I have struggled with this particular post for a really long time. Telling my grandmother’s story is a daunting task. She lived a long and rich life marked by poverty, tragedy, and adversity, all of which made her remarkably strong and resilient. There was no way to tell the whole story in one shot without leaving out some pretty important stuff. No draft looked right to my eye or seemed to do her real justice. So I decided to talk about only one part of the story — the part with which I am uniquely familiar. I decided to talk about something that is at once really painful and really wonderful.
I’m going to write about the day Grandma died.
There is some back story to all this, so please bear with me a moment.
I am almost the age now that Grandma was when I was born. I grew up in her house until I was 13. I saw her nearly every day of my life until my parents and I moved to a new house in 1981. She taught me about unconditional love, but she also taught me how to be tough and strong. She doted on me and spoiled me. She told me I was as good as, smart as, and capable as any man. She told me nothing mattered more than my getting good grades in school and going to college. That was my biggest goal in life. I wanted to go to college more than anything else in the world, because it was what she wanted me to do. I would’ve done anything to please her.
My Grandma loved me with all her heart and it showed in everything she said and did. There was no one else in my life that I loved or counted on more. Grandma was my everything.
So, I finished high school and graduated high in my class. Grandma was at my graduation. I went to Oberlin and did well. Grandma was at my graduation. I went to Juilliard and did well there too. Grandma was at that graduation. It was the last one for me, but I was so happy that she could see them all. Her health had been so fragile that I wasn’t sure she’d make it, but she did. It was so amazing to see the joy and pride my accomplishments brought her.
Grandma was at my wedding and she adored John nearly as much as I did. Once again, her face was alight with happiness. Every picture of her from that day shows a gleeful little girl smile. I’ve never been sure if her happiness was for me or for herself. I was living the dream she had for me, and she was living to see me do it.
Soon after we found out we were having our first child, John and I drove down to Philadelphia to tell my family the good news. I had asked my folks to gather at Grandma’s house because I had news to share with them. Once we’d spilled the beans, everyone was buzzing around and chatting noisily and congratulating John. Grandma and I were sitting quietly with our foreheads together, crying and laughing and commiserating. John later told me that we were alone in our own little bubble, completely oblivious to everything going on around us. As it was so many times in my life, it was just her and me.
Grandma got to see Imani after she was born. Her heart expanded to love my little girl as much as she’d loved me. Once again, there was the look of incredible joy on her face and the joy in my heart. She had lived to see her great-grandchild. It was so wonderful to bring her these gifts of life and watch her smile.
When Imani was about two years old, my Grandma suffered a series of small strokes. She was never quite the same after that. It was the beginning of a long slow decline that slowly took her away from all of us. My little family was living in NYC and we rarely got to go down to Philly to see my family. Every time we did, I could see how she was changing. She didn’t recognize her own family members much of the time, but she did recognize me. By the time Iain was born, she was mostly gone, often speaking clearly about utter nonsense. It hurts me to think that she wasn’t able to know my son. I can only imagine how much she would have loved him too, and I hate that he was robbed of the opportunity to be loved by her.
When my Granddaddy died in 2004, my Grandma wasn’t really sure what was going on. She sat and smiled through the whole funeral. She looked confused. Later she asked where “Peaches” (my grandfather) was. She was rarely lucid and often mean. She was still alive in the body, but her mind was gone. My dad, her oldest child, was in complete denial which was equally painful to witness. Grandma was the glue that held our family together, and her deterioration was tearing us apart inside and out. The pain was sometimes excruciating for me, but I tried to remember that it was more important to honor who she had been to me rather than dwell on what was happening to her now.
About a year after my grandfather died, Grandma fell and broke her hip. She had been living alone with her niece who was also elderly and was suffering from cancer. Grandma had been taking out her demented rage on her niece and my family was turning a blind eye to her decline. Now they couldn’t deny how bad things had gotten. Grandma went into the hospital in 2005 and then went into nursing care. She never lived in her house again after that, though she did visit once or twice.
I visited her in the nursing home a few times, when I could. It was hard, but I needed to do it. I owed it to her for all the love she’d given me. One of the last times I saw her, after the memorial for an uncle of mine who had died, she couldn’t speak. She could only giggle. She looked at me and babbled incoherently, smiling the whole time. The staff served dinner while I was there, in the dining room with Law and Order on the TV. In true Gladys Berkley fashion, she tried to feed her dinner to me. Instead, I helped feed her. In that moment I realized that I was the adult now and she had become a child again. It was my turn to take care of her as she had doted on me for so many years. I fed her and I wiped her mouth. I tried not to let her see my tears as they tumbled down over my smile. I saw the handwriting on the wall.
