My mom called yesterday to let me know my grandmother had officially stopped taking in fluids and hadn’t eaten in several days. I’d just finished brainstorming for this week's blog post, complete with witty bits I was anxious to put into form. I realize that the impending loss of a grandmother isn’t exactly a trending Google search, but, it’s what’s on my heart. My initial topic would have to wait, as my mind was now preparing itself for the inevitable events about to unfold.
As I made my final pilgrimage to the nursing facility, memories of past final farewells flooded my mind. The dim lighting, the soft soothing music, the heaviness of a stuffy room being heated to ensure comfort. I feel slightly anxious about what I may encounter. What do I say? Will she hear me? Does my presence even matter at this point? My adult daughter and I make our way down the wheelchair lined hall and into her room.
If you’ve ever laid witness to a soul taking leave from the body, you know what I mean when I say it’s an experience that has no comparison. The first time I saw this I was 19, with no idea what to expect. I’d received the call while at night school, driving 30 minutes back home in just enough time to join my family as they ushered my grandfather from this life into the next. It’s a ritual I’ve now seen repeated many times, among my relatives, and can only be described as life-changing.
Over the course of days, and in the final hours, a transformation takes place. When the departure begins, you can almost see the life escaping in tiny, palpable increments. Where there was once a thriving human, face full of expression, there remains what appears to be a malfunctioning vehicle. Broken down and exhausted from the battle between the course of nature and the innate will of the body to continue doing what it’s always done.
This is the struggle I find taking place within my grandmother’s frail almost translucent skin. During these long hours, I can’t help but wonder what’s happening in her semi-conscious mind. Is she remembering life as a small child? Being young and in love? The countless hours we’d spent playing Chinese Checkers after school, while she’d cared for me, day after day?
Maybe she’s thinking on what lies just ahead- the promise of unimaginable beauty and eternal happiness. She seems to be attempting to focus on my face, through tiny slits and trying to articulate a thought. Intermittent twinges of pain occur, followed by restful countenance.
My mom is there, as she always is, reassuring her that she is loved and that we understand her love for us. She is able to translate what sounds like a foreign language to my daughter and me. While we stand around, uncertain of what we should be doing, she moves with distinct purpose, because this is her purpose.
All my life my mother has made a practice of being compassionate towards the elderly. Anywhere we may have been, she’d stop and engage in conversation with someone who she knew would otherwise go unnoticed. I would never refer to my mother as a social butterfly, but when she’s around old folks, her wings spread. She shines when making the forgotten feel remembered. And they remember her. So naturally, she knows exactly how to care for her dying mother.
My daughter is wrought with emotion at seeing this display of kindness. “Mom, I can’t. I can’t even think about this happening to you, what will I do?” I tell her that “we just do,” that it will be natural for her as well because, like me, she too has been learning by watching. We joke about sharing a room in our final years, since we are, after all, only 17 years apart. We decide my younger children will have to do the heavy lifting. The day wears on, and the time comes to say goodbye, as I must get home to pick up my kids from school. I hold her hand one last time, wondering how long she can continue fighting, and marvel at the strength of the human spirit. Her frustration with her earthly body seems to be subsiding, and acceptance is settling in for all parties present. I won’t get to be there for her last breath. I won’t get to see her spirit take flight. But, I take comfort in the certainty that she is ready to see the place she will make her eternal home.