When I left Toronto after hearing my grandmother was sick, I was tired and depressed after a string of events, including a car accident. Going back to my hometown of Winnipeg felt overwhelming. As I wrote in part one, the thought of having to deal with death, a subject that I avoid as much as possible, made me feel even more depressed. “Was I going to be able to handle it?”
Having traveled a lot in my lifetime, I have an automatic response to the preparations. I’ve got a job to do, and everything else has to be put aside. Plus I have the added responsibility of taking along my little dog (she comes on board with me - I’m asked that questions a million times).
My mother had given my sister and me the impression grandma was doing much better than she really was. So when I did see her the next day I wish I could say it was a shock but it wasn’t. I have seen this before.The person is skin and bones and bares little resemblance to the person they once where.
Since she had her dentures out she reminded of what an anorexic blow up doll would look like with the circular mouth open. Her breathing is laboured and interrupted by pauses up to 30 seconds.
I’m not sure if my mom was in denial as when we left she said, “I’ll guess we’ll come back on Wednesday.” This was Monday. My sister called to stay she was coming back to stay all night and I returned to be with her.
As it turned out grandma struggled for several more days. Even though I’ve been in Toronto all these years only seeing her during limited visits, I felt I had to be with her through this entire process. It’s hard not to have heartbreak seeing her wake up, scared and agitated by noise, needing more pain medication.
At the end of the day it was the grandchildren who set up vigil. There were four of us who where there all the time.
On the Wednesday at the foot of her bed, my sister and I, along with two cousins and an aunt were going through a bunch of photos reminiscing about the various memories and laughing at how goofy we looked.
I noticed something different about grandma but let it go. Seconds later my cousin says, “Something has changed.” Each of us when up to her and kissed her on the forehead and said, “I love you grandma.” I was the last, and then she stopped breathing.
Moments pass, and she scares us with one last gasp and that’s it. Ninety-six years of living was gone.
Teary-eyed we all go into the hallway as the nurses pronounce her dead and gather her things. The five of us are huddled by the room doorway when a an elderly patient with an I.V. pole on wheels comes by. He’s like the lonely guy at the bar that wants to make conversation.
“So what’s the party?” he cheerfully asks. I’m thinking maybe he’ll notice my sister’s tears. We are all smiling though as it is badly needed comic relief.
“So what’s the party? Can I join?”
“Nope” I think, “He’s not going to let it go".
“It’s more like a wake” I say.
“Oh ok…” and he walks away.
I’m not sure if he connects the dots as to how much of his foot he actually got into his mouth.
We all laugh.
I was so afraid to come on this trip. What happened was unexpected. As I mentioned in part one of this post, I’ve been terrified of death. I never watch movies where people die from illness, especially The Normal Heart. I’ve never seen Angels in America. Yet there I was standing by her, kissing her on her forehead and seeing her last moments slip away. I was not terrified, not scared, but rather found some peace. The suffering of the last few days were over.
Ultimately her inevitable death gave me her one last gift, and that was to walk through my fear and be there for her.
There was no family drama. Instead I took risks in sharing some intimate moments I had with my grandmother at her funeral, along with the story of her going to visit a family friend with AIDS in the hospital. She went everyday and spoke to him even though he was far gone. She knew that he could hear him. She went to the funeral and saved all the materials from the service to give to me.
I decided "fuck it". I shared how her going through the war and myself going through the AIDS crisis created a bond between us. Only she knew what it was like to see such loss in her life created by a world event.
Perhaps this made some people feel uncomfortable, but what the fuck. Relatives from my dad’s side of the family where there as well.
This became an opportunity to become closer to my family. I’ve kept them at a distance only allowing them in so far, others not at all. One aunt said to me afterwards while putting her arms around my waist, “You know you never have to go through that alone.”
Later she said, “We always thought you didn’t want to see us.” I had let her know I’d been scared about what they’d think.
My sister and I walked through this experience together and it became a time to become closer. I’ve always wanted to be closer to my family.
When I boarded the plane to come back I was actually quite sad that I was leaving them behind.
Sometimes unexpected things happen, and this was one of them.
I will though, probably still stay away from The Normal Heart, at least for now.