Bladder cancer meant the last year of my grandmother’s life. That’s how it was. The doctor had told us that it wouldn’t be serious. Somehow this was a friendly cancer that would let Grama live to die of something else, like her diabetes maybe, but he was dead-wrong.
The clock had already been ticking. Christmas that year, six months and four days before the end, the eve of which was her birthday, had been unusually joyful. Grama, with all her grandchildren around, laughed until she cried, until it seemed that delight could be her cure, yet we all saw it coming.
When to Say Nothing
I returned home to live from Indiana in early June of 2006; Grama had not long been in a nursing facility in Martinsville, the next town over. She was my father’s mother and the only grandparent I knew well. I planned my visit to see her as soon as I could unload and place my belongings. I hoped the surprise wouldn’t backfire and be mine to loathe because I wasn’t sure what I might find. I could only wish for my granny healthy as possible, recognizable, and glad to see me.
That day I strode down the corridor past open doors and the oddities and odors that claw at passers-by in such sad places of the physically marooned, hoping that Grama’s room was a refuge. I slowed as I approached the doorway, which was open; I didn’t hear visitors inside. I took a deep breath and entered the room confidently.
It was bright and sterile, spotless in fact, and peaceful, with the sun in full glow like a gift for the moment. My grandmother was lying in the far bed next to the window and neatly tucked under a white blanket. She was looking out the door when I entered. “Michael,” she said plainly, the inflection revealing her surprise and bewilderment.
I’m not sure how I reacted, but I went and kissed her on the forehead. Grama looked herself. She turned her face toward the window and cried; I didn’t try to console her. I wondered then and many times since if she wept for seeing me, her eldest grandson come to see about her or because she knew that it might be my last chance.
Bittersweet is hardest to swallow.
In that moment I had no context to understand how she could be feeling, so I respected those deeply profound seconds by waiting. What is it like to face your own death? To know there will be no more living? The future isn’t scary when it means you’re alive and prospering, but the future is perfectly inconceivable when it means you’re dead. I know what my Christian faith explains about the afterlife, yet a human creature, indeed any living thing, designed to grow and reproduce abhors the thought of death.
Grama knew that she was dying because she was already discussing her final wishes. I recall the few times I heard her exclaim “I thought I was gon’ die!” when in the past she had fought off a bad bug or complications. The comment would always make me hide my laughter and still brings a smile to my face for its superstitious absurdity. But seeing Grama cry, however, was in its own way a door of finality.
Grama always assumed my return the next day. She wanted to see her family daily simply because she was there. I suppose that I would want my folks near me too for less grievous reasons. But I didn’t always make it back to Grama daily despite the easy thirty-minute drive. Sometimes it was no reason more than the monotony of the place: watching her sleep, no TV, window watching, book boredom, the nosy roommate.
We all lapsed a time or two, for different reasons, and not because we didn’t care but for the cares that consumed our time. Where there wasn’t work and business matters to tend, there was indifference that often trades substantial things for indulgence and always counts on tomorrow. I’m not sure that brand of tomorrow exists though whether we’re living or dying.
I cringed at the fact that when I could have and maybe should have been with Grama, I was busy doing nothing. Sometimes I was lying around watching TV while she was lying down waiting to die. The self-interest disgusted me. Yet I would think this way of Grama, too. Didn’t she realize that we couldn’t possibly be there all the time? Did her dying lend her more right to need? I hated myself for thinking this way. I’ve learned that human nature is a demanding, self-centered circus of a thing—even when the animals are calling it quits.
Grama forgave us for missing days but not for leaving her there. She wanted to go home and was belligerent about it. The first day I saw her she wanted me to take her home. I could be Hercules with her hoisted in my arms plucking off every resistance until I laid her down in her own bed. It was that mythical at least.
Conversation became awkward at times. “I can bring you lunch if you’d like,” I would say. “What do you want?” The reply would come like a blow and deadpanned: “I wanna GO HOME.” The most I accomplished for her was to get a new chair in the room to make her more comfortable and allow us to sun on the patio.
