Saturday, December 10, 2005

December 10, 2000

I promised I'd tell you a story about five years ago today. However, the story actually begins five years and 2 days ago.

Five years and two days ago I was house and dog sitting for Carmencita. I got the call from Mama Kizz that I should come to Maine. This might be it.

It. My mom is big on the whole "this might be the last time we..." thing. Me too, I guess, not sure if I was born with it or I got it from her.

But there were dogs and tenants and oh god. So I said I'd leave the next day. Sometime in the evening it became clear that there was no heat in the house. I couldn't reach Carmencita to tell her that I was leaving earlier than I thought and I couldn't reach the heating company. Eventually I gave up on her. The heating company I called every hour or so all night long. Their answering service was really pleased with me. Didn't make it a degree warmer, though.

Finally, five years and a day ago Pony Express showed up with her car. There was no packing, despite being only about 6 blocks from my own home I didn't bother to go through the important packing process. I don't know whether I was being lazy or superstitious but I went with one pair of jeans, one pair of sneakers, a couple of turtlenecks and probably 3 or 4 books. Oh, and the dog.

Straight through, 7 hours to Winslow, ME. I stopped to pee once, just over the line into NH but I didn't even let the dog out I just got back in the car, apologized to her and kept going. I don't know if mom was at the house when I got there or at the hospital but I dropped my things, talked to her somehow (phone? in person? probably in person) and she said she'd buy me dinner at the fancy lobster place. So we went and got my dinner boxed and went to the hospital so I could eat the yummy lobster roll and the passable fries in front of my grandmother.

I also got some back story on this little outing. Apparently my grandmother had been diagnosed with kidney failure around Thanksgiving. When asked by her son what "we" were going to do about it her reply was, "We're going to keep on trucking." If you ever met my grandmother you will know how fucked up that is. The not doing anything about it is her to a T but the phrasing? So very wrong. She was like...oh god, like Marion Ross on Happy Days I guess. Yes, that's the closest. I'd go with Mrs. Doubtfire but she wasn't as chatty or quite as warm as that. Anyway, no dialysis, no new meds, nothing special, she was just going to ride it out. Much later it came out that she had promised her sister that she would stay through Christmas. Here is my request to you, please do not lie to people that count on you in your dying days. It means that your legacy is a rippling pool of anger and pain and I really don't think that's what you're going for.

Upon arrival at the hospital I felt a little duped. She was conscious, she was chatting, she had a visitor, there was even some music playing. So we sat and talked and listened to the music. She looked pretty good considering. She'd finally decided to call the ambulance the night before because she couldn't breathe but she had oxygen now and she wasn't very chatty but she was clearly present. I scoped the room, figuring someone would have to stay the night and since I was the last one in and the youngest it'd be me. Imagine my surprise when Mama Kizz got us both ready to go. So we said good night.

I thought that was weird. I figured it was what Grammy Fern had asked for so I went along with it. I don't know if it was the right thing to do. But it's what we did.

Aunt Rena thinks it was the wrong thing to do. She has passed up no chance to tell us that, if she'd known we were going to leave her sister alone for the doctors to kill her, she would have insisted that we take her back to sleep the night in a stiff hospital chair. I will say that I don't think it would have changed anything for anyone to be there. I am not in the camp that believes that the doctors dosed her up and killed her. It's a small camp. Rena is the Queen and the Publicist. That little Queendom has a fabulous press corps.

I slept on the couch in my grandmother's living room. The other options were not good since with three bedrooms and we had Rena, Mama Kizz and Mama Kizz's Old Man Friend. I felt better being on a different floor.

Five years ago today at 7am the phone rang and at that point you kind of know. Mom came down and told me they suggested we get to the hospital. So, unshowered for 2 days, I grabbed a sweater, put on my sneakers and we went over in 2 cars.

She was unconscious and, of course, not expected to regain consciousness you know, ever.

I just don't know how to paint this picture accurately. You're in a hospital room, a private one now, not the semi-private from the night before. Clearly the nurses have decided what's going to happen now. Your company in this room is your 80+ year old great aunt who is pissed at everyone for not watching over her sister all night, your mother who has a tendency to begin to quiver from her toes to her soul when things get overwhelming and your mother's boyfriend who is closer to your grandmother's age than your mother's. Your grandmother is making a sort of a noise. A very ungrandmotherly noise. It's somewhere between a wheeze and a moan. Rhythmic, since it's defined by her breathing pattern. It's fairly loud. There's a TV and it's on but the sound is extremely low. There are chairs and a big window and at some point a big nurse brought in a coffee cart. The room is too big, there's too much room around the bed. There's nothing to do but wait. So you do. You have to make conversation with this group of people. And what the fuck do you talk about?

My uncle was called. We figured he'd get there around noon. We didn't know if he'd make it before she died. That discussion took about 5 minutes.

No one had eaten. We spent a good 10 minutes discussing whether to eat. Didn't want to leave Grammy alone. We could go in pairs but how would that work? I was scared to be left alone with Aunt Rena, she was mad and a little crazy and nothing anyone could do was right. If my mom and I went as a pair then it left the two oldsters to negotiate the cafeteria by themselves. And, while they are each capable of such a thing solo, in these circumstances, putting them together just wouldn't work, any idiot could see that. Final choice? Me and the OMF. Um, no. As the youngest and the last to arrive I know I don't get many privileges but that's where I draw the line. I'm not dredging up polite phrases with a Republican ex-Navy man while I wait for my grandmother to die. I did what I do best, I said they should all go and I'd go alone when they got back. We got at least another 5 minutes out of, "Are you sure?" "Yes, I'm sure." "You'll be OK alone?" "Yes." "Do you want us to bring you anything?" "No, I'll go get something when you get back." "Are you sure?" And so on.

