E. Gilberta Young, August 26, 1930 – July 18, 2002
I think I heard Jeff Foxworthy say once that you know you’re a redneck when… your dying grandmother is brought to live her final days in her daughter’s garage… or something like that. Huh? Sounds like a joke, but believe me it’s not. It’s just another chapter in the life of a cancer-ridden family. I say cancer-ridden, when in actuality only one person has cancer. We may not all be infected, but we are all definitely affected.
What happens when a person is diagnosed with cancer? Tears, fears and anxiety seem to be at the forefront. It’s amazing how something so devastating to one person can turn around and be a power play for them. That person will hurt, suffer, and in the end die from their disease. But through all of that, they will become the most powerful person in their family, even to their dying day.
Here is my story. It’s a story of love, laughter, hate and sadness all wrapped up into one. I am the granddaughter of a cancer patient who is in her final hour. At the age of twenty-eight I still sometimes feel like I am supposed to be the kid who is unbelievably sad that Gram is going through this, but there is more to it. I’ve been a certified nurse’s aide for eleven years, doing my work in a nursing home. That gives me the knowledge and experience to handle this situation whereas the rest of the family doesn’t.
I would say that I wasn’t much of a front person in this story until the recent past. Grammy has had lung cancer for about two years now. I wasn’t much in the family when she was diagnosed, but I guess like most rocky relationships, a light bulb goes off when the words, terminally ill, are spoken. Everything in you kind of comes to a stand still, and you know that time isn’t a luxury anymore.
I wouldn’t say that I was a doting grandchild after that, but I was a little more attentive. With three kids, a husband, and about an hours drive away, visiting didn’t become more crucial, but I would keep in touch and do the holiday thing. With ninety percent of the family living out of state, I felt I was contributing as much as the rest of them, therefore living without guilt. That sounds horrible, doesn’t it? Grammy was always quite an independent person. She relied heavily on her best friend, boy friend, whatever you want to call him, Donald. He has been her sidekick for twenty-three years, and he was standing right in there doing her bidding. Believe me, bidding is the best word for it. Grammy was always kind of head strong, and demanding was kind of her way. It must not have been too rough on him, because he was there every day for the last two decades. I call it true love, or maybe true devotion might be more fitting. I guess there was never a thought to marriage, but they seemed to have a commitment all their own. Whatever it was, it so worked for them.
At first when she was diagnosed, she said she was ready to go, and had no interest in fighting the disease. I don’t know if the thought of Donald being alone once she died or something deep inside her screamed out, “Not me, not now”, but Grammy took up the fight against cancer with a vengeance. Chemo-therapy, radiation, I’m not sure what all she put her body through, but she did whatever it took. Her body showed the signs of it. My brother shaved her head when the hair started falling out. I was not there, but I have to think that was a rough day for her. Grammy was always quite a flashy woman. She and Donald were big into ballroom dancing, so she always looked her best. Fancy clothes, fancy shoes, fancy jewelry, all in her own gaudy way. I have to believe that no matter how many times she acted like it was no big deal, losing her hair had to be devastating. It’s the time when all who see you, know you have cancer. One can only imagine those sad stares from wondering children, or the pitiful looks from people with understanding in their eyes. But Grammy made the best of it, with her colorful array of turbans, and her many wigs. I give her tons of credit for always making the best of those situations.
Believe me, Christmas that year was about as morbid as you can get. I hadn’t been to Christmas at Grammy’s in almost five years, but my brother called and made it pretty clear that this was probably Grammy’s last one, so be there. All her kids made the trek home. One from Minnesota, one from Ohio, one from Florida, and of course the local one. Four kids in all, not any of them seeming too ready for the any holiday festivities.
Keep it cheerful! It’s Christmas! Yeah, right! Everyone acted so fake. Being away for so long it seemed fake to me. There was food, presents, and all the little kids seemed oblivious to the sad overtones. Deep down, the rest of them were picturing holidays to come when Grammy would not be with us. Once or twice I noticed one of my aunts sniffling, while the other family members would be caught looking at Grammy, wondering if she was enjoying her last holiday, or faking it as well. We took the proverbial “last photos”. “Come on now, all the grandkids!,” “Kids, and spouses!,” “Debby, your family next!,” “Maryse, kids, scoot in close!,” “Is Gary and Karen coming up from the basement, it’s their turn!,” “Brucette, smile!” Photo after photo, smile after smile, some real, some fake, but every picture with Grammy right in the middle. Smiling so that generations to come would remember. Everyone of us that year got a framed photo of Grammy and her dog, ladybug. I think that was one of the worst Christmases I’ve ever had. I’m not sure if the cancer hanging over was what depressed me, or that we were all there as kind of a final farewell.
Grammy surprised us all. Her battle waged on, and month after month she kept going. Some days were good, some days were bad. My family and I ventured up to see her on a few occasions. Grammy had taken up the hobby of making afghans. I think it was her way of leaving a memento for each member of the family. She would call every time she finished one for a member of my family. It was her way of making up reasons for a visit. I tried to go every time. She looked tired sometimes.
