My grandma passed away a year ago today at the age of 92. It hardly seems like a whole year has passed. With her passing at the age she did, you can’t necessarily say it was tragic, but needless to say the experience was still a traumatic and emotional one. I was fortunate enough to be there at the end when she left. While it was not a pleasant experience by any stretch, it was humbling and life changing. It’s amazing how much life there can be in death.
My grandma had lived alone in her own house until the last few months of her life. Circumstances had risen to where she needed physical therapy and round the clock care making living at home impossible. It was hard visiting her in that environment. Knowing that no matter how much better she got, she wasn’t really going to get that much better. I couldn’t imagine how she felt. No matter what her mental state was, she had to have known what was coming. It was like the elephant in the room. How can you stay positive and act “normal?” Every time I would go visit her at the nursing home and see her condition worse than the day before, I became more uncomfortable, and more afraid. So much that I tried to avoid visiting her.
I used Ellie as an excuse to not go as much. I just assumed it would be scary for Ellie and I really didn’t want to take her to a nursing home. But my parents encouraged me and pushed me otherwise. And when the guilt broke me and I gave in and took Ellie, I saw how she had no fear. She didn’t see her great-grandma as someone sick, she just saw great-grandma. She smiled and danced and gave her great-grandma hugs and kisses. Once I saw that, I realized that it was not only okay, but important for us to go. Grandma needed that. She needed us, now more than ever.
During those months of hospital and nursing home visits, I felt like our family got closer. We were all experiencing this together. We all reacted differently, but we were all there for each other in our own ways. You don’t know always have words in a situation like that, so sometimes just keeping each other company was all we needed. And with all that time spent together, even under the ominous tone in the air, sometimes you could see the humor show through.
One evening my dad and I were visiting grandma at her rehab center a series of events just struck our funny bone. There was an older man across the hall incoherently yelling at nobody, while a nurse was helping my grandma to the bathroom. My grandma would sing when she got nervous, so with the bathroom door open you could hear the nurse trying to speak instructions over my grandma’s singing.
“Evelyn, I need you stand up now please,” the nurse would say loudly over my grandma’s singing.
“La la la la laaa laaa. I used to be a singer. La la la laaa. I saw Frank Sinatra at the Fox Theater once…” she’d respond with a chuckle.
“Just move your foot, you almost have it,” the nurse would continue.
“La la laaaaaa”
And on top of all of that commotion, my grandma’s roommate was watching the Golden Girls on TV (very loudly) and would erupt into a hardy laugh every few minutes. Between the guy across the hall, my grandma singing at the nurse in the bathroom, and the roommate watching Golden Girls all at the same time, we couldn’t help but laugh.
My uncle who lives out of town was coming down weekly to visit grandma too. I usually only see him a few times a year, so during his visits I got to see him more frequently. Usually after being at the nursing home all day, we would meet at the local bar and talk. Our spot was called the Oak. Sometimes my dad would come, sometimes my brother would too, and sometimes it’d be just the two of us. During this time I got to know my family in a different way. I started to get a different portrait of my grandma in my mind. To me she was always grandma; dog lover and grandson spoiler. But in all my conversations with my dad and uncle, it clicked to me she was more than that. She was once a little girl and a young woman. She had a whole other before I knew her.
I’ve heard grandma tell some stories from her youth a million times, but it was different hearing them from my dad and uncle. Suddenly this person who was one dimensional to me, I saw from a different perspective. It made me have more questions for her. But time was running out.
I had very mixed feelings being there with her those last few days. My parents, uncle, brother, myself, and other relatives came in out of the room while she lied there receding from life. Some of us stood drinking coffee in the hallway, or reading a magazine, or we watched whatever was on the TV, and sometimes just had general conversation about our day. I had never been in this situation before. Neither of us had. Were we doing this right?
One morning I brought donuts for my mom and myself to eat while we sat with her. It felt like the right thing to do (grandma loved donuts), but while wiping dripping custard from my face while grandma lied dying in bed next to me I started to feel guilty. Maybe I shouldn’t have brought these?
Many nights we’d watch the Tigers game by her bedside. How could we watch the baseball game while grandma was in this condition? It didn’t seem right. I don’t think there is a manual for how a family handles death. Every family is different. But the more I thought about it, knowing how our family is, I think it was perfect for grandma. She loved donuts, and she loved the Detroit Tigers. This is what we would have done if we were visiting her at her house. I don’t think anything would have made her happier than watching a Tigers game while eating donuts with her family. This was the best thing to do for grandma. And most importantly, she wasn’t alone.
She passed in the late morning with family all around her. That whole morning I was afraid, wondering when and if it would happen while I was there. Should I stay or should I go? Would I be able to handle it? I’m glad I stayed with her and my family.
Later that same day, Aya and I had a pre-natal appointment at our birth center. It was a day that I felt like I really experienced the cycle of life. The day grandma passed away, I was listening to my daughter’s heartbeat inside Aya’s belly just hours later. While one life ended, we were celebrating the beginnings of a new one. It felt surreal. I was sad that Chloe would never get to meet her great-grandma, but I was thankful Ellie did.
With her gone, my last living grand-parent, our family has been adjusting for the past year. Traditions that I have experienced every single year of my life were no longer the same. It didn’t matter if they were important traditions, or just routines, they had changed. Every holiday and family gathering was different. All the irritating things grandma did didn’t seem so irritating anymore. I missed them. I missed her going on and on about her dog. Hearing for the trillionth time how my brother called “pine street” “pie street” when he was little.
Change can be hard. And whether it’s good or bad, it’s inevitable. These losses and changes help us grow. Our family changed through that experience. And if some of those changes were only momentary, it’s okay. I’m still grateful for the experience.