I debated about publishing this post. The emo tween in me wanted to spill to somewhere. The be-mature-blogger in me told me it’s a cheap trick to write about death. After days of these thoughts brewing and cultivating in my mind, you could say the emo kid won. These are the more or less developed vignettes.
I nestled myself into a corner of her bed and started reading out loud from Snow Flower and the Secret Fan – a very Orient-enamored book I picked up from my mom’s pile of discarded gifts. I figured it’d at least be rooted in China. Maybe even more ancient than Popo’s 92 years, but still possibly nostalgic in the way that “homelands” are regarded. The book starts out with two Chinese girls’ coming-of-age moments. I probably got through three to four chapters when I reached a point where the two girls experiment to an innocent degree in being two girls cooped up in the summer heat. It was only very slightly lesbian and erotic, but I got shy and thought, “Oh, maybe I shouldn’t be reading this to Grandma. This could get kinda weird.” So I stopped reading out loud to her. The episode ended after barely two pages, but from the remaining hours I was in her room, I did not read out loud again.
Later I shared this with my mom. “Oh, Grandma knows all about that stuff!” she said. “You should have just kept going.”
To be honest, my grandmother and I weren’t that close. This is true of most of my familial relationships. We’re “modern,” as people say, and I’m fine with that. I racked my brain for memories of me and Grandma, but knew that whatever I remembered could not compare to what other people could pull up about their grandmas. She lived in Michigan until my grandfather died. We moved her to an assisted living home ten years ago. (She was one of their longest-living residents, actually there since their opening day.) Eventually stories were made up, recognition slipped, and major components of what one would consider grandmotherly just went away.
I couldn’t think of anything starkly negative, though.
And sitting there, how could you not feel supreme tenderness? As I sat at her feet, I felt soft. Despite the language barriers – We lost the ability to connect via my shoddy Mandarin and her secondary English years ago – and all the non-/miscommunicative frustrations that they might bring, I felt very calm. I had been there since mid-morning and my mother drove home to take a break. I arrived when the hospice nurse was there, when she told us that if she were one of us, she would stay throughout the night, when she broke the rules and gave us her cell phone number, when she gave us hugs on the way out in case we wouldn’t be needing her services the next day.
Just upon entering the room, it had smelled of Death. It was clear that Wednesday would be her last day.
And so, sitting on the inside of her bed while she simply breathed lying on her side, I felt tender. My body, normally tight with stress, was oddly relaxed as I was entirely focused on this one moment. There was nothing more to wish for from history and the past, no extravagant miracles to hope for in the upcoming hours and future. Really, there was nothing to miss or regret. It was just her time, and when Mother came back, we decided we would do nothing extra than keep her comfortable.
Mom had driven home for another break after I had returned from dinner. Both meals that day, lunch with Mom, dinner with Dad, had been within walking distance of my grandmother’s home. Collectively I spent about 14 hours in her room, not including those outside meals.
I was reading (silently) at her bedside when two of the care managers, both at the tail ends of their daytime shifts, came shouting down the hall “Call your mom. Can you call your mom?” At first I was confused – I was the one at my grandmother’s bedside, shouldn’t I be the one calling the shots on who calls who next?
When they got to the door, I saw that there was a third person with them. “Did you want a hospital bed?” they asked.
It was 9 p.m., a good ten hours after the hospice nurse had left. Though we ordered a hospital bed earlier, I informed the delivery man that we had cancelled the order since it was put in. We wouldn’t be needing it anymore.
“I’m very sorry,” he said to me quietly as the care managers said good night to Grandmother. “I know what that means, when it is no longer needed.”
I didn’t know what else to say or how best to act to show him what I felt, so I just forced out “Thank you. I appreciate that.” And then I signed the blank line under “Family refuses equipment delivery.”
At around midnight, I picked up a random magazine that was sitting on Grandma’s coffee table, and flipped through the spreads. (A 2008 copy of Coastal Living. I would be really surprised if that magazine’s still around in the next three months.) Just then, her breathing changed. Throughout the day it had gone from the stomach-to-mouth to chest-to-mouth, and now it had advanced to throat-to-mouth. The progression in shallow breathing was something the hospice nurse had informed us of, but even despite that education, my mother and I would have known that it was just a matter of hours.
By now my mom had dropped a handful of hints about us needing some crackers or something to munch on. I was hoping she’d get up and find the vending machine herself. She finally went to her purse, handed me three bucks, and ultimately drew me out of my reluctance to leave the room.
I went off in search of this fabled vending machine but didn’t find it. Wandering through the home, I found one of the overnight nurses. Turns out they removed the vending machine since the last time I was there. I followed her to the kitchen, where she had me wait while she gathered some crackers.
I remember feeling 90% calm and 10% impatient as I waited for her to give me a plate full of crackers wrapped in plastic. I hustled back. I slowed as I approached the second kitchen, the one reserved for residents suffering from dementia, where Grandma had been for the last few years.
I rummaged through the drawer looking for something more interesting than crackers. Napkins, empty, servingware, no. Ah-hah! I then found their drawer full of microwaveable popcorn and cookies.
“Cookies… Cookies? Grandma would want us to have cookies,” I thought. “And Mom loves popcorn.”
So I swiped a packet of cookies and a bag of popcorn for the one woman in my life who surpasses all sweet tooths and the other woman in my life who brakes only for popcorn and potato chips.
By the time I had returned with all my goodies, my mother was standing over my grandmother. She looked at me.
“I think she died,” she said.
I nodded. I put down the plate. I walked over to the women.
My mother said to my grandmother, “Mom,” and touched her cheek. My grandmother took one last shallow breath and barely turned her head toward us. “Okay.” she said. “It’s okay.”
I like to think my grandmother waited for me. To bring her and my mother some cookies.
Looking for an “auspicious date” will never sound like a fortuitous act of research to me.
I also appreciate the stereotypical funeral director’s subtle and apprehensive humor. It warms my heart.
The hospice nurse had kindly slipped in signs we should look for. The regression of breathing was one of them, but the other notable stage that I kept anticipating was the common act of hands physically grasping for air. I didn’t want to hope for anyone to grasp for air. I couldn’t help looking for the signs. It’s like driving home after a road trip, you look for landmarks to make the trip seem shorter.
So as I sat there, I felt bouts of guilt for closely watching my grandmother’s hands as she alternatingly waved her comforter away and tucked them under her other blankets. I cursed both the hospice nurse’s lessons and the dramatization of death in movies for my subdued eagerness in looking for these things.
It turned out to be the calmest passing I could have ever imagined. We had decided against oxygen that morning, knowing that the tube would have only irritated Grandma and made her uncomfortable. As I mentioned before, we turned away the hospital bed, too. Just transferring her fragile body from her bed to one that’s more austere would have been severely disruptive. We just wanted her to be as comfortable as possible. I swabbed her mouth when her last remaining air supply seemed dry. I even gave her a couple of eye drops since her lids weren’t blinking. There were discussions about morphine in case we would need it later on, but as it was, there were no outright displays of pain. No moaning, no thrashing, just a shortening of breath.
Her only surviving child was there, and she went very quietly. I made sure to leave a window open so that her spirit could completely leave.