Photo by Francesco Gallarotti. From http://www.unsplash.com
Last night I drove out of town to visit my grandmother in the nursing home where she resides. I went to tell her goodbye because she is dying. It was one of the hardest things that I have ever done. I was afraid to go see her, making up excuses why not to in my head, but in the end I went. I knew I would always be sorry if I didn’t.
Saturday she had a stroke and since then she has been unable to move her right side. She no longer speaks ad doesn’t open her eyes much. She is slowly dying of hunger and dehydration. It was her wish not to be kept live by artificial means. It is just a matter of minutes or days until she takes her last breath.
I was taken aback when I first saw her. She seemed so gaunt, sunken, and emaciated. The bones in her hands and wrists were visable through her paper thin skin. Her face was so thin that her nose and cheek bones looked razor sharp. It reminded me of photographs that I had found when I was a child- photos my grandfather had taken as a young soldier liberating a concentration camp, horrifying photos of skeleton-like men in striped pajamas behind tall fences. As a child I had never seen anything like that before and it gave me nightmares. My adult heart ached to see my grandma looking this way.
I cried, even though I tried my hardest not to. I don’t know if she knew if I was there or not. I put my hand on her shoulder and talked to her. I told her that I loved her and thanked her for being such a wonderful grandma to me and my sister. I ignored her roomate that was talking in German and complaining that there was a visitor in their room when she wanted to go to bed at 7:30 p.m. I went around to the other side of the bed and held her hand while she slept.
I started to think of all the things I knew about her. My grandmother was a breathtakingly beautiful woman in her youth. She had taught in a one room schoolhouse. She contibuted to the war effort by building airplaines like Rosie the Riveter. She rode a camel in Morocco. She raised two sons and buried another. She loved mystery stories and always had a book or a crossword puzzle on the arm of her favorite chair. She was very fashionable and wore long, flowy skirts and lots of silver indian jewelry. She followed my grandfather wherever he would go and was lost without him when he passed away. In conversation she always had a feisty remark or would often tell me, “Well, don’t get in trouble and go to jail tonight, I don’t have any money to bail you out!” when we would part ways. She looked like a movie star when driving her black Thunderbird. Her laugh was a delightful cackle. She made the most delicious smothered steak and cranberry salad you would ever try. When she said, “If you two kids don’t behave I will get in the back seat and sit between you,” you’d better believe she would do it, because I had seen her indeed do it. She would never admit her age because she had married a younger man. She is a strong, fascinating woman.
As I thought about all the things I knew about my grandmother, I knew that there was so much more that I did not know, and I was sad that I could come up with a million questions that I would never again get the chance to ask her.
She once told me the best advice I have ever received and I will keep it close to my heart in the upcoming days. “Sometimes you just have to laugh,” she said, “otherwise you’ll cry.” I know I am not yet done crying, but I will try each day to laugh for her.