now, within the span of several days, Steven’s grandmother, and my grandmother by choice, is preparing to shuffle off her mortal coil.
We saw her on Mother’s Day. I took her my new book, Glitter on the Web. Grandma is my biggest fan. Every time she saw me she wanted a new book to read. There were some passages she understandably had to skip, but she loved them all regardless. I was proud to share Glitter with her. Though she had suffered a broken pelvis, and had relocated to a new Board & Care, she was in good spirits, with that same indomitable spirit and tireless smile. She was definitely a hugs and kisses kind of grandma. She could get stern if she needed to, but she’d rather laugh. She took me in. She took my boys in. When Jer’s girlfriend Brittany moved to California to live with us, Grandma took her in as well, announcing the very day they met that she approved.
She has always been full of life and full of love as long as I’ve known her. When the doctors had brought up hospice to my mother-in-law weeks ago, she was adamant. As long as Grandma wanted to hold on, we would hold on.
Then last Saturday came, along with a raging fever. My mother-in-law, Mom2, took her vitals and thought she heard some abnormalities with the heart. They went to the hospital. Turns out Grandma had a heart attack without even knowing it. When we got to the hospital ICU to see her, she was smiling big and had love and hugs to greet us, telling everyone that I write wonderful books. She’d already finished Glitter and she wanted another one, as per usual. I promised her one, as per usual.
What wasn’t usual was how exhausted she was. Steven and I didn’t want to tire her out, so we kept our visit brief. She seemed to understand. “I’m so tired,” she said.
It felt important.
As it turned out there were two heart attacks, with evidence of an older heart attack as well. The doctor called Mom2, to discuss the options. He could perform an angioplasty, but neither Mom2 or her brother liked the sound of that. Grandma is 93 with a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate.) No one wanted to put her through that when the doctor couldn’t guarantee that it wouldn’t prevent another heart attack.
They opted for medicine only.
When Mom2 let us know they were sending Grandma back to the B&C, Steven and I were like, “Well, that’s Grandma rebounding like she always does.” She’s strong. A real trooper. Stubborn and unlikely to give up if she has her mind set on something.
This was different. She was tired. And she’d already made her decision. Enough was enough.
By Tuesday she was non-responsive, heavily medicated on morphine for the pain, to keep her “comfortable”. We went to see her. Almost everyone was there, taking turns with her, holding her hand, telling her how much they loved her. Steven spent some time alone with her. It destroyed him, which in turn devastated me. He keeps telling me I don’t have to be the “strong one,” because she’s my grandma too. Well my grandma would want me to take care of her Stevie, and that’s what I’m going to do.
My kids went, including Brit. They all were able to give her kisses, touch her hand, tell her they loved her. I kind of fell apart, as I’m known to do. I am a highly emotional empath after all, and this is a big deal. I’m losing the only grandma I’ve ever known. And while I know this is what she wanted, making the decision when she was lucid enough to make it, tired of doctors, hospitals, pain and limitations, the thought of losing her is too much to bear. For all of us I think. She’s always been the glue that held us together, the rock star of every family function. It’s almost fitting that her last days coincide with a holiday. They always did holidays right in Steven’s family.
By Wednesday, she was more alert and aware, in between dozing on the medication. It moved on my heart at work that afternoon that I wanted to do something special for her. I had to. I couldn’t be there for my mom, which was even more devastating. With the sands falling for yet another woman I love, I knew I couldn’t just sit around, waiting for death. Several years back I took several of her stories and printed them in a book for her. These were stories like she used to tell Steven and his sister, Erica. After their father abruptly left the marriage, and Mom2 returned home to her parents to navigate being a single mom in the 1970s, Grandma was their bonus parent. And she’d use her wildly imaginative brain to tell fabulous stories to get them to eat the foods they didn’t want to eat.
In one of the forwards, Erica tells how she faked disliking peas just so Grandma would tell her the Pea story.
