Thursday, May 8, 2014

Lessons at a Death Bed

She had been widowed in her 30's.  Raised four boys on her own.  Scrubbed floors for decades to support them. Read herself into an education she wasn't allowed as a child, being a girl and all.  Read until her sight failed her in her 60's; after that, she'd crank her hearing aids to listen to books on cassette. Photos from a lifetime of birthdays and babies hung above her bed. 

Bottom right: Nana in the middle of her 4 sons; above that, her and her husband and oldest child
And yeah, I'm up there in a high chair, stirring cookies with a wooden spoon :)
Over the years, somehow, she had put enough dimes, nickels, and dollars aside to fully pay for a funeral she thought she'd need a whole lot sooner than she did.  

But at 98, with a broken hip, a sudden onset of dementia, and a body that was finally failing, she'd finally find a use for those 1980 savings bonds.  

Nana knew she was going.  And she handled it with the simple grace she'd shown in the face of any adversity.  

"You're going to God, Ma," her son choked.  "You'll be on your way soon." 

She had squeezed his hand. "I'm so tired. I'm ready. It's okay." She gave him a shaky kiss on the cheek. "I love you.  Tell everyone I love them."  

As her mind started slipping, she wandered into her past. Gleefully, she told one of her favorite stories: she reminded her baby boy of how he'd been caught speeding when he'd first gotten his license.  

"Do you remember, Bill?" 

"Yes Ma.  I sure do."  

She chuckled. "The judge told you, 'You listen to your mother or you'll hear from me!' And you listened from then on." Her eyes twinkled a little.  But then she settled back into her pillow with a vague look.

It was her last story.  We sang some old songs with her, including "Let Me Call You Sweetheart." She actually sang with us for the final few words.  Her last song.

"Terminal agitation."  I hadn't known what that was before, but I do now.  And Nana... man, she was a fighter.  While her mind had acquiesced to the fact that it was "her time," her body and spirit were used to fighting through every adversity.  I admired and pitied her, stroking her hand as the morphine for her hip pain started to take effect.  I jumped when she'd suddenly lunge from a lying to a full sitting position. Over and over again.

"Something's wrong. Oh, there's something wrong." Wincing, twisting, and moaning, she slipped in and out of lucidity, uncertain what was going on.  "Where am I? What day is it?  Oh. Help me." 

It was heartbreaking.

We'd settle her down back into the pillow.  We'd tell her the time, the date, who was there, where people were, and encouraged her to relax.  

"We'll take care of you, Nana.  You're all right, you're all right," I'd soothe.

It felt funny, saying that.

Finally, she settled somewhat. A sense of determination was about her. "Water," she'd say calmly and firmly. "Water." I'd shakily hold the styrofoam cup with the bendy straw to her lips. She'd drink a little and cough a lot; her brain was forgetting how to swallow.  I'd put down the cup and stroke her hand.  A minute later... "Water." I fumbled for the cup, and she fumbled for the straw, again.  And again. "Water."

Her last comprehensible word, repeated and responded to, over and over, till the sleeping came.

My kids came to say goodbye.  I waited till she was settled more, then had them quietly slip in to give her a kiss on the forehead.  The preschoolers came in next.  My four year old solemnly waved at the food of the bed. Leaving, she loudly declared, "I'll miss her a little bit." Classic Ce.

We chuckled.  But when it was my toddler's turn, Nana was agitated again.  

Darn it.

I paused for a moment, then went with my gut.  Since Fliss seemed calm, I walked swiftly up to Nana, put my daughter's small hand in her gnarled one, and announced, "Nana, the baby's here." 

Nana actually stopped moaning. She actually opened her eyes.  Leaning forward, she pressed her forehead to Fliss's forehead, which was their special way of greeting each other. 

And there it was.  Nana's last smile. 

"So, it could be any time.  Well--to be precise--it could be seven minutes, or it could be seven days.  I'd advise you all taking shifts through the night; don't all be here all at once, you'll burn out."

Hospice left us with that advise. Four adult brothers who had gathered from as far as Nebraska and as near as down the street stood somberly around the bed, looking at their intermittently breathing, unconscious mom: a powerhouse of stubborn will and determined energy suddenly stilling. And none of them could stay to watch the inevitable happen, gradually or suddenly, however God had ordained this passing.  And none of us knew when that would be.  

That's how my sister, my cousin, and myself ended up spending three nights with Grandma/Nana.  Three nights the still trouble my dreams, because it's so sad to see someone you love leaving so definitely.  But also, these were three nights of lessons that I'll truly treasure forever.  

1.  As I learned awhile ago now, you don't have to be physically present with someone in order to feel their love.  In a special way as she was leaving this world, and particularly since she's left it, I've felt a connection with my grandmother like never before.  Now it's no longer about whether or not I have time or a possible cold that would prevent me from getting to the nursing home. In a heartbeat, I can be "with" her in spirit, in memory, and in love.