I didn’t know how much time she had left, but I knew it wasn’t long.
By July 4th weekend, she’d been hospitalized with pneumonia and MRSA. She was released from the hospital just before John, the kids, and I arrived to visit her. She lay motionless and quiet in the bed with a breathing tube down her throat. She could say or do nothing. It was awful to see. I felt so helpless. I wanted to shout at her to get up and make us all something to eat, if only to feel normal again. But this was our new normal. She was making her way to a place I couldn’t go. No, not yet.
We went home and waited for news. We waited a few weeks. Around July 20, my dad called to say that my uncle was coming back to Philly from Afghanistan where he was setting up a women’s hospital. Uncle Vincent had medical power of attorney and was responsible for being sure her wishes were being respected. She was on a breathing tube for the pneumonia, but the pneumonia was now gone. The tube needed to come out. I had to be there. I knew what was coming. I needed to say goodbye.
I got in my car and I drove from Oberlin to Philly. I drove like a crazy person. I drove like a woman possessed, on a mission to get there before she was gone. I had to be there. Deep in my heart, I knew she’d wait for me.
I drove straight to the hospital and saw her laying there, again motionless. My Aunt Mary Ann was there already, putting lotion on my Grandma’s feet and legs and talking to her. She’d been there everyday for a week, coming after her long work day. Mary hugged me and we sat and talked a while. She knew too.
I went to visit my uncle before I headed off to my parents’ house. My cousin Andrew was there. It was so great to see them after so long. I only wish it had been under better circumstances. I hadn’t seen them since my Granddaddy died six years before. I wondered to myself why it was we could only get together when someone died. Sad how that happens.
Saturday, July 24 was spent going to funeral homes and making potential arrangements. No one knew for sure how long she’d survive without the breathing tube, but we wanted to be prepared in case she didn’t last long. My dad was nearly catatonic. My uncle was all business and charm. My aunt was pissed that we were planning her mom’s funeral before she was even dead. Andrew looked pained and awkward. He was only 19. I was 42. I’d had her all my life and lived with her for a lot of my early years. Andrew and his twin brother Matthew had grown up in Arizona and only seen Grandma once or twice a year until she went into nursing care when they were about 14. I could see the pain on his face. I knew that pain. While our dads and their sister bickered about their dying mother, I took Andrew out for coffee so we could grieve our grandmother.
We gathered at the hospital that evening. Her morphine drip would be increased over the course of a few hours before the breathing tube was removed. My mom and dad were there. Mom hadn’t seen Grandma in over a year. Mary Ann was there. Uncle Vincent and Andrew were there.
I was there.
It was a long night. Mary left first, unable to watch the tube come out. My parents left next because my dad, also in ill health, was really tired and stressed out. When the tube came out at around midnight on July 25, only Uncle Vincent, Andrew, and I were there to witness it. We stood there quietly as the machines were turned off and the tube was taken slowly from her throat. Then, an odd thing happened. Her lips began to move. It was almost amusing to think that Gladys’ salty tongue was cussing my uncle out for taking that tube out. There were no words, but her intention was clear. Trying to kill me? I’ll fix you!
Something inside my mind spoke to me clearly: this will take a long time, so sit down and rest. I sat in the recliner in the corner and closed my eyes. She was speaking to me: get some rest, baby girl. Close your eyes and sleep. Every couple of hours, I would wake up and look at her vital signs on the monitor. Having worked in a hospital in my teens, I knew what I was seeing. She was stable. Nothing had changed since the tube was removed. Her vitals were pretty strong and very stable. This was going to be a long night.
Once I woke up and saw that Andrew was asleep too. My uncle was sitting up, holding my Grandma’s hand and talking to her — telling her it was okay to go. Her vitals were steady as a rock. I closed my eyes.
I awoke again when the nurses came to bathe Grandma and kicked out the two boys. As the female member of the party, I was allowed to stay put. I looked at her vitals again. No change. Steady as she goes. I closed my eyes.
I awoke for the last time around 6 or so in the morning. Her vitals had stayed steady all night. Perhaps this wasn’t the end. Maybe it would happen while I was back in Ohio. It was Sunday and I had to go back home that day. I was exhausted. What was I going to do now?
The nurses changed shifts. My uncle and cousin needed to go back to their hotel. My uncle needed to sleep and Andrew needed to catch a plane back to Arizona. Uncle Vincent said he would call someone to come relieve me of our vigil so that I could go home to shower and change. He was happy that I would stay until he could come back. They left around 7:30.
I typed on Facebook, chronicling how strong and stubborn Grandma was. I called John and some friends for moral support. I chatted with the nurse who had been there Friday when I arrived and was back again on Sunday for her shift. The nurse from the previous shift hadn’t left yet. They had both been amazing to me while I was there. They really took care of our family in addition to caring for my Grandma.
At one point in my small talk with the arriving nurse, she and I both turned to look at my grandmother. We had both noticed that her breathing was getting slower and becoming more labored. I knew what this meant. The nurse checked Grandma with her stethoscope. I said to the nurse, “please let me know when I need to start calling folks.”
Now, she said. Do it now.
A minute or two.
Suddenly, shit got very real very quickly. I put on the hospital gown and gloves required when dealing with a MRSA patient. I called my uncle and told him to call everyone else because this was happening now. NOW. Right now.
And then I did the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.
I held Grandma’s hand and talked to her while the doctor monitored her. Only the doctor could officially pronounce her dead. I stood there feeling like a lost little girl and the pain and sadness and grief all hit me like a tidal wave. I said what I knew to say. I told her it was okay to go. I told her I knew how hard she’d worked all her life, but that she could go on to be with Granddaddy, her parents, and her siblings who had all gone before her. I told her that her work was done here and she could rest now.
I told her one lie. I said that she could go and that I would be okay. I knew it wasn’t true, but I said it anyway. I wanted her to go in peace and not hang on for anyone she was leaving behind. She had worried over us long enough.
While I was talking to her and sobbing in horrible agony, the doctor told me she was gone. It was secretly exactly what I had hoped for. She waited until it was just her and me. Once again, we were in our own little bubble and the world went on all around us. This was her last gift to me, her last lesson to teach me. I had stayed with her to the end. She was always afraid to be alone. She had not died alone and I had seen to that.
The nurse who had just gone off duty came to hug me. The doctor asked if I needed a chaplain. Suddenly, I was the focus of their care. They could do no more for my Grandma. I sat and cried tears that were bitter with the deepest grief I’d ever felt until then. The other nurse asked me what I needed. My reply was simple: a shower, something to eat, and my Grandma. I wanted my Grandma back.
Most of the rest of the day is a blur. My uncle and Andrew arrived. Uncle Vincent went straight over to his mother’s side. Andrew ran straight over to me and threw his arms around me. He knew. He understood. We had lost our grandmother, but I had lost my life’s guiding light. He asked if I was okay and he tended to me for the rest of the time he was there.
My parents came. My dad was desolate. My mom kept trying to boss me around and be the center of attention. I am not proud of the fact that I swore at her, but she wouldn’t leave me alone. She couldn’t understand what I’d been through. She kept asking when I was coming back to her house to get my stuff and drive back to Ohio. Didn’t she understand?
I couldn’t leave Grandma alone. I wasn’t leaving her side until they took her from the room. I had promised I would stay with her until the end and it wasn’t over yet.
Mary understood. She had been alone with Granddaddy when he passed. She knew the anguish like no one else around me knew. She stayed with me.
I helped remove the tubes and IVs from Grandma’s body. I helped clean her up and put her in the body bag. I zipped the bag myself. Closure. I didn’t leave her. I kept my promise and stayed until the end. It was all there was left that I could do. I watched as they wheeled her away.
The blur of grief continued in the next week as I went home and prepared to go back with my family to Philly for the funeral a week later. I sang “Grandma’s Hands” while my cousin Matthew played guitar. I played solo Bach as a prelude. I broke down as I followed her casket out of the funeral home. The preacher was reciting Psalm 23. It was the first Bible verse Grandma had taught me so many years ago. I watched John carry her casket to the hearse, just as he had done for my grandfather six years before. I fell down and wept and my heart broke to pieces. How could she leave me? What was I going to do without her?
Go on. Just as she had, I have gone on. She had shown me all I needed to survive. She had seen me grow up, marry, have kids, and be happy. Her job was done, just as I’d said to her. I may have lied when I said I’d be okay, but she knew it was true because she’d given me every tool I needed to be okay.
Grandma isn’t really gone. She’s with me every day. I see her sometimes, smiling at me. I hear her laughter. I hear her voice coming out of my mouth so many times. She lives on in me. She lives on.
There are no words to express the love she showed me. All I can do is love those around me as fiercely as she loved. All I can do is keep trying to make her proud. That is the only thank you worthy of her love for me and mine for her. After all, it’s what she taught me.
I love you, Grandma. Memory eternal. Be at peace.