August: Dog Days of Summer

Saturday, November 24, 2012


I think that I would be remiss if I allowed the Thanksgiving holiday weekend to go by without writing SOMEthing about being Grateful. This was the first Thanksgiving since my Grandmother passed away, last December. Last year, we were at her home in Florida- it was the last time I got to spend with her before she fell and fatally wounded her head.  Last year, I made the cranberries (the same recipe I've been using for many years), but they turned out very tart- borderline sour. My Grandmother, being 102 at the time, didn't have much left in the way of tastebuds. What she did have, was mostly for sweet. They must have been intolerable for her. When I looked down the table to watch as she tasted them, her face screwed up into the most gruesome pucker I thought she might turn inside out. She turned to my cousin sitting to her side and whispered, "who made the cranberries?" and my Cousin, eyeing me watching, whispered back, "Maggie did" at which point Gammie looked straight down the table to me. As she noticed I had been watching, her face popped out of its pucker and she very graciously lied to me, telling me they were wonderful. Inside I was hysterically laughing to myself- it didn't bother me that she might have hated them. What I loved, though, was that she didn't want to hurt my feelings and let me know they were too sour for her. And by G-D, she choked those suckers down. Looking back on this, I just love this little story all the more. It's so indicative of Gammie- and of how she always made me feel special- no matter what.
We ate Thanksgiving dinner at Gammie's table, sitting on her chairs, with her tablecloths this year. Except the table, chairs and linens all now live at my Brother's house in Utah. For years, I have been the one to order the flowers for her table. I know the dimensions of the table, and parameters under which to keep the arrangement; colors, width, height, length, which flowers she liked and which she didn't. When I ordered flowers for the centerpiece last week, I stopped mid-sentence on the phone with the florist when I realized that I was ordering flowers for the SAME table- with the same parameters and dimensions and preferences. Only now, the table is somewhere else. And so is Gammie.
We went around the table, naming things we were each grateful for. When it was my turn, like everyone else, I stated how grateful I was for family, blah blah blah. But I also mentioned that I was grateful that Gammie had died when and how she did. When I saw everyone's raised eyebrows at this, I went on to explain what I meant by this. Gammie was 102. She was spunky, fiesty, funny, fiercely independent, and truly marvelous. She was also very tired. And, in a way, lonely and sad. Her last husband (number 4) who had been her true life's love, had preceded her in death by 10 years. She had lost all of her friends,  her nephew and his wife, and was starting to lose some of her mobility- and along with it, some of her independence. Which she never wanted. Her live-in companion, who was a friend and skilled nurse and who ended up becoming a part of our family, had noted often to me how she felt that Gammie was "slowing down." She was ready to go. One of the things she kept saying last year was, "how old am I?" and when we would tell her, "102 Gammie," she would roll her eyes and drop her jaw, and look up to the ceiling and say, "I think they forgot about me." I think she was ready to move on. She was someone who would NOT have accepted having a lingering illness, or a debilitating injury. She died the same way she lived her life: with dignity and grace, and very purposeful. There was no other option when she hit her head on her marble floor as hard as she did. That was it, and that was going to be the end. And I'm glad for her, that she did not live long enough to have to fall ill, or be removed from the home she so loved, or to have had to lose her faculties in any way. I'm glad that she went out when she was vital and strong and independent. I'm glad that she didn't linger in a coma. I'm glad that she wasn't in any pain. I'm glad she never got to the point of having to have had to depend on someone else to help her walk, or eat, or speak. I'm glad that she went out when and how she did. I'm glad that she lived long enough to know my children, and for them to be old enough to have solid memories of her. And I'm glad that I got the privilege to help usher her out of this world.
