M were entering Missoula, less than an hour to go, when my phone rang again. It was my step-dad. Why was he calling? Was my mom too upset to call? Had we missed it?
“Shit,” I whispered under my breath as the caller ID registered in my mind. My husband glanced at me, concerned.
“Dad?” I asked timidly, picking up the phone.
“Hi buddy,” he answered. “How’s it going?” Why did people keep asking me that? He sounded tired.
“Fine,” I replied. “Is Grandma OK?” Ugh. That sounded so stupid. Of course Grandma wasn’t OK. Grandma was dying. But “Is Grandma alive?” sounded too crass. “I mean, has there been any change?” I revised.
“No, still the same,” he answered.
“Don’t call me any more! It’s too stressful,” I blurted out, instantly regretting it. Ugh. What was wrong with me? I wasn’t the only one going through this. Why was I lashing out at him? He was there, helping and supporting my mom. I needed to do better. “I mean, every time you guys call I think it’s too late,” I added more kindly.
“Oh,” he replied. “I was just checking to see if you were going to stop by the house and make sure you had the code to get in.”
What did he think I was doing here? I was racing as if my own life depended on it. I wasn’t going to stop off for a rest along the way.
“No, we’re not stopping by the house. We’re coming straight there. We should be there in less than an hour.”
I looked to Tony for confirmation on this and he nodded back.
“Ok, see you soon,” Dad said.
After we hung up, I stared out the window. Missoula was home. Every time I came through this town I was flooded with memories. All the pieces of my young life were assembled in this stretch of land from Missoula down through the Bitterroot Valley.
We drove through Lolo, where I spent my entire life until I left for Hawaii at the age of 18. “Have you ever seen the movie, ‘A River Runs Through It?'” I would say to people who asked about Lolo. “Lolo is the town in the movie where he goes to the house of gambling and prostitution.” That pretty much summed up my feelings about Lolo. It was a harsh and inaccurate judgement on my part, but I was young and itchy to explore. Lolo simply didn’t hold enough to satiate me.
What’s more, Lolo wasn’t always the most enlightened town. The focal point of the main drag was a bar with a life-size, wooden, rooftop sculpture of a woman wearing nothing but a cowboy hat and boots sitting in a beer mug. There was some debate over the years about whether or not she was truly naked or if she just looked that way because of the solid wood color. Then the owner painted her a nice fleshy color and laid all debate to rest.
I felt trapped in my small town and this feeling colored my perception of it. In reality, the whole Bitterroot valley was one of the most beautiful and friendly places in the world. People came from all over to experience it for themselves. I knew this logically, but I still couldn’t shake my negative feelings. To me the place was a dead-end, an uneducated, backwoods, hick-hillbilly cesspool. I wanted to be free. As long as I felt stuck in that cage, no matter its beauty and positive attributes, I would loathe it. In the end, freedom helped.
My mom had said that Grandma looked rough and that it might alarm the kids to see her. I wasn’t worried about that, but I still didn’t plan to bring them inside. This side of the nursing home wasn’t like the area where we’d visited her last time. This was the intensive care unit, not a good place for kids. Besides, as much as I wanted my children to understand death, I couldn’t be present with Grandma and tend to them at the same time. This experience could be better absorbed through my later depiction than by being “shushed” and brow beaten through it. Tony agreed and we decided that after he dropped me off he would take the kids back to my parent’s house and put them to bed. It had been a long day, and it was almost over.
When we pulled up to the nursing home, I leapt from the car and ran inside. My mom had told me to come through the iron gate, not the main entrance which was closed now. So I opened the catch and pushed through the creaky old gate into the small courtyard. I could see my parents through the window in the door and prayed that they were just taking a break, not waiting to give me the news.
A nurse had to let me in as the door was alarmed against escaping dementia patients. Finally I was there. I hugged my mom and step-dad ferociously and followed them into the room.
Grandma didn’t look rough. She looked like my grandma. She was a great deal thinner than she’d been and her upper dentures were out, but she was still the same person. I hugged her and whispered, “I’m here. Thank you for waiting,” in her ear. I held one hand while my grandpa held the other. He hadn’t left her side all night and all day. They had tried to get him to take a break, but he wouldn’t go.