I decided that I would take these stories she told, not just at bedtime but all the time, and release her into eternal sleep with them. Only Jer and Brit joined me for our visit. At first I couldn’t muster the strength to read. I sat there beside her, holding her hand, listening to old gospel songs that they were playing next to her bed. It reminded me of my childhood, and my own parents who have now gone on.
It only made me cry harder. Hurt more. I know that these hymns bring peace to some, but they only remind me of countless funerals and endless loss.
Finally I mustered the strength to read. I read Steven’s forward, which reduced Brit to tears. She’d never read or heard these stories before. Then I got to Erica’s. When I mentioned the pea story, Grandma laughed suddenly. We all shared a shocked expression. We glanced back at Grandma, who hadn’t fully awakened, but there was now a big smile on her face.
I read her The Hummingbird Story, one she had written for Erica and her husband, Matt. When I mentioned the bird’s name (Twitter,) or their cat’s name, (Twitchy,) or even their dog’s name (Ella Mae,) Grandma would chuckle or laugh or smile. When she’d wake up, she’d glance around us, smile and wave, so happy to see us there.
Before we left, she had a moment of lucidity, stating how much she loved her family for always being so good to her. She stated, “I have a daughter. And I have a son. I have a son,” she declared, again and again, before drifting off with, “I think.”
And with that she drifted back into her non-responsive state, where she has remained since. They medicated her for pain the following morning. When Brit and I went to read more stories to her Thursday night, she didn’t stir, laugh or smile. She’d cough randomly, and make random little cries, like she was dreaming.
I read her story to her, about her life, and Grandpa. When she didn’t respond, I knew she had drifted to a place we’d probably never reach her again. At least until we cross over to the other side.
As I stood over her bed, I took in all the changes that precede death. It broke my heart. Again. Just days ago she was smiling and happy, full of love, joy and kisses, despite being in a sterile ICU.
Death. How quickly it comes. How cruelly it lingers.
I took today off of work because my heart just couldn’t handle it. They were more than understanding. When I went into work Wednesday morning, and burst into tears, hugging my boss and my coworkers, they all told me to go be with her. This is our business after all. Ironically, I started work at a hospice mere months after I lost my mother. I’ve been dealing with and working through that grief every single day since, and the wonderful folks I work with help me do that on a daily basis, whether they know it or not.
It also gave me some insight into what I was seeing happen with Grandma.
Oddly it doesn’t make it any easier. I just convince myself it does. I’ve always been the kind of person who just wants to KNOW. I don’t want any surprises. After my dad had his sudden stroke in 1980, when I was barely 11, I made up my mind then and there I’d always rather know exactly who was ready to pull the rug out from under me.
Every death since then has proven to me that it doesn’t matter. I may think knowledge is control, but really… I know nothing. We humans know maybe a sliver of all there is to know, and pat ourselves on the back for how enlightened we are.
Truly enlightened people are the ones who know that they don’t know, and that life will be the thing that teaches the all the way up till the end.
In the last six years, I’ve known death was coming for my loved ones. Days, hours or minutes, it was inevitable. Almost merciful. As I hang tangled in suspended grief, I can’t say for sure that knowing what’s coming is any better than that gut-punch of losing someone so suddenly it takes weeks to emerge from the shock. This is more like a sneeze that won’t ever fully come, even when you’ve prepared for it.
So I fill up time waiting for “the call.” Grandma hasn’t had any food or water since Monday, so we know it will probably come sooner rather than later. Steven’s distracting himself. That’s what he does. Mom2 and Erica are by her side taking care of her, that’s what they do. The kids are holding me up while I grieve, cry and juggle my emotions to support everyone else… because that’s what we do.
And we wait for death, because – whether we know it or not – that’s what we all do.
And we make the moments count in between… because that’s all that matters anyway.
And we love. Because we don’t know when or where or how. We don’t know how long have with each other. Every moment counts, even the little ones we’re convinced don’t.
We love as hard as we can, as complete as we can, with this hope that it is the one thing we carry with us as we transition.
In the end it’s the only thing that matters.