Rest in Peace, Grandma
My grandmother died in her sleep early Friday morning. It took her 11 days of bouncing back and forth from death's door before she died. I spent several hours with her on Thursday, and she exhibited the agitation the hospice professionals often see when someone is near death. This agitation consisted of struggling mightily to get out of bed and "go"—looking back, I suppose she was convinced that heaven was just down the hallway, and she could go already if we'd only get out of her way. We couldn't, though—she didn't have the strength to walk unassisted, she was catheterized, and she would likely have fallen and caused herself physical pain. She was able to "go" about 12 hours later, resting peacefully with the aid of morphine and a sedative.
The old broad had a surprising amount of strength left that last day. This I know because she kept planting her feet against my legs and kicking, trying to dislodge me from the bedside so she could clamber out. I'll bet I'm the only one of her grandchildren she'd ever kicked—so yeah, special memories. (If I'm still alive at the age of 94, I hope I've got that much muscle tone and oomph left.)
Hospice volunteers assured me that I oughtn't take the kicking personally. It was a tremendous help to have a volunteer and the volunteer coordinator with us that afternoon. One of the nursing home's staff nurses (or a nurse's aide? not sure) showed amazing grace—holding Gram, comforting her, shushing her, nuzzling her—to help ease her out of the agitation. And this, despite a hot flash midway through! I hope she's there on Monday morning, when we return to the nursing home's chapel for the funeral service, because I'd like to thank her again in person. (Gram thought that was a huge selling point—"a place I can live that has a chapel where I can hold my own funeral? Sign me up!")
Grandma's life had many dramatic highlights, from Day 1 to (roughly) Day 34,500. She always said she weighed a pound and a half when she was born, and was swaddled in a shoebox near the stove. I can't help but wonder about the accuracy of that measurement. Plus, she was born about 8 months after her parents married—perhaps she wasn't small and early, but they wanted to give the impression of premarital chastity? Or maybe she really was a preemie, and thrived despite the nonexistence of NICUs. She spent some of her childhood on an Indiana dairy farm, and her family later returned to Chicago.
During the 1918 flu epidemic, sickly-kid Gram escaped harm, but her healthy sister perished, leaving her an only child. When she was about 17, her father was getting dressed for work one morning and keeled over with a heart attack, leaving just two members of that family of four. (So sad!) He was only 40 or 41 years old—can you imagine?
As a young woman, she worked for a milliner (but wasn't too keen on hats later on life). She later married a man who became the sweetest grandpa in the world, but probably was a dreadful husband during the early decades. He was an alcoholic who once passed out in the street; someone came to the house to alert Gram. Eventually he pretty much stopped drinking, but I can't imagine how incredibly difficult it must have been to raise children with a husband like that.
She had a difficult delivery when her second child, my dad, was born. He was in a breech position, and he sustained a broken right arm and permanent nerve damage in the birth process. Gram and Grandpa used condoms in the years following this traumatic birth experience (which she told my sister about five years ago—she spoke so candidly in her last years); she must've been terrified when she became pregnant three years later. (Though there were no complications that time, fortunately.)
Grandma and Grandpa never owned their own house. Instead, until I was a teen, they lived in the upstairs of a two-flat owned by Grandma's stepfather, a cranky man whom she never cared for. Eventually my great-grandmother developed Alzheimer's disease, and Gram cared for her for as long as she could. Then the stepfamily whisked Nana off to a nursing home and opted for tube feeding. After her mother's death, my grandparents moved to a senior citizens' apartment building in the suburbs, where Gram was pleased not to have to answer to her stepfather/landlord.
Gram continued living there after Grandpa died about 14 years ago, and I think she appreciated having a place to herself finally. She had a live-in caregiver for five or six years, until about a year ago when she became too medically frail to live at home. She had five or six (or seven or eight) hospital visits over the past year, but enjoyed the nursing home she moved to. She could play bingo on the premises, and she could attend Mass any day she wished.
Her last hospitalization came a month ago, and the specialist physicians determined that there was nothing more they could do to improve her condition. They recommended that she enter a hospice program to receive palliative care, and I'm so glad that Gram agreed to it. (She was always remarkably pragmatic, though she definitely struggled with this tough emotional decision.) She lived only a few more weeks, but hospice arranged for palliative medications, and the staff and volunteers were so helpful to us family members, putting alarming things into their natural context within the end-of-life process. Gram hated the discomfort of IVs, so I know she was happy to avoid dying in a hospital, stuck with needles and hooked up to monitors.
I never liked the "clean plate club." When a grandma expects you to finish all the food on your plate, but she's cooked assorted Polish dishes and sauerkraut and you're a picky eater, it's just not happening. (I'm much more suited to my in-laws' tradition of "leave some on your plate for the spirits.") I preferred to focus on the lazy Susan in the center of the table.
Grandma knitted and crocheted, so we had cute little sweaters and ponchos (in the poncho's early-'70s heyday). She handcrafted Barbie clothes, which my sister still has. Did anyone else ever have a bra for their Barbie doll? Gram made one. She also crocheted a blue bikini; when crocheted bikinis came into vogue several years ago, I thought back to Barbie and Grandma's fashion prescience.
When I was young, Grandma enjoyed tending her collection of African violets, aloe vera (she'd snip off a piece as needed for medicinal purposes), and my favorite, the burro's tail.
In the basement of that two-flat, there was an old wringer washing machine. There were more treasures up in the dusty old attic. There were so many layers of enamel paint on the staircase up to the attic, the railings were smooth and shiny. (So much for preserving original woodwork!)
Eloquent Summary To Place It All in Perspective
We'll say our final goodbyes tomorrow morning. Grandma had a long life, but she liked to say, "I never thought I'd live this long." She raised three boys, and buried one of them five years ago. She got to see all six grandchildren grow to adulthood, and enjoyed her 12 great-grandchildren. I'm glad my son had the opportunity to know his last remaining great-grandparent, and to gain an understanding of death as a natural process. It was an honor for me to be able to share those last two weeks with my grandma, too. She was surrounded by her family during that period and received an outpouring of love before she died. And then when death finally came, it was peaceful and pain-free. Can't ask for more than that.