Cancer was a way of life for Grammy. My mother made weekly trips to see Grammy. She cleaned, did some laundry, all of the chores that Grammy had difficulty doing. Laundry was the big one. Grammy’s washer and dryer were in the basement. Donald wasn’t a spring chicken either, so getting up and down the steps didn’t work for either one of them. Donald had his own house across town, but was a constant visitor at Grammy’s. He helped with the dog, feeding the birds. He did the chauffeuring; doctor’s visits, grocery runs, Wal-mart stops. You name it and he was there. Dedication must be his middle name. They had carved out quite a unique life together. It worked well for them, better than most marriages. Donald never had to be there, he just wanted to be there. In my opinion, that’s a beautiful thing.
One might never equate the diagnosis of cancer with the crowning of royalty, but in some aspects they are very much alike. How, you might ask? They are both power trips in their own way. I’m not saying that there is anything good about cancer, don’t get me wrong, but when a person is diagnosed they get a power over their family that some thankfully will never know and many won’t under-stand. I don’t think for one minute that a person would relish that kind of power or even wish to have it, but they become the ruler of many lives besides their own.
When Grammy was diagnosed with cancer, the whole family was a victim. How can one person’s decisions in their life control so many is astounding. Not having been diagnosed myself, part of this is mere speculation and observation, but as I see it, a cancer patient is given two paths from which to choose from. You can either choose the path of treatment, or the path of no treatment. When you choose treatment, it’s a battle inside yourself. You have chosen to subject your physical being to horrendous amounts of chemicals and medicines. It has to be a rough decision, almost like being on a hellish roller coaster, never knowing from day to day how you will feel. The side affects sometimes worse than the disease itself. But in choosing that roller coaster, you take your family on that ride as well. Not in the driver’s seat, but sitting in the back watching in horror as their loved one suffers, smiling through the pain, having good days, having bad days. It’s like standing on the side lines as the roller coaster is going uphill, and having someone grab your arm on the way up and pulling you along for the ride. You just hang on and watch, horrified of the unknown. Cancer is the unknown.
I don’t think that Grammy thought of her fight as power, but it was. I know that my aunts, uncle and mother were at the mercy of this disease. From a distance people might say that they were at the mercy of Grammy, and sometimes it would appear that way, but Grammy was always pretty independent. She would never have chosen to be waited on hand and foot. But from looking at the whole picture, I can see that as the cancer battle got longer, Grammy got weaker and it was just nice to have people around helping out. It got to be an easy way of life. For her children, the cancer became the excuse for trips home. “Grammy needs help with this, Grammy is having a rough spell.” It was a horrible way of life that revolved around this one person and this one disease. Things were done because “Grammy has cancer.”
I don’t think in the past two years, since her diagnosis, that cancer hasn’t been in the conversation. When Grammy spoke of having cancer, I think that the whole family wanted to nod their heads and say, “yeah, we have cancer too!” Donald started doing more… because Grammy had cancer. For him it was a bittersweet time in life. He did things for her all the time, but now those things weren’t done just because he wanted to, but because she had cancer. Trips home from Ohio were nothing unusual for my aunt, but now there were trips home for Mother’s Day (that’s an odd one), because her mom had cancer. Let’s do yard work for her, plant flowers, trim bushes. Sure they wanted to, but now it was because Grammy had cancer. It might be the last summer she enjoys flowers and she didn’t have much energy to put them out herself.
Phone calls became more regular, from everyone. “How are you feeling?” “What did the doctor say?” Those questions replaced regular topics of conversation. It’s like having a black cloud that can reach from Minnesota, Ohio, Florida and Illinois covering just a select few people. We could all tell, from day to day, that everything was taking quite a toll on her. Physically, emotionally, she was drained, weakened. I would say that emotionally, everyone related to her, was drained. It’s the affect of cancer on the people not diagnosed, but just close to her. There should be a pamphlet printed up on cancer symptoms for the patient’s friends and family. Things like fatigue, insomnia, bouts of crying, etc., all symptoms for the family, that take a definite toll.
From first hand experience, the doctors who treat cancer have a definite one-track mind. It’s like no matter what the situation, or who the patient is, they would choose to fight cancer. I think that for some of them it’s a personal war between them and cancer. They have a determination to beat it no matter what. I always felt doctors should see the patient before they see the disease, but it doesn’t work that way. Grammy’s doctor seemed to feel he had to continue the fight regardless of her state. He instilled in her the sense that he could create miracles in her treatment. She would talk of such an intense trust of him and what he thought was the way to go. Fight until he called it quits was her motto. I know some people think that is the sort of dedication to look for in a doctor, but it had its down side as well.
