It has been a long hiatus. Not that there hasn’t been much to write home about; it’s just that there has been so much and it has thrown me into a state of confusion so great I haven’t been able to come up with anything to say about it. There has been so much and some of it… some of it is so hard to say out loud that I can’t bear to put it on paper. I can’t bear to make it so permanent.
But now it is written in stone, an expiration date. A date of death. Below her name, etched into a granite headstone adorned with two crosses and two other names. One has a blank space after the dash and there is no one left in this world who cares if that space is ever filled. The other created necessity for the stone in the first place, and set the ball rolling on her own plan to make the next date an easier one.
Easier, as if it could ever be easy. As if it could ever truly be bearable. I am familiar with the heaviness that comes with depression. But grief is so heavy there is nothing but gravity, pulling me lower and lower until I cannot breathe, and after what I have witnessed, nothing is more terrorizing than being unable to breathe.
I don’t know how to say it so I’ll just recount it for you as I’ve babbled to myself over and over again, assuring myself this is what she wanted. This was inevitable. This was the best possible ending. She felt no pain. She told me she felt no pain, only peace. She said all of the magic words I needed to hear before the Book of Her was shut and put up on a shelf so high I could never reach. But I was there and if I can be honest for a moment let me be honest about how raw this ending was for me. I watched the person I loved most in the history of my world choke to death and it dawned on me like an apocalyptic mushroom cloud looming on the horizon that this was what was going to happen to every single person I have ever loved. In the end, we’re all going to choke to death, gasping for redemption from something we are hoping with all of the fight we have left in us actually exists.
I am sitting in my Grama Barb’s chair. It is sitting in my library near the window. Next week, I will sift through her clothes for the last time, and bring home a small box of the last things she will ever give me. I received her thank-you card in the mail, a show of appreciation for attending her funeral two weeks ago. Yesterday, I saw her grave for the first time since the last time I kissed her goodbye. I took a pink carnation from the bouquet that still bore the ribbons “Mother” and “Grandmother” and tucked it into the visor of my car. They tell me it will get easier but I cannot believe there will ever be a day I will not miss her like this.
I am sorry.
I apologize if I have already turned you off. Let me tell you for a moment about the good things I saw. Let me tell you about the secrets that were revealed that gave us much needed laughter as we waited in the lounge of the Critical Care Unit. Let me tell you of the forgiveness I witnessed and please, I hope you’re still hanging in there when I get to the part about her beautiful grin as she woke up and reached for me with both arms.
We waited in the lounge for what felt like forever. When there’s a literal timeline of the rest of your life, you tend to really feel each passing second. Sometimes, it goes much slower than you’d imagine. We waited for change, we waited for news. We waited for someone to come up, to come in, to come over, to come back. We waited for word of improvement. We waited for confirmation of fear. We waited just because we couldn’t do anything but.
We colored pictures while we waited. We ate doughnuts and talked about our favorites. Grama’s favorite was Boston Cream. Meg and I both went straight for the Bacon Squealers. It made me smile to think she sometimes gets mad at me for pointing out all the things we have in common, but during the next week, we all ended up finding at least one thing we shared.
We remembered as we waited. As we waited for the bad thing to happen, we remembered what she was waiting for. Sometimes it felt like Grandma Judy was right there with us. It was the hardest, most necessary evil I’ve ever experienced, recounting history as we waited for it to come to an end. We each had our own rendition of “You Are My Sunshine” playing in our heads, remembering the grandma she was to each of us, the mother she was, the sister. The shelterer, the gatherer, the feeder and the cuddler. The cookie-baker, the secret-keeper, the safety net, the hero and best friend.
She brought us back together. We stood in the room, all of us, for the first time in years. Everyone she had left in the world sat around the chairs and bench, stood hunched around her bedside, sat at the edge of it. The babies she loved, the last generation she started, they climbed right in her lap and she snuggled them close.
I saw more tension, more forgiveness, more fear and more relief than I think I’ve ever felt. I hadn’t seen my father cry since the last date was etched on their gravestone – the dates of his brother’s life. I still had not forgotten that particular shade of olive green, glossed over in tears. Her hand looked so soft, and his so rough, as he cradled hers gently while trying not to squeeze the tears back. I learned that if my father can be forgiven by the one he thought he could not forgive, then perhaps I can find something of that forgiveness in my own heart.
The first day was uncertain. On a scale of 1-10, it was a 3.
The next day was a waiting game. She slept, and we talked. We waited for confirmation of stability. It seemed like that was going to happen. Anyone in the room was willing to sacrifice any semblance of their own stability to lend her, should the Universe need balancing.
Friday was beautiful. I sat up in bed and rubbed my raw eyes. I had not slept. I had binge watched several seasons of Friends as I shrieked inwardly that I could not let myself fall asleep. What if I woke up… and she didn’t? I thought I could stop Time if I could stop sleeping. I check the blinking blue light on my phone. I have never been so afraid of a blinking blue light.
As I walked through the door, she saw me and the most beautiful smile spreads across her face from ear to ear. An explosion of sunshine. Suddenly everything was in color again, and she was no longer gray. She was no longer that slight blue, that decaying yellow, that deathly white. She was pure sunshine and as she wrapped her arms around me she said, “Everybody loves me so much.”
Yes, Grama. Everybody loves you SO much. You are SO loved.
