In the early winter of my 26th year, my grandfather died. The weeks before his death had been filled with agonizing about whether to return home or not. Several times I said, ‘If this was Grandma, I’d be on a plane already.’ That sentence felt very right but also made me feel a creeping guilt.
When he died, I promptly bought a plane ticket to go home and support Grandma, which is the decision I had come to. Like many decisions I make, it was made before I even entered into discussion with myself; I still wondered if it was right to ignore one person’s death in favour of entering someone else’s life.
Six months after he died, I received a phone call. ‘Existere, it’s not looking too good. They’ve done another test for cancer, but her congenital heart failure is advancing. She can barely breathe, Existere. If you’re going to come home, I think it needs to be now.’
I called my grandmother, A, and she sounded almost normal. As the conversation progressed, however, her voice got weaker and weaker. I pictured a slowly deflating balloon.
I bought the plane ticket.
The first night I was home, Tuesday, we went right to her house. Most of the close female members of the household were there. I went in to say hello, and Grandma seemed surprised to see me. I looked around and recognized a scene that must have been very familiar to her from only six months before – family members milling anxiously about the house, the centre of everyone’s thoughts and activities the older person lying in bed. People pretended to be cheerful, and it wasn’t hard at first.
My grandmother has always been a bright and shining beacon of the sort of person I’d like to be. She could be in a terrible situation and smile and shrug. She had a way of putting things into perspective; she didn’t worry about things like money, she worried about giving gifts to people and prayed daily for the family. She also talked about her breasts, oogled naked swimmers through binoculars, and had a way of inserting very colourful language into the best part about her – her stories.
A had a story for everything, and many were often repeated. I developed a knack for doing her Polish accent, and retelling her stories to people who’d missed them the first (or twenty-second) time around.
On this night, the first words out of her mouth were, ‘Existere, you came so far! Have you had something to eat? Somebody make sure Existere has something to eat.’ She was cheerful, though obviously in pain and a shrunken version of her larger-than-life self. That night she got up on her own to go to the bathroom, she had conversations with people, she directed us to do whatever she wanted.
The next day she couldn’t get out of bed anymore. By the Thursday she had lapsed into a sort of coma. She was scratching and moaning a lot from the morphine, and my mother said we had to cut off the nightgown she had insisted on wearing days before. My mother took scissors and sliced through the deep turquiose fabric, which shimmered and stretched in the light. We rolled grandma, perhaps her imploring, ‘Wait, wait!’ and pulled the nightgown off.
My mother took calamine lotion and rubbed her mother’s breasts, arms, belly. We told Grandma it was her favourite Avena lotion, desperately trying to humanize this situation and make it normal. We laid a hospital gown over her, the woman who would rather be dead than have us see her naked.
As the days went by, I found myself always in her room with her sister. Esha was the youngest of a huge number of Polish children, and A was the oldest. They alone were left of their brothers and sisters. Dalia, my cousin, comprised the third member in our little group who wouldn’t leave her bedroom. Every now and then the stress would break over my mother like a top heavy wave, and I could see echos of the pain of losing her father here in the place where she was now losing her mother.
She’d take us for a pedicure, or shopping, and I went because she needed it. I still felt guilty, and terrifically terrified that A would die while I was gone. It felt important for me to be there, somehow.
My mother and I slept in a narrow twin bed on the Thursday and Friday, right across from Grandma’s hospital bed. It was her bed, the bed she swore she would not leave, but as it became harder to breathe she changed beds to make her doctor happy. She called him a good man, this crying man who brought her flowers, and asked us to buy him chocolates and wrap them with gold ribbon.
Thursday night, like every other night that week, I didn’t really sleep. Every few hours we got up to roll her. People were always in and out of the room. There was a constant emotional strain in the house, a stress of fighting with other family in an effort to try to do the best. Often the people who’d fought could be found in adjacent rooms, weeping.
On Friday my grandmother lapsed into the type of breathing I’ve heard twice before; the inhaling of life that signifies the approach of death. Everyone exchanged glances. The countdown had begun, and people seemed perplexed when Grandma kept hanging on. Her hospice nurse said she only had hours, but hours later I’d gone for one of my many walks with Bear, bought pizza, and sat in the basement with family eating and trying to feel normal.
The entire trip was like that, wanting to allow the horror and devestation wash over me, but being conscious somehow that I was there to help people. To hold people together. TMD was not there to hold me together, and so I think I was afraid of falling apart. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men would not be able to put me back together again.
Bear stepped easily into role. We went on long walks, looking at houses in the neighborhood. Once we got caught miles from her house in the rain, and we laughed and tried not to get struck by lightening. We bought lotto tickets for Esha, food for the family, time for ourselves. He took me, the sole vegetarian in a world of carnivores, out for a meal at the trashiest Mexican restaurant I’d ever seen.