For you to understand that, you must know some of the back ground to my grandma. When she was diagnosed she was a sixty-nine year old woman who had lived a full life. She had been married, and was a mother of four children. Her first husband died when he was forty-six from cancer. She had spent a great deal of her life caring for her aged grandmother, a stroke victim, and her mother as well. When her husband passed away, sometime later she married again, only for it to fail a short time later. That was years ago, I don’t remember. I have memories starting when my grandma was living in a trailer park in Bloomington. She was friends with Donald, and they were avid dancers in every ballroom in town. According to him, she was impressed by his rock turn, a tricky dance move. She liked her booze, and she smoked like a chimney. Not the greatest habits in life, but she seemed content with life and with her independence. She was employed at State Farm Credit Union. I think it was a job she liked and was proud of. She eventually moved into a house near the Bloomington Airport. We used to laugh because her road was right off Sesame Street! She had a nice place, always had a dog, and of course, Donald. He had been the one constant person in her life for the last two decades.
When Grammy learned of her cancer, she didn’t stop smoking…Donald stopped smoking cigars. Maybe the idea of what lie ahead of her, due to her habit, made him sick. I think that getting the news would have made her quit, but according to her, it wasn’t the cigarettes that made her sick, therefore she could still smoke. Do you know what made me sick? How could someone spend so much energy and money on fighting a disease when they weren’t willing to quit smoking that very day? Having retired from State Farm, I’m positive my Gram had great secondary insurance. Of course, Medicare was primary, but having both kept my Grammy going to treatment after treatment. I wondered how many people out there who had never smoked a day in their life were struggling to afford treatments along with the price of just living day to day. It makes me feel ashamed.
“Fight, fight,” that was the motto in everyone’s life. “Grammy is fighting her cancer.” “It has to be a tough fight for her.” Life is so worth fighting for. I really understand wanting to fight. After all, sixty-nine isn’t that old. But when you have not treated your body as the temple it is, you can be an “old” sixty-nine. I guess my Gram didn’t appear to be an “old” person, but I think it was always there, just below the surface. Once the onset of her treatment took hold of her body, the old came out pretty quickly.
So, now here we are. She has fought her way to this part of her life. She is laying her last days here in the garage of her oldest daughter, in a hospital bed.
She has a strep infection, which means isolation is necessary. That’s why she is in the garage. We take care of her ourselves, alternating shifts, supplemented by the hospice team. It’s a tough job, but she did it for her loved ones and we’ll do it for her.
Believe me, it’s not your typical garage. It has carpet, and air conditioning. Her dog is here with her, and she has the door, that leads to the house, open sometimes. It’s her own little area, her own domain. I think it gives her a sense of independence, even though she is dependent for everything. It’s very sad.
I’m afraid the end is near. Maybe afraid isn’t the right word, but I’m not sure how else to say it. I’ve been around death so much working in the nursing home, but it is so different when it’s your own family. I guess you could say she looks peaceful.
The hospice nurse came out and did her routine care. Lisa was no stranger to us, almost an extension of the family, in the few short weeks we’d known her. All the hospice employees become like family. You find yourself depending on them for their knowledge, care and expertise. This visit took a different turn. Grammy was very quiet and weak, but she wanted Lisa to pray with her, and she spoke of her acceptance of God, and that she knew she would be with him for eternity. I honestly think it was the most spiritual moment in her life. Lisa prayed with her, and spoke of God’s greatness. As I watched, it brought tears to my eyes. I’m not the most spiritual person either, but as tears flowed down my grandma’s cheeks, they flowed down mine as well. As Lisa sang a hymn, you could see Grammy’s mouth move ever so slightly, trying to sing along with her. Grammy seemed to be resting so peaceful. With tears flowing down her cheeks, she drifted back asleep.
Lisa came out of her room and said that it appeared Grammy was accepting of what was happening to her, and that in her opinion, Grammy possibly could be gone within the night, or tomorrow. I think the idea of her passing just kind of hit me hard, because the tears came faster. I knew in my head that it will be a blessing that she goes, but it still was hard. I called my mother, the oldest child, and she headed home. I also called my aunt, the youngest child, just to enlighten her on my grandmother’s spiritual moments. That was always my aunt’s biggest fear that Grammy hadn’t accepted God. I guess a person isn’t ready to speak of those things with death looming so close. It must be just a relief for her to be accepting and ready for what is coming. I think that God is very near, and will be sending his angels to come get her very soon. I think she knows it as well.
My mother came home, my aunt decided to head home and now we just all sit and wait. Isn’t that what we’ve been doing? Donald showed up before anyone else. It makes me wonder if he has the sense of it being close. He brought her a card, started her music box for her, and started to cry, as did she. Then in turn, I started to cry again. It’s hard to see her this way, but it is harder to watch him look so lost. His helplessness is worn on his sleeve. How do you comfort a man who is losing his life’s love? How do you tell him that his days won’t be empty when she is gone? For the rest of the family it will be a major loss, but we are not alone in this life. We have families of our own to focus on. We will miss her, but after we mourn, we will continue with our daily lives as usual. Donald’s life consisted of running for her, visiting her, taking care of her. He would throw in a handful of things for himself. He’d go out to eat, swim at the YMCA, take care of some menial tasks at home, but his main job, in this life for the last twenty odd years, was her. His whole day centered around this one woman, who now lay here in the twilight of her life, and there was nothing he could do to help her, to save her. You can sense the desperation in his every move.