Grandma was sitting across the hospital bed with her back propped up on pillows against the wall, her feet dangling over the bed’s edge. My parents explained that this was the only way that she seemed comfortable. She hadn’t spoken in over 24 hours, but they thought maybe she couldn’t breathe comfortably unless she was sitting up. Her feet were swollen from sitting in this position, but every time they tried to lay her down, she just worked her way back up again.
They explained that the nursing home had called them around 11:00 p.m. the previous night, saying that they should come right away because it was time. She had gone downhill pretty quickly. But then she had plateaued here, in this in-between space. She wasn’t alert, or seemingly aware in any way. Her brow was furrowed but she didn’t seem to be in pain. She kept raising one hand to brush something invisible away from her mouth and gently picking at her clothes as if they bothered her.
My mom handed me a pamphlet that hospice had left, explaining what to expect. I had Googled, “What to expect when someone is dying,” on my phone during the drive over and had read through some of the results. Grandma was dying. That was obvious. But she wasn’t gone yet, and I was here. We were together. I had made it. She had waited.
I tried to focus on this and not the questions that sprang unbidden into my mind like, Why didn’t you call me as soon as you found out? I begged and pleaded for you to call me right away, as soon as it was time. Why did you wait almost 10 hours to make that call? I could have come earlier. What if I had missed it? Also, why had my mom called Tony and not me directly? Did she think I was too weak to handle it on my own? That I needed to hear it from him? Or was she just trying to take care of me from afar, was it love? I chose to believe the latter and focus on Grandma.
I remembered what my midwife had told my mom while I was in labor with one of my babies. She said to use firm, reassuring pressure to comfort the laboring woman, not soft or fluttering pats which can be annoying. They need strength and support. I tried to use this same technique to comfort Grandma now. She was laboring too. Not laboring to release a baby, but laboring to release a spirit. It wasn’t really so different.
By a stroke of luck, Grandma’s roommate had left that morning, maybe to the hospital, maybe to heaven, we didn’t know. I wanted to be concerned about this recently disappeared stranger, but I was far too grateful that she now had a private room in which to undergo this last physical experience. Here we could all be together without the distraction of outsiders. Still, it was not peaceful. The unit was filled with beeping, buzzing alarms, clicking and dinging monitors, the idle chatter of nurses walking the halls and the occasional cry of patients that seemed to have forgotten where they were and had come around to discover their surroundings in a most unpleasant manner. Everything was so loud.
I wanted it to be quiet, to be peaceful. I wanted calm and serenity and gentle love for her during this time.
Someone flipped on the room’s TV. It blared obnoxiously. I almost went through the roof with indignant rage.
But I didn’t.
It’s not about that. It’s not about me. It’s about Grandma, I thought, cooling my head and focusing on what mattered. This was why I had come and I wasn’t going to let anything distract me from it.
“Yell-o.” My dad answered his phone.
Are you kidding me?!? I thought. No answering cellphones at the deathbed! I looked up just in time to see my mom shoot him a look. He took his call outside.
It’s not about that. It’s not about me. It’s about Grandma, I thought. This would be my new mantra. I would repeat it over and over again in various forms throughout the coming week. I was keenly aware that the stress of these situations often caused people to tear into each other, without just cause and at their most vulnerable. I would not do that, I promised myself. I so desperately wanted to be there. I wanted to do it right.
I rubbed my grandma’s legs and feet, trying to be as steady and strong as possible. I tried to confer my strength to her, or at least to communicate to her that I was there and that I loved her. Meanwhile my mom and I chatted quietly with Grandpa listening in and occasionally interjecting. Small talk felt strange but also comforting in this setting.
I was overwhelmed with love for these three people – my mother, my grandfather and my grandmother. After my dad died, my grandparents were there for my mom and I. They stepped in to help raise me. These three people had made up my young world. I had come out of them, was brought up by them and still carried pieces of each of them coded deep into my physical and emotional DNA. Here, in this circle of their love, I was home.
This is the latest installment in my story. If you haven’t yet read the previous entries, click here to start at the beginning. Then continue to read each post in numerical order.