But then Friday night came. I think the exhaustion of the past three/four days had caught up with me. I crawled into bed with my mother, pressed against the wood panelled walls. I faced my grandmother’s bed, hearing how hard it was for her to inhale, and not allowing myself to really feel it. Mom passed out. I soon fell asleep too.
It was a quieter night. We had agreed before bed that we wouldn’t move her anymore. Grandma was in the best position to breathe, it obviously had hurt her to move when she was conscious, and we knew she wouldn’t be alive for much longer. Esha told us of a Polish phrase her mother always said, ‘When they’re near the end, leave them alone.’ The house was still crammed with people, but it was slower and more sombre. Bit by bit, pieces of the house quieted down.
I slipped into a very deep sleep. Apparently people came in, held hands, said the rosary. Since I’d been home, it had been a feature of the day to hold hands, pray, sing. People read aloud to Grandma from her prayerbooks. Grandma clutched her favourite rosary in her hand until the very end.
At one point when I was alone in the room with her, I heard Grandma – who hadn’t spoken or moved in hours – very clearly say, ‘Momma,’ and then lapse into Polish. It was as if she was having a conversation with an invisible person, all the pauses in the right places.
This strain made me able to sleep through final giving of communion, of prayer, of people standing over my head and having conversations. Eventually they all left, and I slept on.
At around 3:30 in the morning I woke up. I still remember the oddness of it; waking completely clearheaded, having a definite feeling that I had been woken up by A. Grandma’s breathing had changed, and some primordial instinct in me knew This Was It. I tried to poke my mother awake, my fingers hitting the bare flesh of her butt cheeks.
‘I know, Existere,’ she said, swatting my hand away. ‘She’s been breathing like this for hours. You’ve been asleep.’
She quickly fell back into a doze. It was almost like a spell had been cast over the house. I heard no conversations, no muffled sounds of people in the bathroom, no pacing footsteps. I vowed to myself to stay awake until The End. I wanted to be there with her when she died.
I stayed lying in her bed, under her favourite blanket. I didn’t get out of bed, but merely propped myself up and looked over in her direction.
The next thing I know, I was awakened by my aunt leaning over Grandma. I knew then that she’d died, and that I’d probably fallen asleep at the exact instant of her death as only minutes had passed.
Then it was over.
My words earlier in the week – ‘Grandma, if I can be half the person you are, I’d be so happy’ that she’d swatted away, clearly not ready to accept that she was dying – they were gone. My showing her the rosary she’d given me as a little girl, and the delight and puzzlement on her face, that was gone.
The house felt empty. She still felt soft.
Then strangers came in, arranging everything. Arranging her body before rigor mortis set in, filling in reams of paper for her death certificate, asking us how we wanted it to be. As the early light began to show outside, still all dusty grey, two men pulled up in a vehicle.
We all gathered in the lounge, knowing what they were there to do, and silence fell. No one cried. No one tried to smile bravely. No one talked.
And then they carried her through on a sort of orange hammock, wrapped in a sheet with only her face sticking out. She seemed so small.
At that moment my life shifted and ended and I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to find it again. People began to wail, and I felt this intense need to stare and stare and memorize it all. My mother threw one arm over her face and howled, ‘Mother!’
She ran into her father’s room, collapsed on the bed, and I followed. She was insensible, mumbling ‘Mama’ and thrashing around, her body shaking the bed, the room, the whole world. I rubbed her back and felt numb. I felt pain for my mother, but felt no pain for myself. After awhile she got up, wiped her eyes, and calmly walked out of the room to rejoin the family.
All that was left was me stumbling out of the bedroom, away from the people I was trying to support, and into Bear’s arms, sobbing and shaking and needing comfort. After not enough time there, I reentered the world.
And that’s where this ends, or begins. I was told not to go to the funeral home, so I spent the day lying in the living room with Dalia, talking about things I wish I had no knowledge of.
Bear and I picked up her remains, ashes in a white marble urn. Flowers were thrown, removed as the Official People put a sticker on the urn, and rearraged. Gum drops and her rosary and prayerbooks were put in the hole. I read at the funeral, rode in my mother’s best friend Anna’s car, felt like my insides were ripping out.
Before coming home, I took roll after roll of film of the house. I called TMD furtively from my bedroom and sobbed. And then I came home and cried all the time.
That August day, and all the days before it, had meant that I was on unknown ground, and all I could do was try to hold on as I felt myself rolling down into the deepest and blackest place I’ve ever been.
Now, it’s not so black. The air has gotten lighter. Unlike other things I write about from my past, though, this is not resolved. After all, the only resolution I’d want is impossible.
The day after she died, the hospital gave us her official diagnosis. B cell lymphoma.
Five months after she’s died, I’m still waiting for mine, but I think it’s pretty hard to classify a broken heart.
Posted in a previous blog 27 January 2006.