She’s lying in her bed, in an upright position. She has carried the look of death for a while now. Maybe it happens that way so not to shock the people close to her. It is still shocking. I’ve seen many people pass through this stage in their life, and you can always look into their face and see the person they used to be. It’s like seeing through a mask into the past. You can see the smiles in their eyes as they look at their small grandchildren and know that you are witnessing the smile they shared with their own children when they were small. You can see the tears flowing down their cheeks as they realize that life is coming to a close, and you know that you are seeing the same tears that flowed when they lost the love of their life years ago. You can see the looks of knowing when they see their own sadness reflected in their loved ones eyes. Somewhere deep in those eyes, you know that all the feelings they’ve had over the years are wrapped up in that wrinkled face, and those understanding eyes. It makes you want to memorize every minute, every look and every word.
The next few hours will be what we make of them. Having helped families through this so many times, I think back to how special a time this can be. I’ve seen families cry together, reminisce together, and cling to each other for support. It is an amazing time for people to share in the life of their loved one. Sometimes the sadness surrounds you, while other moments you find yourself laughing about certain moments and experiences with her. The whole time she is the center of your thoughts. “Is she in any pain?” “Does she know it’s me?” “Grammy are you doing okay?” Frivolous questions that only help us. She might be in a little pain, but the cancer has probably damaged those parts of her brain. Pain medicine is just regular, like mealtime. She takes it dutifully, sometimes aware of it, and sometimes not. Sometimes she knows us, and other times she’s not coherent. But all the while the family gathers, wanting to be a comfort. I’m not sure if it’s a comfort to her or a comfort to each other. There is no relevance in it at all.
I think when people deal with the passing of a loved one they tend to focus on the mortality of themselves. Who will stand over us and grieve? Will there be a wave of tears flowing, or will there be joy in the reminiscing of the life I led? No one ever knows their fate. I feel that the one luxury a person gets when they come to this point in their life, when hospice care is their final option, is the luxury of knowing that death is soon. You ask why I think it’s considered a luxury? Some people just pass away and never get what she is getting. She is getting the luxury of time, short time yes, but time. Time to tell all the people she knows what she wants to say. Time to give those final good-byes, and lasting words of caring wisdom. Time to make amends, time to tell that important person just how much they mattered. I only hope that I know when the end is near. I want that luxury of being able to look into my children’s eyes and tell them they made life worth living. I want the luxury of telling my husband that he was the very breath in me. I want the chance to do those final things. Yes, knowing is a luxury, and we should all get that. I know it doesn’t work that way.
As I write this I stop every so often and read back and rethink all those feeling I’ve had. Having her for a grandma made a lasting impression on my life. She was the center of her own universe. She could be flamboyant when she wanted to, independent, bossy, funny, helpful, loving, critical. There are many words to describe her. But as I write down my thoughts on her and what she’s been through, I know that this is only one story in her life. She was many people wrapped into one, we all are. She was four different mothers, many different grandmothers, and a few different partners in life. How, you ask? I have three children of my own, and if there was a story written about me as a mother, it would be written three different ways. I know in myself, I am a different mother to all three of them. Grammy in turn has been a different mother to all four of her children. Debby, the oldest, would have a story to tell, whereas, Brucette, one of the middle, would have a totally different one as well. As a grandkid, my story differs from what the other grandchildren experienced with her. What a book to be written if everyone you touched in life got to contribute their own thoughts. Her husband Bruce, her second husband, what’s his name, and Donald would all have their different stories as well. Bruce knew her as a new wife, a new mother,a young woman, whereas Donald knew her as an independent woman with her own life, grown children, and as a grandma to us. It makes life larger than we could ever imagine.
The vigil continues. What else is there really to do but sit and wait, pace and wait, wait and wait. I left for a while, needing to give my children a reprieve. Hell, give myself a reprieve. Grieving is quite a draining pastime. It’s amazing how time can pass so slowly, but in the same sense so quickly. You sit, waiting, crying, and reminiscing while the clock slowly speeds away time.
Donald came back. What else for him to do… nothing. He can sit at home and grieve, or he can sit by her bedside like the knight he’s been their whole life together. He waged that war on cancer right beside her, so he is gallantly standing by as the battle is finally lost.
Soon, the phone calls will start. Calls in and calls out. But for now we just sit and wait. Idle conversation fills the room at times. Talks of television, talks of not wanting her to be along, just senseless chatter at times. I’ve sat with families many times while they sobbed at the loss of their loved one. I want to sob, but then again I want to rejoice.
Her body shows the turmoil of cancer. It’s like cancer is standing on her chest, a small cartoon character, waving a flag saying “I won!” while we shudder at what it did to her body. My gram was once quite a full figured woman, now only a figure of sagging skin and bones. Doesn’t sound pretty, but no one ever said dying from cancer was ever pretty. One can do it with grace and determination, but in the end, it just is never pretty. I think Grammy wanted to die pretty and I’m sad that she can’t. She is probably sad too.
