On Preparing for Goodbye.
Today I received an email from my father. He is not sure how much longer his mother has to live. My grandmother is dying. Not really the sort of thing most families share via email but that’s how we do things. My father wasn’t actually writing to make an announcement but to ask for help.
My grandmother lives alone and has for a very long time. She plays bridge and lives for baseball season. So, hopefully, we’ve got a few months. She can’t move well anymore which means she can’t take her dogs out. She cannot make her own food or generally care for herself but isn’t ready to give up her independence. I understand that. I’ve lived alone for a long time too. She lives about 100 miles from here and her heart isn’t doing well. Every week she’s been spending a couple of days in the hospital, largely because she can’t take care of herself and, maybe, we think, because she gets lonely. She can’t afford assisted living and any place she can afford, we can’t trust. So, it is as it should be and that is – up to us, her family – to take care of her now that she can no longer take care of herself.
I’m not concerned about going out there to care for her. I am, in fact, extremely grateful that I am in a position that there are several days each week in which I have the freedom to drive 200 miles round trip to care for my grandmother. Most people don’t have that. I don’t mind that I will hear the same stories over and over again and sometimes in succession.
I’ve never watched anyone die. My mother died when I was 13 and my brother when I was 21. They were both unexpected. She succumbed to a quick and aggressive cancer and he, a car accident. I’ve often wondered what it was like to know someone is dying. I’ve often wondered which would be more difficult.
When I say my mother’s death was unexpected, I mean unexpected by me. She knew she was dying. My father knew she was dying but I didn’t know. On Friday, June 14th 1991 –I left for the last day of school and, as per my usual, forgot something. When I came back in, the television screen was a royal blue with white letters blaring “The Cancer Answer.” I screamed. She had cancer a few years before but everything was okay now. I stood in front of her in our kitchen, screaming and I asked her if she was dying. Then I made her promise me she wasn’t going to die. She promised. What else was she going to do? I went to school. I went to my father’s for the weekend. On Sunday night I was supposed to go home but decided not to. I called my mother and told her I wanted to stay another night with my father. I was lying. At the time, I would have told you I hated my father and I would have meant it. It took me a long time to admit that what I really wanted was for my mom to not be sick. She was going to be okay, despite the fact that she was mostly too weak to move and when I spoke to her, could scarcely muster “I love you” back. It took me longer to admit that what I didn’t want was to spend my summer taking care of my sick mother. I stayed at my father’s that night. He woke me at 5am. There was a long story. It ended with me screaming and him trying to tell me that the last thing she said was “make sure to tell corrie that I love her.”
So, my grandmother is dying and I have an opportunity to be someone different. I have an opportunity to take care of her and I’m afraid. I’m afraid of watching her die. Afraid that she will die while I am there. Afraid of adding that to my list of life experiences. Everything that I am afraid of is centered around me. She’s the one dying and I’m worried about corrie. We don’t know each other well, my grandmother and me. I know she was poor. I know she used to pick cotton. I know she married my grandfather and he was cruel. I know she took good care of my father and my aunt and provided for them in a time when single mothers were anything but common. I know that once, my mother gave her an arrangement of artificial flowers and it still sits in the center of her dining table. I know that she loves Angels baseball and doesn’t understand the Holy Trinity. I know that there is a doll that sits on the bed in her guest bedroom, old and ragged, silken brown hair falling out and painted eyes disappearing. I know that when I was a girl I loved that doll and she would tell me that someday it would be mine. I know that when I was a girl, that doll was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I know that thought is also about me. For years, I’ve wanted to learn more about my grandmother. I guess this is my opportunity. Even if it means hearing the same stories over and over and watching her die, spending the night in the guest bedroom with the doll that was so beautiful when I was small.