When my uncle called at 7AM on the morning of December 7 of last year and said, "your Grandmother has fallen," my heart just sank to my feet.  I leaped out of bed, and said, "Gammie is going to die today. I have to go." I got my kids off to school, and raced to make a noon flight. We had just come home from having been there for Thanksgiving, and all of our suitcases were still unpacked and exploded open on the floor of the upstairs hallway. I simply closed mine back up, and brought it with me again. My dad and step-mom were on the flights with me- we changed three times before we got to Florida, at 9PM. We went straight to the hospital, and I went straight to her side. She was and had been unconscious since they had taken her for CAT scans earlier that morning after they had brought her in the ambulance. I grabbed her hand, and told her I was there- and she squeezed. They say that speech is the first thing to go with a fatal head injury, and hearing the last. Although she could not respond with anything other than a squeeze, I know she could hear me. And I know she knew I was there. My oldest brother had already arrived from Chicago that afternoon. He, I and M (her companion, caretaker and friend) all stayed up with her that whole night. The three of us took turns sitting in the chair next to her, or on the bed next to her, holding her hand, brushing her hair, cleaning out her mouth, wiping her face. When her breathing would become labored with fluid, we would call the nurse in to suction out her airway and give her some relief. We hooked up my iPod to the TV and watched movies she loved- funny ones, Jane Austen-ish ones, romantic ones. We talked to her, we laughed, we spent one last amazing night with her life still present in her body, in that hospital room. As the morning drew nearer, we each started dozing off. One of the nurses brought in a roll-away bed for me to curl up on for an hour or so. When her breathing started becoming more and more labored, and shallower and shallower, I went and sat on the bed next to her again and clutched her hand. It became obvious the suction wasn't going to cut it much longer and they gave her an injection of  lasix to help dry out some of the fluid gathering in her throat and lungs- in an attempt to give her some kind of ease, or comfort in the death process. In this time, her hands had become really hot and clammy- and I could no longer force her fingers to twine with mine. Her hand wanted to be  in a fist, as her extremities were shutting down. So I held her fist. When the much deliberated-over decision was made later in the morning to give her a tiny bit of morphine to further help give her some "ease," I had a few moments alone with her. I put my face next to hers and whispered whatever comfort I could think of- all the time, still hoping she could hear me. I told her that we all loved her so much, but that we would all be OK when she went. I told her how she would see her own parents soon- that they were waiting for her. I told her that it was time for her to let go and fly. After they gave her the morphine, we all sat or stood around her and watched and waited. I hadn't left my spot next to her on the bed, and I hadn't ever let go of her hand. Her breathing would stop for a moment, I'd stroke her arm, and she'd start back up again. At one point, her eyes opened for an instant-  I felt her whole body rise up in a moment of complete muscle tension, and her hand in mine jerked- I thought she might suddenly awake- then her eyes closed, and she softened back into the pillows, as the last breath left her lungs in a loose trill, and she was gone.
I have had the privilege of being present when many a baby has taken its first breath of life in this world. This was the first time I had the privilege of being present for someone who breathed their final breath in this world- and I'm so grateful that that person was Gammie- probably the single most important and influential person in my life. After she was gone, and I sat there and had a REALLY cathartic full-belly-anguished cry, I got fully up on the bed next to her body and curled up with her, putting my head on her chest as I had done so often with her in life. I stayed there curled around her body for close to an hour. Other family members arrived from their own long journeys to get there, and I  relinquished my spot. She died just a bit before noon. The hospital staff had some lunch trays set out for all of us in a nearby gathering room- which I found to be such an incredibly sensitive and lovely thing. We all needed to eat and drink, and take a breath. For the rest of the day, we all as a family, sat around her room then, I on one side of her again on the bed, her daughter on the other, and told stories. Most were really funny, some were melancholy, others sad. I'm not sure what other patients on the floor must have thought at this site: A family sitting around their deceased matriarch, talking and telling stories and every once in a while the sound of peeling laughter coming forth from the room. It was really wonderful. Gammie would have loved it. We all stayed until the funeral home employees came to take her body at 5PM. She was still warm. And her jaw muscles had tightened, so her mouth had closed- and she was smiling. No shit.
And so: I'm grateful for having had Gammie as my amazing Grandmother. I'm grateful she lived as long as she did. I'm grateful for the beauty of the life and death process. I'm grateful for compassion from amazing health care workers. I'm grateful for incredible friends and loving family. And I'm grateful for having the privilege to BE grateful.

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