Friday, April 4, 2014

Waving goodbye until she drives out of sight

Growing up in a family of doctors, I've never been fazed by the word sick. If someone was sick, they needed only to visit [insert closest doctor-relative here] and they would soon rebound. Sickness was a temporary state, always bookended by health.

My grandmother is sick, or at least that's the word my family is using when I call up. But it feels strange for me to use that word, as if there's any chance of rehabilitation. She's dying. After a few years of declining health, she suddenly had a major stroke in February. Through prior arrangements with her doctor-husband, she declined going to the hospital and instead has been receiving hospice care at home. Bed-ridden for the last 6 weeks (the stroke left the left half of her body paralyzed), she's living out her days in a rented hospital bed planted in the middle of the living room my grandparents have shared for over 30 years.

I'm blessed with the ability to go and visit her from time to time, although it is hard to muster the courage each time to say forever-goodbye. Many of my family members are making the pilgrimage to her house in Los Angeles, and the reunions are strange in themselves, equal parts sorrow and Christmas. The room has always been the focal point of my 20-person family's gatherings -- a fireplace that's constantly on duty despite living in balmy LA, a dinner table with some puzzle or another in disarray underneath the tablecloth, and an enormous window with a spectacular view of the house's two-tiered backyard and the hills of Palos Verdes beyond. In recent years, my grandmother had taken to falling asleep after sundown in her favorite easy chair, in spite of (or because of?) the white noise of her family's hubbub all around her. So the optimist in me says that not much has changed, except she's in a bed now instead of a chair.

Every time I come to visit, I steel myself for the possibility that she is no longer 'really there.' This last time, she not only sang along with me and answered open-ended questions (my desperate attempts to get a few more lessons, like "What's the secret to a happy marriage?" and "What should you remember when raising children?"), she even taught me a song out of the blue, saying it over and over again until I could repeat it back to her:

M is for the million things you gave me
O is only that you're growing old
T is for the tears you shed to save me
H is for your heart of purest gold
E is for your everlasting wisdom
R is for the right you'll always be
Put them all together they spell mother
The one that means the world to me

She said her own grandmother taught her that, which prompted us to talk about old memories for a while -- her caring for chickens on her grandfather's farm, the color of her prom dress, getting hand-me-down clothes from her older sister. She told me that her sister (who died in the 90s) and her brother (who died in WWII) were waiting in the trees for her, and talked to her when she was asleep. She did all this while interjecting constantly with snippets of the Alphabet Song. It was surreal and lovely and sad, as this whole experience has been and continues to be.


Kim's Kitchen Sink said...

When my grandmother was in hospice, in her final days she often talked about how her husband (who'd passed almost a decade prior) and sister (who passed quite young) were waiting for her, and she just wanted to go to be with them. They were waiting for her, and she was ready to finally join them. It was beautiful, and strange, and I don't know if it was the morphine or some sort of magical/divine clarity, but I like to pretend that we're not supposed to know the mysteries of the universe (or whatever) until it's our time. And when it's truly our time to pass out of this life, our loved ones are waiting for us on the other side, welcoming us and helping us to become ready. I don't know that I always believe that, but I like to try.

Helen said...

Thanks for sharing, Kim. It's interesting to hear that your grandmother had what sounds like a similar experience to my grandma's. I don't know what happens as and after we die, but I know what I /hope/ happens -- it sure feels nice to believe that there are people that you've been missing, waiting for you on the other side. And, I guess if you believe something hard enough, whether through faith or hallucination, once you're gone who cares if it was true or not, as long as that belief was comforting to you when you needed it?

Kim's Kitchen Sink said...

Exactly. When it's my time, I hope I either find out that it's true, or I'm high enough to believe it's true. She seemed so happy, and truly excited to rejoin her family.

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