2.  Being beside a deathbed made me see in a renewed way what honesty is. There is no pretense when death is approaching. People cry and laugh openly, together and without a sense of shame for doing so.  The important things are spoken, sung, and prayed.  You find yourself doing all the things you wish you had done before, and the ones, looking back, that you're glad you'd done.

Suddenly, it was perfectly normal for me to address a sleeping woman with the following: "Hey Nana ,I'm gonna remind you about a story about the time I kicked you when I was three--sorry about that, by the way--followed by a rosary, and then remember those lemon drops you used to give us?  We don't actually like them, but we love you... and you know, I think I'm gonna like them, now.  And here, I'll sing Amazing Grace. Two or three times. Yes, there are that many verses.  And then I'm gonna swab your mouth with ice water and eat about a pound of chocolate... man, I wish I could split this with you.  I wish I remembered if you liked milk or dark best.  Hey, does anyone remember which Nana liked best? Huh. Hope someone asked her. I'd want to know that, about her..." 

3. Fear is definitely a part of the experience, though it wasn't the overriding emotion.  In the quiet hours of the night, very drowsy and drained by emotion, my tired brain would wonder if Nana "being comfortable" simply meant "too doped up by meds to tell us otherwise."  

I prayed this wasn't so. I prayed the noises she made weren't all moans, or more requests for the water she could no longer swallow.  I hoped she was talking to the angels already. I prayed the nurses were right about not giving her an IV (which they swore would just worsen her condition), and right about giving her oxygen, which they insisted would simply make her more at ease.  It was alarming when her breathing suddenly changed, or when her feet twitched. I hoped she was okay.  I knew she both wasn't and was. I knew she would be okay, ultimately. But it was hard not knowing when. I hoped. I prayed.

4.  Death is conflict.  The body fighting to stay, the spirit fighting to go. Seemed kinda like coaching a woman in labor sometimes, urging the one in darkness to find the light. 

My sweet cousin Deb, a 50 year old mom of 7, tried her best. When Nana started to gasp, we'd all lean forward, stroking her hands, murmuring encouragement and comfort. "Go Grandma. You've done your work. Fly to the Lord." Deb urged. "Take Grandpa's hand, he's waiting for you; Freddy's waited for you for 66 years, that's a long time apart..."  

A couple more gasps followed. Then Deb was suddenly saying sternly, "Breathe, Grandma! Breathe!"  

It's hard to know what to do.  Every other time in life, we want the person to "just breathe."  But now...

Please go.  Please stay.

5.  There is room for humor and joy, even around death.  Comic relief is kinda necessary for humans... you can't maintain the weight of sheer sorrow for hours on end.  At least, not at the deathbed of someone who's lived almost a century.  Sad she was leaving of course, but so, so happy for her; she had outlived most of her family and friends, and a glorious reunion was at hand. And the Beatific Vision wouldn't be bad either. 

So there were tears of hilarity too. Nana, my sis, my cousin, and I: we were a bunch of gals having a slumber party, in some ways, something the nursing home and Nana's stern practicality would never have allowed at any other time. At one point, there was a fashion show with a pair of brown plaid pj's.  

We argued that, hereafter, we would be "The Sisterhood of the Traveling PJ's," and would be sure to mail the lovely things to Nebraska so Deb could have her turn with them. Maybe you'd have to be there but oh... I think Nana was enjoying it, thoroughly. She was always a prankster and a witty practical joker herself.  Which might have been why... she wasn't going anywhere. So we drank strong coffee, and accepted the staff's offer of danishes. And waited. 

And this will be my sister's expression, again, if she finds out I've used these photos. 
6.  Hospice told us that the dying--despite being asleep--can definitely hear us. And that they, in some ways, choose when and how to go.  I'd always been told that pets--cats in particular--choose where to die, and whether or not to die alone (seems cats usually like the privacy.) So when Nana had hung on for three days of sleepovers with us, we figured we were all much too entertaining to possibly leave behind, and maybe her body and spirit just needed some quiet and privacy to slip away.  

We left her that night.  I still couldn't sleep.  I'd toss and turn, reaching for my cell phone to check to see if I had missed "the call."  I wondered if this greatly independent spirit did want to do this all on her own. 

She apparently didn't.  She was waiting for us in the morning, still sleeping.

7.  I wasn't there when Nana died. After three nights of very little sleep, my own body wasn't happy with me.  

But I was torn, not being there. Just after midnight on May Day--the same day Nana had run around the Maypole as a young girl back in the 20's-- I was still dressed, keys on the table beside me.  I was surfing Facebook for the first time in many days, checking in often with my sister and cousin who were keeping watch, asking whether anything had "changed," whether or not I should come.  I was told "things are pretty much the same.  Have progressed slightly, but hey, we've said that every day..."

I had just signed out of Facebook at 12:45, resigned to start another uneasy sleep, when the home phone rang. 

