The call came at 3am Wednesday. Grandma is dying. She probably won’t make it through the night. If you want to say your final goodbye, you should come.
The lights at grandma’s house were dim when we arrived, and the air was heavy. Short, labored breaths rattled out of her lungs, sounding like a child with croup. She lay tucked under blankets in a hospital bed in the middle of her living room; my cousin leaning over her, inserting morphine tablets under her tongue to keep her comfortable.
Being on hospice for the past week, the call had not been entirely surprising, though she had been so alert and responsive the prior few days that we had thought it might be weeks until the end. But here we were, in the middle of the night, beginning our final farewells. Some family members sat perched on the queen-sized bed near her hospital bed, while others lingered on the couch in the adjoining family room, taking turns leaning over her and whispering words of love and gratitude.
As morning crept closer, our hushed, sad party continued with an occasional comment, sniffle or laugh amid the whir of the oxygen machine. One of my sisters planted herself solidly in the chair overlooking the hospital bed, a focused presence at grandma’s side, but I couldn’t seem to stay in one place. I found myself huddled under an afghan with my aunt and cousin for a bit and then settled into a cozy spot on a red velvet sofa with my little sister snuggled under a down comforter. I dozed here and there, always aware of the heavy breathing nearby, more alert during the pauses. The on-call hospice nurse monitored her vitals but soon left, as grandma’s breathing seemed stable.
The morning light began creeping through closed shades. Cell phones chirped from the kitchen, startling me awake, followed by the smell of chicken noodle soup that my uncle was heating on the stove for a 5 AM snack. I crept over to the extra bed once again, where my cousin lay under the afghan. I looked over at grandma a couple feet away and kept thinking that such a lively woman would surely sit up soon and tell us all we were mistaken and that she was not dying after all.
I then drifted off again and dreamt that grandma not only sat up, but began dancing around the room. We embraced and I swung her around like a child, commenting on how light she felt. We danced and laughed, and she asked me to make her tea. And then I awoke. And heard her shallow breathing and saw her thinning arms and still body, and I swallowed the lump rising up from the pit of my stomach.
At 8 AM another hospice nurse arrived, the same angel who was there at the end with my grandpa 4 years ago. She commented on the rapid changes in the past 24 hours and confirmed that Jean was, as we suspected, in the active stage of dying.
But she wasn’t quite ready to leave us that early in the morning. With just a handful of her 9 children there, the nest wasn’t nearly full enough yet. But slowly, on planes and in cars, the ducklings began returning home.
I went home briefly to shower and grab a few things, but I was nervous leaving. Since I had said everything I wanted to say to my grandmother over the past few days, I don’t know why I felt so strongly about being there at the very end. I think part of it had to do with wanting to not only be with loved ones but also to observe and tell my family’s story. I wanted them to be able to look back and see how beautiful they all were in these moments; how they came together as this powerful entity of sorts.
I think a couple people worried there were too many people in the house for a dying woman. Perhaps there were. I don’t know if there’s a right answer, just different perspectives I suppose, but it was quiet and respectful, and it felt right. The house felt full, yet there weren’t large groups hovering over her all at once. And for a woman who chose to have 9 children and was accustomed to the pitter patter of children, I think saying goodbye in an empty, silent house would have felt strange and even lonely.
With such a variety of people in a big family, it’s interesting how everyone deals with the process of saying goodbye so differently. Most seemed to gravitate toward the familiar; my aunt cooking, my dad cleaning, my uncle out mowing the lawn, me mulling over words to describe it all and sneaking into the bathroom to type quick phrases.
Those last moments of goodbyes will forever be etched in the creases of my mind. The graying of the sky as thunder rolled and lightning flashed bright. The smell of sauteed onions and a meatloaf “grandma meal” that my aunt had baking in the oven. The constant, whirring sound of the oxygen machine like that of a generator; methodic and seemingly in sync with the constant back-and-forth motion of the metal chains holding the front porch swing as various family members took outside breaks in sticky, humid air. Men sneaking to the porch to catch tidbits of the Blackhawks championship game playing quietly on an ipad.
And those last few moments….
The evening sky and full bellies.
The image of my twin sister through the large front window rocking her newborn on the porch swing contrasted by the frail body on the other side of the window, her children surrounding her, lulling their mother through this last transition of life.
Word circulated through the house that her breathing had changed again, and with few words the room filled, and we listened and waited once again. And then as if quietly slipping out from the party, the oxygen machine was silenced and my uncle announced, “She’s gone.” A peaceful, quiet relief. Silence followed by sobs.
The last 2 ducklings trickled in from the airport run, more sobs and goodbyes, and soon the 9 encircled their mom. With candles lit around the room, grandkids standing behind our parents, my mom, the eldest of the bunch, led everyone in a blessing. She blessed each part of my grandma’s body with a prayer she found, “Mom, we bless your hands. Your hands have been a source of welcome and of help in countless ways. We offer our gratitude for all that these hands have done.” After each rote part of the blessings, she would leave space where anyone could call out specific instances where grandma used her hands, feet, etc in our lives. We laughed and cried as different people called out memeory after memory. After each part, we repeated the phrase, “You will always be a part of our hearts. Go in peace.”
Then we said a short Hail Mary and Our Father, and it was the most intimate time I couldn’t imagine with 20+ persons.
At first I felt sad that we hadn’t been able to do the final blessing and honor my grandmother in her last moments, as I think my mom and others had pictured. We had done a shortened version of this blessing (without the inserted memories) the previous evening, while grandma was still breathing. But thinking about it now, Grandma Jean was still in the room with us, and we didn’t have to shout over the whir of the oxygen machine that had been on while she was still breathing.
People have been reminding me that she lived a good, long life and that her love will live on. And that’s true and comforting. Yet there is this gap where this large presence used to fill space.
Scenes of playing with my grandma as a child and then having the privilege of watching her with my own children… giving Lucy her first bath as an infant and chasing Elliana around her fairy garden. There is a part of me that dreads the school year starting up again because visits to grandma Jean were part of Elli and I’s weekly routine while Lucy was in school. And they were far from routine– they were as fun and lively in her 80s as I remember them being in her 50s when I walked there after school for chocolate milk.
Grandma Jean, you are a queen. You will live on in your children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. We have a lot of space to fill.