Three years ago, right after my parents died, I remember telling my aunt how I would completely lose my shit if and when my Grandma died. In retrospect, I realize why I said it: For most of my adult life, I have considered Grandma my only connection to the rest of my family. Growing up, when things got crazy, she was the only thing that was stable in my life. As alcoholism completely consumed my mom, Grandma was able to get on top of hers, and she’s been sober for nearly 14 years.
When I made that remark to my aunt (keep in mind this is just after her own sister – my mom – died), she looked me square in the eyes and said, “Well, you know she’s gonna die, right?”
And now it’s happening. I went home to tell Grandma goodbye this past weekend. She’s now in a hospice, and while her body has completely failed her, there is something inside that isn’t quite ready to let go yet, so she’s holding on. For what, I don’t know, though I had a lot of time to contemplate it over the weekend. Sitting in the chair next to her bed, which, in her typical defiant way she has termed “The Cage” for the railings on either side, I watched her while she slept, her legs twisted and the left side of her body still from the effects of the latest stroke.
I thought about life, and death. And why some people, like Grandma, carry on while others, like Mom, give up. Why some kill themselves and others refuse to go. And in the end, I found myself dealing directly with Grandma’s impending death with an incredible sense of calm and peace. I didn’t get a chance to tell Mom or Dad goodbye, but I had that chance this weekend with the one person who has truly mattered. And unlike the past three years, as Grandma has suffered from strokes and cancer and dementia and pneumonia and the unbearable sadness of losing her daughter, this time she didn’t fight me when I tried to help her. There was no, “Don’t do that, Sean, I can do it for myself.” Instead, when she needed a napkin or some ice chips and I offered, she looked at me with her crystal-clear blue eyes and said “Thank you.”
And when I left her Monday morning, and told her I loved her very, very much, she looked at me again and holding my hand as firmly as she could, she said, “I know. I love you, too.” She then told me to take care of Shawn.
I thought I would fear this moment, but instead, I find myself overcome with a profound sense of compassion, of calm, of connection, of dignity and, unexpectedly, of strength. In my nearly 35 years, I don’t think I’ve ever had as special and meaningful time with Grandma as I did this weekend. And when she’s ready and she leaves us, of course I’ll be sad, but the calm and strength will prevail. It will be there forever.