A month ago, I watched my grandmother die on my bathroom floor.
She had been given the common “three to six months” speech that all too many cancer patients get and she was okay with it. Maybe. Probably not. We never really had the chance to talk about it. I was afraid to ask. Either way, it doesn’t matter because she didn’t even make it a month. My grandma had ovarian cancer, but we think she actually died of a heart attack. She had been receiving at home hospice care and my father was making arrangements to go a beautiful hospice location a few miles away. Just days before, she had been zipping around her apartment, cracking jokes, and being her wonderful self. She started feeling ill on a Friday. On Saturday, my mother had the idea to bring her home for the weekend. On Sunday morning, she was dead.
She woke up on Sunday morning hot, sweaty, and disoriented; tangled in her blankets. Dad helped her and she asked about me. I came into the room to help. So did mom. Then grandma started saying things that didn’t make sense. We thought she needed to use the toilet. It took all three of us to help her into the bathroom and before she could sit down, she collapsed onto the floor, her breath ragged. Deep gasps for air that I will never forget.
Everything happened quickly and slowly all at once. Dad left to get grandma’s oxygen tank from her apartment. Mom and I took turns sitting behind grandma, on the ledge of my tub, to make sure she wouldn’t hit her head. I prayed and prayed and prayed. Grandma’s breath started to slow down, which mom took as a good sign. I knew, in that very instant, that this was it. Her breath was slowing too much. The seconds that passed as she inhaled were too far apart.
I looked at grandma and realized she wasn’t there anymore. Not really. And I looked at my mom and shook my head, not wanting to say it out loud: she’s dying. If any part of grandma was still in there, I didn’t want her last moments to be filled with sobs and screams. I sat down in front of her and rubbed her legs. I put my had on her chest as it rose and fell for the last time. She died in my mother’s arms. Dad still wasn’t back yet.
I remember saying “amen” in my head, not wanting to get angry with God for taking my grandmother away. I had prayed for Him to comfort her and be with her and I knew that He had been. I had prayed that He would strengthen my family and I knew that He would. I prayed again, right there on the bathroom floor and tried to comfort my mother, who sat sobbing in disbelief. I thought about how sad it was that my mom had lost her mom and mother-in-law in just three years. I thought about how I didn’t have a grandma anymore. Not one.
I called my dad and told him that grandma died. I hugged him a few minutes later when he pulled into the driveway, oxygen tank in the back of his car. I texted Steven the news and asked him to help. The hospice nurse called to check in and I told her what happened, too.
I remember Steven and my father lifting my grandmother’s body off of the floor and into the bed. My mother had arranged the blankets first. I know that I called David Ryan. Texted my cousin to call our home. I remember desperately wanting to clean the bathroom and Steven helping me out with that. I remember being sad that Steven had to help with any of this, but being so grateful that he was there.
More phone calls and visitors. Grandma’s sister came over and yelled at her for following their sister’s footsteps. I learned that watching people grieve just kick started my own sadness. Through all of this, grandma’s body was warm. She looked like she was sleeping. We kissed her and held her hand. We straightened out her nightgown. We cried a lot. We laughed. We said our long goodbyes.
In the days and weeks that followed, there was a memorial, family time, a moving up ceremony for my students, starting up a grad school class, bridesmaid obligations, and lots and lots of football. I’ve held my dog during a thunderstorm, I’ve hugged my boyfriend, and I’ve said goodbye to my brother, who I won’t see again for another year. It’s been…life.
I think about that W.H. Auden poem a lot and how when someone dies, you expect everything to stop. You want everyone to take a second to mourn the life that has been lost. But that’s not what happens. That’s not the way things work. Instead, people send condolences and give hugs and then continue on with their lives. And that’s better, in a way. Because that’s how you move on.
Life right now is happy and sad and mix of other things. And I don’t have my grandma anymore, but I have years and years of memories to consider, along with a trunk full of things that Steven and I will use when we start our life together. That’s really all I can ask for.