I know I'm in the minority here but for Christ's sake, I'm OK with being alone. Really. Particularly in high emotion situations giving me a solo job is possibly the kindest thing you could do for me. Or at least a job where no chatting is required. You know, just in case you, dear reader, happen to be with me when emotions get high and shit needs to get done.

So, I sat alone with my grandmother. I watched the TV. I have no idea what was on. I didn't turn up the volume. And I talked to her. Only I felt like, being alone in the room for all intents and purposes, it would only increase the crazy quotient marked on our chart if I spoke out loud. I employed a technique first perfected when I needed to talk to my stuffed bear and wanted the crazy quotient to stay low. A technique, I might add, that proved effective with that bear until about last week. I thought what I wanted to say in sentences and paragraphs...very, very loudly. I remembered some things that ET said, about how it's important to let a dying person know that it's OK to go if they need to. So I told her it was OK to go and it would suck but it was better for her to do what she needed to do and thank you for waiting for me to get there and even that I was sorry that I hadn't stayed the night before and I hoped that was all right with her, too. I held her hand. It was cold. My brain split in two. One half knew that it was cold because she was nearly dead and it wasn't going to get any warmer no matter what and kept replaying that monologue by Mistress Quickly in one of the Henrys where she talks about the cold creeping up Falstaff's body as he dies. The other half just had to put a blanket over her hands, I couldn't stop it. So there we sat.

Then they came back and I went and ate from the salad bar, I put peas and ham on my salad which I really like, and blue cheese dressing. It was good. I thought about having some ice cream or pudding as dessert but I figured I ought to get back soon.

My uncle arrived. He's not a fan of open air, of silence in a group. He's a salesman and sort of a politician. He is someone who, most definitely, would not like to be given an alone time job in a time of stress. So he did (what I consider) the heavy lifting.

At some point I took another alone moment. I went to the chapel and cried, quietly but with as much ugly as I needed so I could go back into the room and do the weird half normal thing we were doing.

I was sitting in a chair, the OMF was in a chair next to me, Rena was standing near the foot of the bed, Uncle was leaning over sort of oddly to hold Grammy's right hand and Mama Kizz was on the other side sitting in a chair and holding her left. After the big nurse had brought these oddly minty smelling hydrating swabs to swab Grammy's mouth her breathing had lost the wheezy moan. It got very quiet. We spoke more quietly and with more breaks in the conversation. It went on longer than I thought it would. Also shorter, but longer, plenty of time for me to wonder how much longer it would be. And then one time she just didn't breathe in again. It was just over. No shudder, no twitch, no sign from the heavens.

I would have waited longer. I would have listened to the silence some more. Uncle would and did not. Maybe 10 seconds after that moment when you know it's just...over, he said, "I think that was it. I should go get someone." And he did. The nurse came and checked the nonexistent vitals and said it was over and we should take as much time as we wanted.

I don't think we stayed very long. There were papers to sign, and decisions to be passed along and all. Rena was mad. Violently angry. She is (was?) only 11 months younger than her sister and had not spent a moment in this world without her. How do you face something that different from the rest of your very long life? I felt bad for refusing to take her down to lunch so I sucked it up and I offered to take her back to the house while the rest of them did the other work.

We had a surprisingly nice ride. Inasmuch as something like this can be nice. For about 15 hours she liked me best. What happened when my 15 hours were up is a whole other post. On the car ride home she told me about hers and Grammy's mother. Rena had taken care of her while she was sick and dying. There were a lot of stories and they were all bad. They all involved Rena having to do the scut work of watching someone decline while other people came in and took the glory or told her she was doing it wrong or forced her to do things against her better judgement. The last one, though, was about the night her mother died. She slept in the same bed with her mother in case something was needed during the night and Grammy Allen's breathing was bad. We were driving over the railroad tracks and going through the one significant traffic light as she told me this. I was concentrating on the road so hard I could almost tell you where the words fell on the pavement outside. She lay in bed with her mother and counted her breaths. 8 in. 8 out. 8 in. 8 out. Then 4 in. 4 out. 4 in. 4 out. Then a pause. 4 in. 4 out. Then a pause. And the pause kept getting longer. And finally it was the only thing. And there they lay. It's no wonder the poor woman is afraid to go to sleep at night.

More stuff happened. But that's the story. I think it was a privilege to be there to help someone die. Assuming I helped at all just by being there. It was also, oddly, helpful to me. Much better than just hearing what happened like we did with Robbie. I wasn't so pleased that we viewed the body later that night but I was glad to have been there when she went.

And there's not really anything else to say about that, is there?


  1. Anonymous3:03 PM

    I've never gone through anything like that, but I feel that your description of your experience is touching and authentic.

    For what it's worth, I am certain that your being there was helpful for Grammy. She may not have been aware of your presence before she passed, but I am as sure as I can be without having done it myself that she was aware of you after she passed. And I'm also certain that you made her transistion easier.

    For what it's worth

  2. No, I think you said it very well indeed.

  3. I finished my Grandma memoir, if you're interested: