Two weeks ago today my grandmother died. I haven’t really been able to write about it, because it’s taken me awhile to process it all. Even though she was 97 years-old and had lived a long, full, life, and I knew she was declining physically, I wasn’t ready for her to die so suddenly.
I have written about my grandmother before, here, here and here, and I have finally added her own story to this blog, here. Last March my grandmother fainted while my mom was with her. My mom called the paramedics and my grandmother was admitted to the hospital. They conducted all kinds of tests, including an ear-splitting MRI. While she was getting the MRI, I was allowed to stand next to her and pat her feet as she was slid into a tunnel of bright light and screeching sound. The test was intended to determine if something happened inside her brain. In the end, the doctor’s had one diagnosis– she was old. She may also have been dehydrated. The remedy was for someone to be with her, making sure she was eating and drinking fluids. But, the doctors didn’t know my grandmother. She was independent, feisty and above all stubborn. My mom tried to get her to move in with her and my dad. She refused. We hired some people to come to my grandmother’s and take care of her. No way. She kicked them out. We hired Meals on Wheels to provide the food and a daily visit. She didn’t eat their food and barely acknowledged the visit. In the end, we all realized it was futile. She was not going to accept our help, and the only thing that would make her happy and keep her alive was to let her live her life on her terms. Independently. She said she didn’t want to be a burden on anyone, yet sometimes it did feel like a burden, the worry and care-taking that was involved in letting her live alone.
About a month after her hospital stay we had a family meeting to discuss how we could take care of grandma. My uncles, my mom, my brother and I each agreed to visit her once a week and bring food and sit down and have a meal with her. My day was Friday. On Fridays I went to her house for lunch, or I would go over after work. We would sit together and I would eat with her. I would bring her food I knew she liked. Fresh pineapple, a pastry, coffee and donuts. The salt-free, healthfully prepared Meals on Wheels would go untouched. We would visit. I recorded her stories, and I would sometimes sneak a photo of her, because she did not like having her photo taken. She probably hated getting her picture taken as much as she hated doctors.
Even though I spent nearly every weekend with here when I was a child, it had been years since I spent so much time with her on a weekly basis. Sometimes, it seemed like an inconvenience to have to drive to see her and race back to my office, or visit her on my way home from work on a Friday evening, when I was anxious to start my weekend. But, I did it and with each visit, I felt happy about the time we spent together, and glad that I had taken the time to see her. It’s funny, I thought I was there to take care of her, but really, I think she was still taking care of me. She would protest when I would get up to wash the dishes, throw out her trash or do any household chore. She would make me feel cared for, and I would leave feeling loved, and grateful for the time we spent together.
On the last Friday I spent with her I could tell something was wrong. She seemed tired and weak. Usually she was anxious to go outdoors and sit on her patio so we could visit. On our last visit I asked if she wanted to sit outdoors in the warm sun. She said she would rather stay inside. When I asked if she felt okay, if she was tired, she replied, “No honey, I am not tired, I am old.” I tried to take her picture but she wouldn’t let me. When she wasn’t looking, I did it anyway.
The day she died, I was at work when my dad called to tell me that my mother had arrived at my grandmother’s for her Monday visit. She found my grandmother. She had probably died at night, alone in her house, the way she wanted. I left work immediately and went to her house where my parents and my uncles had gathered. I was sad that she was gone, but I also felt at peace. These past several months when I visited her, took her for drives, brought her donuts, those visits allowed me to have peace in this sorrowful moment. I knew that her insistence that she live alone, as challenging as it was for all of us, created an opportunity for us, to spend time with her, to care for her, and for her to care for us. As sad as it is to imagine her spending her last few moments alone, I know that dying in her own home was what she wanted. It was the reason she had so fiercely resisted all our interventions.
She did things on her own terms. And so, it seemed fitting that during the funeral mass, my cousin surprised the priest when he read a poem by Emily Dickenson, instead of the New Testament scripture that was pre-selected and indicated on the program. The organist missed her cue and the deacon kept looking through the program to see if he’d missed something. Even I didn’t know what was happening since I had never heard the Gospel According to Emily Dickenson before. But, when it dawned on me what my cousin was doing, I laughed and thought how much my grandmother would have loved that. The priest seemed equally exasperated when, as the mass was ending, and it became apparent the priest wasn’t going to allow time for my prepared eulogy, my father yelled from the first row, “Wait! There’s a eulogy!” The priest just threw up his hands at that point, and I sprang from my seat to get to the altar before I lost my window of opportunity. The priest didn’t seem to know what to do with us, these grandchildren who wanted to do things in their own way. I know that’s probably the way my grandmother would have wanted it too.