"I think... I think she's gone Katie," my sister sniffled. "We were just telling the nurse that, by now, everyone who could come to see her had come.  And we just looked over, and she had slipped away.  I think she was waiting to hear that, Katie, making sure she'd given everyone a chance to say goodbye."

I grabbed my keys and flew out the door. Driving to the nursing home, I was smiling and singing hymns through tears. "You did it Nana.  You made it; you're with Grandpa now..." I tuned into an AM channel and heard a song I'd never heard before, on the radio or otherwise; a folksy song from an actual Bible verse: "Arise, my love, and come away..." 

It was a verse I'd look for, but wouldn't find, when picking out the readings for her funeral from the section "Funeral Mass in the Easter Season." But it didn't matter, because it was the verse that the priest who said the Mass, the dear "Fr. Roger" that she had befriended and kept house for for 20 years, somehow chose to close his homily. 

A robin was singing as I parked the car and booked it down the sidewalk to the nursing home. I was practically skipping.  Apple trees lined the pavement, covered with bridal-white flowers that shone in the streetlights. Round white pedals glistened on the wet pavement. I pulled a low hanging branch and watched the tiny circles dance downward as I jogged along, pausing long enough to pick some tiny blossoms for Nana. It had started to lightly sprinkle, and the rain was cold.  But I was positively buoyant.

"Mary I'm here!" I texted my sis, and waited in the cold for her to open the door. A big hug.

"She made it Mary!" I exclaimed.

"I know.  But... hey, don't be quite so happy.  It's sad.  She's so still, now."

I got quieter.  The elevator took us to the third floor.  I walked into 303.  

Mickey, her roommate, was mercifully asleep.  "My Vera will be okay, yes my fluffies," she'd kept saying. (Everyone's name was "Fluffy" to Mickey, except Vera.)  "My Vera needs to sleep, but in a couple of days, she'll be so well I'll have to peel her off the ceiling."  

Well... sorta true.  

Nana was indeed still.  The oxygen pump was silent.  The nurses had laid her flat on her back, her arms flat by her sides.  Her eyes were closed, her mouth was open. She was silent.  Her skin was relaxed and as young looking as ever, an odd testament to a lifetime's use of Dial soap and water. There was a fiercely raw beauty about her.

I kissed her warm forehead and rested the flowers on her blanket.

"You did it, Nana," I whispered. "You made it Home."

I decided that I'd wait till my uncles and dad arrived to say goodbye; she'd have wanted me to give them hugs for her. So what if it was one in the morning? I am like her; I'm tough, I'd survive. Taking off my jacket, I pulled up the old folding chair. I slipped my chilly hands into hers, and quietly sang: "I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now... I see."

And for the last time, Nana warmed my hands with her own. 

“Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away.  
See, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. 
Flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come..." 
Song of Solomon 2:10-12


  1. You're dear Nana is spending a Lovely Mother's Day with our Lord and His Blessed Mother!

  2. What a beautiful tribute. I am sitting in front of the computer with tears streaming down my face. May God comfort you in this time of loss and may the angels rejoice as they welcome your Nana to heaven.

  3. This was made me cry (and I never cry!).

    So sorry for your loss and prayers for your whole family.

  4. Ditto what Amelia said, except for the quote from Cece, (that was hysterical :o) Sending thoughts and prayers your way, and feeling grateful for being able to read this beautiful post today.

  5. What a wonderful post. I was present when my grandmother--also nearly a century old--passed away last fall. It was an incredibly moving and spiritual experience, and I recognized so much of what you shared here--except the PJs. That was awesome. :) This quote stole my breath: "The body fighting to stay, the spirit fighting to go." Beautiful. Just beautiful. Do you mind if I share my story with you?

  6. Oh, you Irish Catholics!!! Dammit! Now just quit it, I've had a long day!! Where is the damn kleenex box?

  7. Thanks to everyone for their kind thoughts... I apparently owe people a lot of Kleenex (lol Imelda!) but it was touching for me to realize how this resonated with so many people. And absolutely, always feel free to share my posts to others and share your posts with me; thank you Kathleen! :)

  8. Okay, I cried through reading this. It was beautiful. It also brought back memories of almost exactly six years ago when I sat at my grandmother's bedside, the woman who'd helped raised me and taught me to love reading, who had given me every ounce of strength and love she knew how to give ... and I watched her leave to be with my grandfather. It hurt, but I knew she too had finally made it home. And I'm sure that she's up there giggling with my grandfather about how my husband had sat and held her hand letting her call him by my grandpa's name and talking to her with a Scottish accent. "Silly Pole! But, glad he did it." I'm sure they're saying.

    You've touched this heart in more ways than I can say. I pray for your (and your family's) peace while you adjust, I know that Nana doesn't need my prayers now. Perhaps, one day, I'll get to meet her when I get called home.

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