There have been happy moments in Grammy’s life, even, with cancer hanging over her head. Her first grandchild, my brother, finally got married. I think Travis was the closest grandchild to her. He lived in her basement many different times, and he was her helper, her friend, and someone she just seemed to adore. I know that even though he lives miles away, he is mourning this tragedy that has possessed her life. He was never the type to deal with death and dying, and for her to be passing hurts him in a way we will never know. For those of us who will be here to watch her go on to the next life, Travis will only have the memories to hold onto. I’m glad to know that he has such wonderful memories. He and I are the only grandkids who have the memories of everyday life with Grammy. All the rest grew up in other states and their memories are of holidays and vacations. My memories are of everyday things, Grammy running to the store, Grammy going to yard sales, Grammy doing her yard work. It was just Grammy living life everyday. What a wonderful bunch of memories she has given us. I know we will be thanking her everyday for that.
Here we are, waiting still. Grammy comes in and out of it. She seems to be more with us today. Is it a blessing? Who can tell. The phone calls start today. Debby called in the family. Two children were still missing, and Grammy asked if they were heading home. When she was told yes, she said she was excited, but then started to cry. I think she is waiting to make her final goodbyes. I’m glad she is taking advantage of this. She knows what is to come, and she doesn’t want to leave this life without saying farewell to the people in this one. I think that once she sees the faces of her children and her grandchildren she will be able to soar out of here, content and happy. Looking at us, I know that she is looking at her successes in life. When we stand before her, we are an extension of her soul, each one carrying with us the parts of her that are worthy of staying here on earth. I believe that every person leaves behind in their loved ones qualities that deserve a place on earth. I’m sure that Grammy knows this in her heart. It has to be something we feel deep inside.
Gary is driving up from Florida, Brucette, down from Minnesota. Long drives with nothing to do but imagine the sight that lies before them. Travis is heading up from Nashville, carrying with him a sad heart of having to see Grammy, who was so full of life, now clinging to it. To me, it’s not much different than seeing people in the nursing home go through the transformation. I can only imagine the looks of sadness and despair when they arrive. They will feel pity for her and for themselves. But are they giving her what we would all so desperately want for themselves, and that is the chance for closure and good-byes. She won’t want them to be sad, but it will fill her up when she sees them weep for her. It will be the validation she needs. They love her.
Through this time, life has gone on for all involved. Her life centered around the fight and the disease, while her families’ lives continued day to day. Cancer was always in the background, but life still went on. A grandson married, and moved away. Grandkids graduated high school, and started college. Relationships failed, relationships mended. Normal life moved ahead with no regard. We all felt it there, we all knew it was there. It made our tragedies and triumphs smaller because her cancer was larger than life.
Her breathing is starting to change. I catch myself staring at her heaving chest as her breathing gets shallow, until she stops all together. You stare not wanting to believe she’s gone and wanting her to go, when she gasps, taking a big breath all at once. It’s disturbing to watch and you feel the turmoil in your heart over how every breath could be her last, please let it be her last. I feel as if God is ready for her. It’s in his hands. She’s placed it there. Maybe He wants her to see her children one last time. Maybe He feels we need the strength of each other to experience her final hour.
It is humorous how people can sit and grieve together through a time like this, and also enjoy each other’s company. With a family so spread out, our gatherings have been few and far between, cramming a years worth of stories and time into a week’s visit. Now as we come back together for this sad time, we still feel the need to visit, talk and share with each other. Stories of what the kids are doing, how work is going, what plans are for the next coming months. “Are the boys having a good summer?” “How is work?” “Have you seen the bus, lately?” Regular questions, regular conversations, all over-shadowed with the irregularity of death. Grammy would be right in the middle of those conversations, putting in her two cents worth, whether you wanted it or not. Maybe that is why these casual talks are taking place around her bed. We sit in our chairs, talking, looking over at her. Are we waiting for her to fill those moments of silence, are we wanting her to be a part of this banter we’ve had times before. I think it gives us peace of mind and the sense of normalcy. Whatever normal is for us.
As we know the rest are heading home, we here plan for them. How difficult it will be for them to take that first look. It’s almost like looking into a black hole, the fear of the unknowing hanging over. For us who have seen her deteriorate this way, her looks aren’t shocking, just sad. How will it hurt for them to see her, now a shell of the woman she once was? Tears will flow like a river, a raging river. I think in my mind I can hear their sobs while they are still miles away. No one likes to hear the sound of pain. Some might be capable of holding it together, waiting until they are alone, to let go. Others will just weep. I hope that we can hold them together with our strength. The strength we have mustered by seeing this everyday. This isn’t unknown to us. Today for us is a better day than yesterday, or tomorrow. Why? She is still here and we are here for her.
As I write this, I hear how morbid and sad this may all be, and I think to myself, there should be joy? Through all this death and sadness, I think that joy is all around us, just on the outskirts. I feel blessed that she is lying in her bed in her daughter’s home, living out her final hours here, not in a nursing home or hospital. I am filled with joy that her family, her children and grandchildren, are here to be with her. How wonderful it is to be surrounded by your loved ones, to hear their voices and their stories. Deep in her sleeping state, I think she is enjoying this.
