You couldn’t find a better caregiver than my mother; she nursed my grandmother and two uncles to their end. Almost. Though unsurpassed at nursing, she could do it only to a point. A crucial point. She was incapable of overseeing a patient’s death.
“I simply can’t stand seeing someone I love die,” she explained, “I just can’t stand it!”
This job she has given to me.
Grandmother Emma, suffering from an undisclosed list of maladies, was Mother’s first patient. The doctor never gave a clear diagnosis so we never knew the severity of the illness. It began to hit us after she had lost an unusual amount of weight.
I, especially, was in denial. Instead of the outsized dresses I used to buy her, I was now pleased to get her more fashionable outfits which came in the more common sizes. She went from a 26 to size 10, a weight, I thought, was more appropriate for a lady slightly over 5 feet tall. I found this new petite form attractive and pooh-poohed the idea that a ravaging disease had shrunken her body.
Grandmother, however, missed her rotundity and insisted this dramatic weight loss was the result of doctor error, or that her doctor had, without telling her, given her a prescription to promote radical weight loss.
“Grandmother,” I countered, when she presented this idea to me, “I’ve never seen a fat old person. Losing weight is just part of aging. You look great!”
She gave me a look that I knew well; a common expression members of my family often sent my way. A look which said, “There you go again, Miss High and Mighty. Just because you went to college doesn’t mean you know everything! “
When Grandmother Emma became bedridden, Mother moved from her side of the duplex to sleep on a daybed in Grandmother’s room where she was alert to every sound of discomfort Grandmother made. Mother was up at dawn to stand vigil over Grandmother’s bed—ready to wrestle whatever demons Grandmother’s illness brought forth. Yes, if one needed a Florence Nightingale, Mother was a reasonable facsimile.
Patient and good-spirited, Mother was surprised one day by a kick in the belly when she was turning Grandmother over to change her bed. Mother was never sure if the kick had been accidental. It’s my bet that Grandmother Emma had been delirious when she kicked. Mother leaned over the bed and whispered, “Now, why did you do that? You know I’m trying to do my best for you. Why would you hurt me like that?” Grandmother did not respond.
But when I think of it, she might have heard Mother’s admonition. She’d always been a crusty little old lady and might, indeed, have kicked Mother on purpose, I wouldn’t put it past her.
Mother enticed Grandmother with tasty meals, portioned out her daily medication, and sat close-by to murmur soothing words, finding surcease in busy work. Being busy distracted her from thoughts of death. When the end neared, signaled by a 911 call to take grandmother to the hospital, presumably to die, Mother sensed her services had ended. She gave me a look signifying the passing of the baton. Now, my turn.
My task was visiting the hospital daily to keep up on Grandmother’s progress or lack of it. Fortunately, the hospital was halfway between the school where I taught and my home—less than five minutes away from each.
Everyday after school I headed for the hospital. Getting off the elevator - I quickly put on a false cheery smile to camouflage the fear and anxiety I actually felt before bursting into Grandmother’s room. Usually she was waiting for me, I could tell. She gave me a weak “Hi, baby” smile. Perfect little white teeth, flawed only by a space around the right front tooth where she had had a gold crown removed.
I stood at the foot of the bed looking down at her. She looked back, smiling.
I rearranged the flowers, wiped imaginary dust from the side table, straightened out wrinkles from the top sheet and smoothed out, again, a space to sit down—on the bed, close to her. Trying to overlook how little of the bed she now took up—how thin her arms had become—and how little she resembled the Emma of my childhood, adolescence and adult life. That Emma had been a round, jolly woman. And always the love of my life.
She always had a passion for gambling, horse racing especially, and would go play the ponies most days of the week—often with less than five dollars in her purse. If she won, I was among the first she’d call to offer a little gift. She loved money, too. Although I could little afford it, I once gave her the first hundred dollar bill she had ever seen—just to see if she would faint dead away. I had passed the tightly rolled bill to her, casually: for all she knew, it might be money to buy Sunday’s chicken. I remember loving the absolute incredulous look which molded her face after she unfolded it ... The way she lovingly rolled it up again and quickly shoved it into her brassiere, where it lay hidden and secure under the soft ample folds of her breast. Her pleasure was palpable. Looking heavenward, “Thank you, Jesus,” she said jubilantly patting her treasure trove.
• • •
I found a bottle of lotion in the drawer next to her bed. She enjoyed a daily massage. Turning back the covers, I was amazed and delighted to find an enviable pair of firm, cafe au lait-colored thighs, unusual for an 86-year-old woman. I hope I’ve inherited these gorgeous thighs, I mused.
“You look pretty good for a sick old lady,” I teased, and rubbed.
“Jealous?” she retorted.
“You better believe it!”
• • •
Mother called one evening. “Mertis, you should go to the hospital,” she said in a muffled voice.
“O.K., I’m on my way,” I answered. I was there in minutes.
The floor seemed especially quiet. A nurse met me and led me to a dimly lit room where Grandmother was sleeping, breathing noisily; propped up on pillows and looking peaceful. I stood looking at her a few minutes and took a chair near the foot of the bed. I sat listening to the noisy rattling of my grandmother’s last breaths.
I was numb, mute and didn’t know what to do. I sat there sensing this was the end. I shouldn’t be in this chair—my place should be there on the bed next to my grandmother.
I thought I should be holding her—assisting in her journey to the other side. I sat there thinking it was important for me to hold her—that she would sense my presence—she would know it was me. The closeness and warmth of my body would be a comfort to her. I sat in the chair thinking that I should get up, go sit on the bed and hold my grandmother as she lay dying. I will go in a little while. Go, Mertis—do your part!
While I sat there waiting for whatever it took to get me out of that chair, Grandmother Emma died.