My grandma’s death was one of the most beautiful and terrible experiences of my life. The day she died was a grey and rainy day in the middle of summer -which later we would comment as being funny timing. The dreariness coming as a surprise in the middle of a string of sunny days.
The phone call came at 7:32am, on a Friday when I should have already been on my way to work but had overslept and was still in bed. The last text from my mom had said “She’s doing ok, everyone is relieved and hopeful.” Grandma had been up and down in the hospital for a week and a half at that point. But wearily answering the phone at 7:30am, I knew she was worse. It was one of those “we’re gathering the family and saying our goodbyes” kind of phone calls.
The hospital was familiar, and I found a mix of family as soon as I stepped off the elevator onto the 4th floor ICU. Aunts, uncles, parents, one of my three brothers, grandfathers. My younger cousins arrived shortly after, as we were waiting for the hospital shift change to end so that we could crowd into my grandma’s room. My mom remarked to me “you can all go in there together. They’re not enforcing the visitor limit.” Yeah. I looked at her a moment as we silently acknowledged that they tend to overlook those kinds of things when someone is dying.
In the wide hallway outside of Grandma’s room we each have to “gown up” by slipping into disposable, yellow hospital gowns, and wrestling medical gloves onto our hands. This ritual is due to the fact that Grandma, during the first few days at the hospital when things seemed to be improving, unfortunately contracted an infection called C. Diff. from the hospital. That’s what landed us in the ICU.
In her room I find my other two brothers, who had stayed during shift change. We slowly crowd close together, my cousins, myself and my brothers. We are a touchy-feely family to start with, us Laidlaw-Brouhard-Babad-Sutherlands. But death and grief break down even further the boundaries that may normally be present.
Eventually the room is crowded with about a dozen of us. Shoulder to shoulder, arms around each other. My cousin Mariah starts crying almost immediately on entering the room. Softly. Her younger sister, Kristin, puts on a gruff attitude to cut the heaviness of grief we are all feeling “Geez, don’t start crying now, crying is terrible.”
I’m not sure if I can cry today, but I am glad for Mariah’s tears. For my younger brothers’ tears when they move to the back of the room quietly and start crying. Their blood is my blood too. And grandma’s. This day feels sacred and precious somehow. In a strange way like a gift. We are all growing or already grown up, living in separate states, living separate lives. But a day like today strips us bare and draws us together again. This is the family of shared childhoods, baths and playtimes, fist fights and quarrels. Rarely do we get to experience that kind of kinship with one another anymore. Except for scarce days like today.
Death is an awful blow. Even when it is expected, and particularly it seems when it is not expected. Our family collectively decided that my grandma dying “fucking sucks.” She would appreciate that (profanity and all). So when I look at her passing, and say that it is beautiful. It is in that horrible way that hard, tragic things can somehow hold pictures of hope and wonder. What is so terribly beautiful about my grandma’s death is the love that surrounded it.
At the moment, I want to pretend she is still alive, but I also want to hold onto some of that day nonetheless: the companionship of family and tears, the arms around my waist and shoulders and heads against mine and sitting on laps and holding hands, and the ebb and flow of grief and laughter as we together let go of someone we all loved dearly. That dreadful feeling of so much love that you are shaking with tears because you have to say goodbye.
Walking into her room that morning I have a picture of my older brother, Ezekiel. This brother who is afraid that he is too mean to be in a healthy relationship. And, honestly, I sometimes worry that is a little true; I worry he is too mean because he is so cut off from feeling. We carry much of the same baggage. But that day I saw the big brother of my heart. Who awed me with his gentle caretaking, as he held my grandmother’s hand and stroked her hair. “You’re having a good hair day, Grandma.” He softly told her, though she was unconscious. Yet he continued to hold one-sided conversations with her. He wasn’t afraid to get close, to touch her thin skin. He cried full, real tears that I haven’t seen in years. He was beautiful.
None of us are strangers to death, from my youngest cousin at 17 on up, between us all we’ve lost siblings, grandparents, friends, and other assorted family. Humor is a tool we are all well-armed with to help us cope. It’s hard to capture the mix of laughter and tears during those morning hours, the number of times someone remarked “people must think we are awful for laughing so much.” As we crack jokes and tell stories and make sarcastic comments.
But we also watch Grandma’s heart-rate monitor as we chat to her and around her. She is breathing with the help of a ventilator, her eyes are closed, she hasn’t been awake since Wednesday. But her heart-rate goes up when we laugh, when we talk to her and tell her stories. We tell her over and over what a wonderful thing she has created here: this family.
At 10am there is a scheduled meeting with the doctor. Because there are so many family members here, the nurse had to track down an empty conference room for the almost twenty of us to meet in. My youngest cousin, KJ, and I stay with Grandma while the family convenes. While they decide when to take Grandma off of life support. I tell Grandma that I have been praying for her, even though I know she’s not a big fan of God. I say that I’m not always such a big fan either, and that’s ok. I tell her about the old guy who has been hitting on me recently. I tell her about work and my car troubles. I quiz my cousin about school and girls and sports.