They are coming, almost in shifts. Travis and Jenny last night, Brucette and Silas today. Gary and his family will roll in later this afternoon. She is given time with each of them as they come in, resting deeply soon after the initial hellos. How nice it is that they are all getting their own time with her. If they came all at once it would be so overwhelming.
Today is a good day for her, the best day. Today is the beginning of her last family reunion, our last gathering where she holds center stage. Hugs and hellos are given next to her bed. Meals, snacks, and stories are shared at her bedside. She is the center of it all. She lays there quietly, dozing. Every so often she raises her head, opens her eyes and makes a statement, usually fitting the conversation.
Debby asks if she knows who is all here. Grammy looks up and names Silas, and as Debby points to another, “Who is that?” Grammy answers, “your finger.” She still has a sense of humor. That is obvious. It shows her inner strength that she can still smile and laugh occasionally. It gives peace of mind to me and to the rest of the family that she is still smiling, even if only for an instant. We will cherish those instances for months to come, years to come.
I think this is what memories are made of. We will hold these in and the memories will develop inside each one of us in their own unique way. Debby might reminisce over private moments where Grammy made indian sounds jokingly in reaction to an indian shirt she was wearing, or the sight of Grammy laying “flopped over” as a rousing rendition of Seventy-six Trombones played on the public television station. Maryse might relish the sight of Grammy laying in bed, as she serenaded her, or the quips Grammy would throw in as if right on cue, with the conversation. To each his own, they say. It will be their own way of holding that little piece of her close. We have so much room in our minds to retain life’s lessons. Each memory, each experience, they are all lessons to carry with us, to learn from, to love, to cherish.
She is very alert today, when she is awake. She has been saving up for this day. She is hearing the rain today. We’ve had quite a dry spell. I thought to myself, she might never hear the rain again. She heard it today. I don’t know if she knew it. She will see the last of her children today. It will be the day she says good-bye. Not in words, but in her eyes, in her heart. It is a wonderful day to be alive. It will be a wonderful day to die. There is love, contentment in the air. The rain falls peacefully, as if God is washing the earth of all wrongs. Cleansing our lives, cleansing our spirits. He is making us aware of how okay it would be to die today. I think I would like to pass on a day such as this. There are no raging storms, just nice, soft, summer rain. I will silently rejoice if she dies today. As tears silently fall down the cheeks of her loved ones, there would be a collective sigh, sort of a peace felt in all of us.
She did not die today.
I have not been a spiritual person much of my life. I believe, I pray. It has been enough for me. I am glad that she has made her peace with God. He won’t take you, if you won’t take him. Sounds funny, but it makes sense to me.
Getting to this point has been a rough road. When her cancer and treatment took its toll on her, the family rallied behind her. I remember back in February, hearing that it had been a rough day for her, so we headed up to visit around early evening. My heart jumped into my throat as we rounded the corner and passed the ambulance. It became the start of a very long hospital stay. Touch and go, bad and worse, her kids started heading home, one by one. They all thought we were looking at the end. Strange enough, she came through and came to live with her eldest child. It would work out fine. I’d come during the day, Kim would come some days, and Debby and John would help her in the evenings. She still had quite an abundance of determination, if nothing else. She wanted to be independent. She stored up energy for a couple of weeks, and headed back north, to her home, and her life with Donald. I think it was upsetting, afraid of what might happen to her. It was also a relief knowing the reprieve we’d been granted. There is nothing more tiring than caring for a loved one. It takes your physical strength and emotions and tosses them up in the air, like being caught in the eye of a tornado.
My visits seemed to come almost to a halt. Debby did minimal. It was if our assistance had been offered, but was not good enough. If she wanted her independence, let her have it. I knew it would be short lived. Cancer would win again. That would only mean one thing, Grammy would lose.
I got a call from my mother, “She’s moving back!” All the heads up I needed. Make arrangements, I was back on duty. It would be fine, uneventful. Boy, was I wrong.
Grammy made some surprisingly big decisions, sell her stuff, rent out her house, making it a no turning back situation. We made many trips up to her house to get ready for a sale. We sorted through a lifetime of belongings. At last a handful of boxes were left, the remains of her life that she would hold onto.
Guilt overwhelmed me at times. I detested going through her stuff as she sat watching from her wheelchair. She was still fighting her disease, but she’s lost her independence. It was a horrible defeat, but it was her choice.
She moved back sooner than expected. Two weeks wait became one week. Her condition was going downhill. It was something we expected, yet something we dreaded.
So, back she came and we settled back into our routines. I took some day shifts, a lady was hired to pick up some days. Debby took evenings. We had one good week. Just one, you ask? Yes, just one.
Week number two turned it all around. It was if we had been helping her up a hill on a wagon, and now it was teetering on the summit. Little did we know how long it was to the bottom and just how fast we would make it there.
My mother and her husband were away for the week, a trip to Chicago on business, and I had to care for Grammy at night. The hired help took the days. Monday afternoon brought a frantic call from her. “ Your Gram is having trouble breathing.” I rounded up my kids, and went to her.