There soon came a day when I entered the room and noticed signs of the inevitable peering back at me. Grama was gaunt. The volume in her face was gone, completely, and she appeared skeletal. Her skin had become ashen. Her mind and morale remained but her body had been taken hostage. This alarmed me because it happened quickly, and I’m sure she had no idea of it.
One day she requested a mirror from the nurse to look herself over. I couldn’t know how long it may have been since she had seen herself. The act of something so simple seemed so primitive and animal-like to me watching her do it. Research shows us certain animals, like chimpanzees and elephants, querying themselves this way to demonstrate self-perception. Did Grama recognize the person staring back at her? I expected an exclamatory remark but she said nothing.
The Final Night
A few days from that time we got the call to come because our friend—the cancer—had turned foe and would wait no longer. I walked in the room this time and Grama was but a shell now and clearly in her final hours. She was lying on her right side into the bed railing, her eyes partly open, her mouth twisted.
Death is such an indignity.
Her roommate was a Christian woman and an unfortunate soul for the trials she had endured to this point. She had come to the facility with her husband roommate, in that very room, but he had died beside her; she was given a new roommate who also died there; now it was my grandmother’s turn. The staff moved the lady to another room to give us privacy, but I considered it an act of compassion for her own sanity.
Yet the roommate didn’t leave without first detailing my grandmother’s final night. She spoke as frankly as possible. “That woman drove me crazy!” The way she bellowed the word—CRAAZI!—with a distinctly Southern drawl, I found more embarrassing than insensitive, especially standing there with my mother and the pastor.
She said my grandmother had kept the nurses running all night and screamed for the pain in her body—“callin’ on Jesus and askin’ God to kill ’er.” Her words were chilling. That kind of pain must be hell itself. “But she was a good lady,” she affirmed, noticeably in past tense. She repeated herself then quickened, lifting her hand to God. From her account I figured that my grandmother was lucid into the day until her condition turned sometime that afternoon.
The Shadow of Death
Family and many from the church soon packed the room, presences casting their farewells. I was surprised by the show of people and most remained into the early evening. The night came and with it my decision not to stay to the end, whenever it arrived, but I was sure there was no tomorrow.
It was now the very end of June, less than a month since I had first burst in and kissed Grama’s forehead. This time, my last moment with Grama, I walked to her bedside, took her right hand, and bowed in silent prayer to the God who had numbed her soul against a ravaged body. I offered thanks for all the care and fun and meals and counsel she gave me, along with a request that I might pray and trust as she had, until my very end.
I was told by a family friend of a peculiar moment that happened after I had left when she recited Psalm 23 to my grandmother, which was also Grama’s favorite reading of the Bible. Science suggests that hearing is the last of the senses prior to death, presumably the reason—and a good one—why people venture to talk to the unconscious. Our friend leaned down into Grama’s ear and recited the passage; at the line “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” my grandmother made an audible drone, the only sound any of us heard out of her that day and forever.
Joy and Cheryl, two of my sisters, were determined to keep vigil and not leave Grama to die alone. They were the saddest of anyone having been the closest to Grama of the five siblings. They had taken the most of her care and heed through the years, especially Cheryl who had now managed her affairs for a long time.
It was no surprise to me that they waited. I was sad in theory. I loved my grandmother and my heart had suffered some whenever I sat with her. Still, I saw death as a natural part of life and it no longer rattled me as it did when I was half my age. And I think that’s how you get through it, by remembering that death is personal for us all. Grama had now lived to be eighty-nine years old, well past life expectancy, but one expects old people to die. Young deaths and tragic ones are tougher, for their abruptness and intrusion, but the elderly just fade away. I wondered if I was supposed to feel sadder.
Grama passed at 3:30 in the morning. It was June 29, an otherwise happy day on the family calendar because it is Joy’s birthdate.
Joy reported that Grama sat up suddenly and looked around. My sister jumped out of her seat calling aloud to Grama trying to arrest her attention. Whether Grama saw her cannot be known. When I heard this I thought of the Resurrection account of the dead supposedly returning to the streets of Jerusalem at their pass into the heavens; and out of a cancer-eaten body my grandmother’s spirit lifted, too.
She very well might have caught a glimpse of the room and my sisters, but I imagine that the vista into which she rushed was rapturous. No sooner than she had sat up, she lay down again, and like that she was gone.