My brothers and cousins trickle back into the room after a bit; the adults are still finalizing details. Funny how at 27, with your family you remain a “kid” and there is still a group of “adults.” Which is not to say they don’t treat us like adults, or let us step into responsibility and support. But we are blessed to be loved as children and nieces and nephews forever. Allowed to be a little less responsible here than anywhere else, if we need it. It’s a comforting twilight-zone of childhood.
Suddenly, not so suddenly, it’s time to say goodbye. Ezekiel comes to my side of the bed and I ask how the meeting went.
“We decided to take her off the ventilator. After everyone says goodbye.”
“How long after we take her off, will it be?”
It’s impossible to imagine, that my grandmother really will be dead in just a few hours. Really dead. Gone. Impossible, this vibrant figure who existed before I was born, who was to us kids simply another facet of the created world, like trees or sky; she just was a part of what made things what they were. I’d never known a world without her.
The family is once again crowded into my grandma’s hospital room. My Aunt Mary speaks up, her voice cracking a bit, as everyone huddles around, “We are going to take her off of light support in a little bit.” The words said out loud feel like a punch to the stomach. “But we can take as long as we need to say goodbye.”
I don’t know how long we take to say goodbye. It feels fast and slow, all at the same time. By now, everyone is crying; we are a mix of teary eyes and heaving shoulders, a spectrum of expressed grief. I am on the teary eye side of the spectrum, but my chest is constricted and my throat tight. I can feel a flood of tears inside me, but I am afraid they might never stop if I let go and start crying.
We take turns by her bedside, edging close to hold her hand or stroke her head. Gentle with her fragile skin. We repeat all the things we have already been saying: “I love you,” “You will be missed,” “You have done so many amazing things.” We say the things she taught us how to say and be: “I love you,” “We will be strong,” “We will continue the family you have started,” “You are precious and are leaving a giant hole in us.”
My cousins say their goodbyes -tearfully, reluctantly- and make their way out of the room, understandably not wanting to stay to watch her go. We notify the hospital’s Respiratory Specialist that we are ready to take Grandma off of the ventilator.
Pulling the Plug
I don’t watch them pull the breathing tube out. I can’t stop from hearing, but I clench my eyes and lean into the wall. Breathe. This is terrible, painful. When the tube is out, my grandma opens her eyes for the first time in days. They are weakly open slits of eyes at first, searching the room desperately. Her eyes are achingly frantic, she opens and closes her mouth, struggles to breath. Both so fragile and urgent, it is heart-wrenching. Terrifying. My grandma is strong and spunky, opinionated. She is abundant and warm and loving. Now she is hurting and weak, she is a fragment piece of herself. She is dying. And all we can do is watch.
My mom is sobbing. This room is full of pain that I can do nothing to ease. My mother is losing her own mother today. She is standing here at the age of fifty-four, saying goodbye so early and suddenly.
“I can’t do this. I can’t do this!” My mom wails, face wet with tears, body shaking. “I can’t do this!” She cannot bear to watch her beautiful mother struggle to live as she dies. My mom says a final goodbye and goes to join the family members in the waiting room. I wrestle with whether to follow her or not; to stay while my grandmother dies, or be with my own mother while she suffers its happening.
Ultimately my dad follows my mom in the waiting room, and there are fewer still of us here: my three brothers and myself, my Aunt Tammy and Aunt Mary, Uncle Kevin and Uncle Dave. Fortunately my grandmother begins to relax, the distress across her face eases, and her eyes remain open.
We share this dying vigil with one-another over the next hour. We trade places by her side, struggling for words through the tears. Finally I too have found my tears. The words at this point come much harder: “Grandma. I love. You.” I am choking with grief. There is so much I could say, but so much I know she already knows. “You taught me so much about being a strong woman. You taught me about embracing death and grieving well. You made me feel loved.” My cousin, Kristin, put it into words beautifully as well, “To be your granddaughter was the greatest gift I could have ever been given. Thank you for being everything. For raising four kids who grew into marvelous adults/parents/aunts and uncles. For loving each of your grandchildren like they were your favorite. For being the reason I have such an amazing family to fall back on during this hard time.”
The doctor estimated that Grandma would have about thirty-minutes after coming off the ventilator, but she ends up staying for an hour and fifteen minutes. We tell her it is ok to go. Though none of us feel like it is really all that ok. She has nothing to stay and fight for: she is leaving an abundant legacy behind, a broken but beautifully lived life.
When there are no more words for the moment, my Aunt Tammy starts to sing. Lullabies. Softly stroking her mom’s hair and shoulder:
“Tis the close of the day, the sun’s long away, far over the shining sea,
And the rising moon like a big balloons come visiting you and me.
In your mother’s arms you work your charms, a whimper, a smile, a cry
And on this magic night, in heaven’s timeless light, I’ll sing you
your first lullaby.”
We were all raised by these women: my grandma, my aunts and mom, so the songs have been sung to us too, as kids. We join in the singing where we remember the words, and the room is softly singing lullabies to our grandma/mom. It is breathtaking. Heartbreaking. Bittersweet.
My grandma’s breaths come further and further apart. Her eyes are closed now. Each breath is a gentle hiccup, few and far between. As her breathing stops we decide to sing one last song together:
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found;
was blind, but now I see.
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
and grace my fears relieved;
how precious did that grace appear
the hour I first believed.
Through many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
and grace will lead me home.”