When I arrived, I called 911, my aunt came for my kids, and the circus began. A cop, a few fire-trucks, a couple of ambulance services, and a lifeline vehicle all showed up at our doorstep. When you call for help, do you get some help!
After the initial assessment, and the questions getting answered, Grammy was taken away to the hospital. All I could think was here we go again. She’d been through this so many times. I followed behind.
That week was so stressful. I kept calling my mother, and my aunt keeping them informed. It looked like pneumonia, possibly. To me, it looked like the end. She had been fighting for so long. I’d seen this so many times before. I prayed for her to just let the fight end. I thought it was time to call in hospice and enjoy the life she had left. Fighting was no way of life. It was horrendous to watch, giving you the sense of a powerlessness that you can’t explain. She and I talked. She seemed to sense it was time to quit fighting, just time to go home. I saw how defeated she looked. It was written all over her face. I talked to her, and I waited to talk to the doctor. It was the hardest moment in my whole life. The doctor told her she could have another MRI, but she hesitated. I talked to him in the hall. “It’s time to stop fighting. She’s too weak. We’ve talked, the whole family understands. It’s time.” He readily agreed. I went back to Gram’s bedside and she looked at me with knowing eyes. “There’s no reason for anymore tests, is there?” I told her no. “It’s time to just go home, isn’t it?” I told her yes. As tears streamed down my face, we exchanged looks of understanding.
When I got into the hall, crying, I was practically running. Trying my hardest to run away from the whole painful situation. I didn’t want to tell her those things. I didn’t want her to depend on me. My husband told me that Donald was crying when I walked out. I didn’t know because I couldn’t look at him. I couldn’t face his pain.
That night when I called my mother, I cried. I hated being left alone to take care of this. I wanted to be that kid again. I didn’t want to watch her make these painful decisions, let alone be the one she looked to for assurance. I know deep down, she knew she was doing the right thing. I was there for the support she needed.
The next day brought turmoil and triumph both. Tests needed to be cancelled. Hospice needed to be called. I felt almost a sense of power walking into the hospital that day. I asked to see the doctor, and instead got the phone, but it was enough. He cancelled the tests, signed for hospice and agreed to let me take her home. I assured her, “Gram, I’m going to take you home today!”
That day we met Lisa, later known as Lisa 2; what an amazing person. She came into my Gram’s room with such an open heart. As she discussed the sensitive topic of death and dying, I felt a sadness swell up. You would never have known it for I kept my poker face on. This is what Grammy wanted, and in a way, this is what I wanted. I couldn’t watch her suffer. Hospice is a godsend. It helps the terminally ill die in peace, comfortably at home where they belong. She explained things, answered questions and expressed the care and support that they would be giving her, to our whole family.
Shortly there after, we headed home. The nurse on shift seemed very nervous for me. She kept telling me that she would be on shift through the whole weekend, just a phone call away if I needed anything. I was touched. We were on our way, just her and me. It was the beginning of a very long road for the two of us, for everyone. It was not always a smooth road, but we endured, supported, and assisted her all we could.
Here we are waiting…still. How many days has it been? I’m not sure. I know I’ve done this waiting and wondering in one way or another since February, from the beginning to the end. It’s like watching a clock ticking, but not knowing when the alarm will go off. She’s in that bed, lying there almost comatose, but it’s not her. She is not with us. It does not resemble her, we just know it’s her. I remember my brother apologizing to me during his visit for not sitting in there with us. He said that there was nothing of Grammy in that room. I have to agree. The emptiness in her eyes is almost haunting. Will I lie there and die that way? I’m hoping not. I’m praying not.
Family members gather reminiscing, laughing. I know the sound of laughter from her children together is what she was waiting for. It is the sound of what she created in life. As we’ve done the bedside vigil, there are many tears. How long can this shell of a woman keep breathing, keep going moment after moment? Once we prayed for everyone to make it in time, now we pray for her to let go. She is ready. We are ready.
I have had moments of guilt over my absence lately. Since the rest of the family is here, I’ve taken more time for myself. I’ve sat and watched. I’ve tried to be a comfort. I just can’t sit and wait day in and day out. Waves of guilt hit me when I’m not here. I take my family home for a break, and wonder if I should have stayed. My three children and I have been doing this for months now, and I’ve taken to escaping. I am ashamed of feeling that way. I hope there will be forgiveness for me. Her children are here to pick up the slack. I have the knowledge to sit and assess, and still there is no way to tell when the end will be. We all have to wait, we all have to give of ourselves in this time of need. God will only let us give what is needed. I’m sure of that. I wish I didn’t feel the need to escape, but it is an emotional overload at times. My family needs me, and I need me. But then again, she might need me. I feel stressed every time I leave, that maybe it wasn’t a good idea to go. What if she goes before I can get back? That would be a blessing, but how sad. I can’t be away. I feel the need to be with her when she goes. It will be so peaceful and quiet, I hope.