I wanted a few things to happen in this lifetime before she had to leave. I wanted her to see me succeed. I wanted her to see me do something good for the world, and be proud of me. I wanted her to know how very loved she was. “Everybody loves me so much.” That was the answer.
Such wonderful things have happened to me in the last month. I began my food pantry campaign on August 15. It received a lot of positive response, and I am continuing that push to restore our community. I became certified to talk people off bridges. I trained to become a crisis worker. I am going to graduate college this year and be the first of my generation to get a degree. I got a raise at work and have found so much satisfaction in the other parts of my life that when it came time to bargain with God about this, I almost felt as if I had no right.
Yet there I sat, curled into the chair in my basement, my eyes glued to the screen watching Friends unblinking, I bargained with God. I begged him, please, just give me cancer. Let me slip off in my sleep tonight and give her a little while longer. Take pieces of me and give them to her. Let me make her better. Let me take her place. Please, please, don’t punish me this way. Don’t punish her. Don’t take her and don’t break me like this. Please, God, please show me mercy.
Friday started so well. It was a false hope that carried us through to the worst gut-punch I’ve ever felt. We’ve got to let her go.
Let her go? But it looked so good. She went from a 3 to a… well, I guess I didn’t know, but it was so much better than a 3. There was talk of her going home. There was talk of long-term plans. We went from “make decisions” to “make living arrangements” to “come to Jesus.” My head spun, my stomach sank and my heart broke.
I held her hand more in the last three days than I did in the last twenty years and God, how I wish I could remedy that. I held her hand and watched the machines beep incessantly. Sometimes they beeped urgently, and my heart froze in each silence between those chirps. Was this it? Was this it?
Was this really it?
I asked her, in the quiet moments as we watched Mark Harmon save the day on the television, if she was still in there. I pointed to my head. She nodded. It was true; she was more lucid in the last few days than she had been in the last few months. Maybe she really had made her peace. I asked her if she was okay. I couldn’t bear the thought of her not understanding what was happening, like she might possibly approach the final moment wondering why we’d forsaken her. I could never live with myself if I knew that was how she felt.
So I asked her. I asked her over and over, and each time she squeezed my hand and nodded, almost with earnest. She was okay.
I pointed to my heart. Are you okay here? Another gentle squeeze and nod.
As she fell back asleep into a painless dreamland, I laid my head on the bar of her hospital bed, held her hand in mine, and we listened to Johnny Cash. We spent a long time like that and I willed the world to stop.
But it didn’t, and still we waited. I can’t explain how each minute can pass so swiftly when you’re pleading with the clock to stop – yet when you’re begging for relief, for something to happen to make this horrible limbo end, to stop dragging out what we’re all waiting for – each hour lasts an eternity.
The last night, we had a sleepover. We curled up in her room with her after everyone had left. We talked and we laughed and we waited with the worst kind of trepidation for her to fall asleep. We knew this was it, and so did she. She fought sleep and finally, the nurse came in to help. We kissed her goodnight, and I told her I loved her. She said she loved me too. I told her I loved her more, and she went to sleep.
That was the last thing she said. She said she loved me. I could not ask for a more perfect goodbye, save for no goodbye at all.
I lay over the bar of the bed for hours, holding her hand. I was determined to be with her until the end. My aunt peeled me away from her side every few hours for a cigarette break. Finally, I pulled a few chairs together and carefully laid across them. The darkness that came for a few minutes every hour or so was so very welcome.
I watched her breathe all night, the slow rise and fall of her shoulder as she lay slumped over in her usual sleeping form. I frantically remembered every wonderful thing I could about her, trying to live our time together over for the few hours we had left. Around four o’clock in the morning, I heard a quiet giggle. “Go get her, baby. Go get Aunt Shelby.”
She was on her way. She had found what she had been looking for.
Her body continued to breathe, painful and restless. The sun rose and another day began. Sometimes it baffles me how nervy the sun could be, daring to bring that morning upon us. Didn’t it realize the awful truth it ushered in? Tuesday, August 23rd was the last day she took a breath. At 10:27 that morning, she gasped and we collectively shattered. I held her hand and placed my other on her chest, feeling for a heartbeat. There was nothing but my own, pounding blood into my ears, forcing a guttural sob out of my throat.
On the way home, I pulled to the side of the road for a funeral procession to pass. I went to pieces and flung every hurt I felt at the windshield. I felt my insides churn and wrap themselves into a tangled knot. I screamed at God and I died inside.
So I have not written for a while. The last time I attempted to sit down and write an update, it began like this: Today feels like the first day of a wonderful new life.
I have always measured my life in Befores and Afters, but this… this was never an After I could comprehend and here I am, waking to each new day with the confusion of an abandoned kitten, wondering when the lady with the gentle hand and the saucer of milk is coming. I have woken up and gotten dressed to go have breakfast with her. I have driven down the road to spend a few moments with her. I have listened to the last voicemail she left me over and over and over, and I still cannot believe she is gone.
I am a balloon. I am floating, I am weightless. My mind is in the clouds. I am empty inside and floating along, putting in time until I see her again. Just a balloon… and all it would take is one pinprick to destroy me.
I have to stop now. I want there to be more. I want to share everything about her with the world, at least a little bit of the magic she shared with me. It has taken me a few weeks to come up with these words. Today, this is all I have. I hope I shared something to make you think, and I hope you’ll go hug your grandma. Thank you.