Her children have enjoyed their time together. It is overshadowed with their reason for being here. They have laughed and cried. I’ve never seen them experience more emotions together than now. Remembering memories that only the four of them share. How strange it is, four people in this world can be so different, but still share so many things. To stand them next to each other, you would be surprised at how different they all are, but also how alike. You see it in their smiles, you hear it in their voices, know it in their hearts. That is the meaning of family. The similarities might not be abounding, but they are there where it means the most. That is what makes them family. I hope they embrace their sense of family, their connection. It will be all they need in the future. They will need to look at each other and see love, and acceptance. Family isn’t the people you would hang out with or chat with as friends. They might not be the people you would choose, but that is the beauty of it all. God chose the people who would compliment you in life. They have the strengths you are missing, the knowledge you need. Where we stop, they start, as if an intricate puzzle. Each person needed for the picture to be complete.
I’ve seen people go through this so many times. It’s so different when it’s family, when it’s your grandma.
We’ve put in some calls to a couple of ministers. For her, or for us, I’m not sure. Will it give us peace of mind for a religious person to stand at her bedside and pray with us? Who knows? Many of the family have headed away for the evening. I say away instead of home, because for the most of them their homes are miles away. Just away, seeking a break from the monotony of it all. The vigil is a tiring one. It’s hard for us all. During the first couple of days, they flocked to her bedside, while today they have to drag themselves there, all of them wanting to keep their distance for many personal reasons. No one wants to admit they are feeling tired and helpless.
They are searching through the day for the end. They are holding in their breath almost waiting for her last. They hold in themselves tiny bits of shame for wanting it. Knowing that she would agree with them. This is not Grammy. This is not her way of dying. This is the cancer’s way. They pray every night that God is ready for her. What is keeping her here? Is there some unfinished business at hand? Is there someone she is waiting to see? We will never know. The time has passed for final requests, and final words. This is her final destination.
I think back to the many hours I’ve spent in her company these past few months, and I treasure the memories of her. Some good, some bad, some that would plain drive me crazy, but all memories of quite a woman. I think everyone who knew her would agree. She is a part of my beginning.
A minister came today, Tony. He is my other grandma’s minister, the one who performed my brother’s wedding. It has to be difficult to walk into a home to offer prayer to a dying woman who you don’t really know. He said that he follows his heart. God leads him.
Family is starting to head home. Not because they want to, but because life has to go on. Travis and Jenny headed back to Nashville, Karen and Dakota back to Florida, Silas and Rachel north to Wisconsin. That leaves Brucette and Gary. Maryse is leaving tomorrow.
As my brother left, he bent over Grammy to tell her good bye. She told him no, not to go. How hard that had to be for him. My heart went out to them both.
I am going home now, wondering every minute if I should go back to her bedside. She is hovering on the edge. Her breathing has slowed with longer pauses between each one. Her feet are cold, but again sometimes warm. I call every couple of hours checking, same symptoms, and same situation. One more long night is waiting, filled with vivid dreams.
She is gone.
If you live your life thinking that there is meaning behind every moment in life and purpose for everything, tonight proved it for me. Her spirit left this earth around 10:00 PM. I headed over for my final good bye and a final moment in her physical presence. It didn’t even look like the same person I had seen the night before. I think she waited for everyone who came to be with her, to safely return back home.
As we sat and waited for the nurse, a car drove in. Here as the sky opened up with rain, came her knight to watch her head out for her final chariot ride. As he said before, he’d been there for all the big stuff, and you don’t get much bigger than this. He just had to come, as did I. She knew we would come.
Our hospice nurse, Lisa, came and did all her final duties. It was odd that a person we had only known for a short while was such a comforting sight to see. She had begun this journey with Gram and me, and she was there for the final destination. Last came John from the funeral home to take her away, face uncovered; a daughter’s request.
As she was loaded into the vehicle, rain started pouring down as if the heavenly welcome she was receiving was well underway, complete with lightning and rumbling thunder. She was getting the celebration she deserved. Finally, we said heartfelt good byes to Lisa, and as she walked to her car, the rain strangely came to almost a complete stop, as if the celebration above was taking a moment to pause in respect for her, and all she had done for Grammy and for us.
I felt at peace. Her suffering was over. Her fight was lost. Cancer had robbed her of everything, but she was in a better place now. Cancer could touch her no longer.
I have to say that as I drove through the rain back to my home, I cried most of the way. I felt bad for all the times I complained or just couldn’t be there for her. But I was thankful for the experience and know-how to take care of her. My tears were of happiness and sadness all together.
“A woman in harmony with her spirit is like a river flowing. She goes where she will without pretense and arrives at her destination, prepared to be herself and only herself.” Those are the words of Maya Angelou, words I found on a card I bought for Grammy the week before she died. Words that ring so true for her. The inside of the card read:
You know who you are,
Where you have come from,
And where you are going.
You show such grace
And I am glad
To know you.
I couldn’t have said it better.
As we toast her, who she was and what she left behind in us, we can look at her life and know that even as her life came to an end, it is also a beginning. It’s the beginning of her legacy. We are her legacy.
My Grammy’s story was a long one filled with love, loss, tragedy and triumph. I think the experiences of the past few months had such a lasting impact on our family. It was an empowering experience that showed us all the strength of a person, of a family, of our family.