On Saturday, I drove through the Upper Peninsula and northern Wisconsin, toward the Twin Cities, toward my Grandma’s death bed. For two hundred miles, I followed twisting two-lane roads through quiet forests sprinkled with lonely houses and tiny towns. It was a beautiful day for a drive, the sun high and golden in the sky, driving away the gray clouds that define winter in the U.P. February here feels like a summit to me, the mountain peak of winter, where the promise of reaching the top gives me the strength to take those last chilly, exhausting steps. With the sun shining down, I felt the promise of spring, even though it’s weeks away. I was able to forget a little about why I was driving and just enjoy the drive.
When I reached the hospital, that pleasant sensation was run over by reality. I saw Grandma in the bed: pale, frail, tubes running into her, a shadow of the person I had just seen over Christmas. My father had told me she was dying, that it would be soon, but that didn’t prepare me for the sight of her. She was asleep when I arrived, and in fact I thought for a second that she was dead, until I saw the gentle rise and fall of her chest, a soft contrast to her labored breathing.
She looked helpless, and that’s the window where the shock entered, because Grandma was not helpless. She was a pillar on wheels, not only raising four children, but caring for a husband left helpless by the bottle, and doing all this while being the breadwinner. No matter what had been heaped on her during her life, she could not only shoulder the burden, but keep moving forward.
And she also still found the time to make cookies.
They sometimes say that an actor was born to play a role. Grandma was born to be a grandma. She may have been a daughter and a sister and a mother first, but Grandma was her Oscar performance. When I went to her house, I would say hello and kiss her, then open the Tupperware that always had cookies in it—chocolate chip, the stereotypical grandma cookie. Her fortitude was internal. On the outside, she was sweetness and charm, worrying over the antics of her children and grandchildren while still laughing at said antics.
There’s a story she would always tell that symbolizes her life. My father was, shall we say, difficult. He was the kind of child who would have made Dr. Spock re-think his anti-spanking approach, and as Dad moved toward his teenage years, he began to resemble a hood from an S.E. Hinton novel—a hood with a heart of gold, to be sure, but a hood nonetheless. In particular, he got into fights frequently. Grandma told me how she knew when he was fighting because of the status of his shirts. “He would come home without buttons on his shirt,” she said. “He was always losing the buttons on his shirt.”
While she would shake her head, she would also laugh, and that was her life in a nutshell. Grandma didn’t have an easy life. The tribulations brought on by my grandfather’s alcoholism would have been enough to break many people, not to mention the difficulties she faced raising her children and holding down a job at the same time. But, in the end, everything worked out. Her children grew up well, becoming good workers and good parents and good people. While she lost her husband, she also got to spend two decades relieved from the burden of caring for him. She was able to live on her own even after she stopped working. And she was not just loved, but revered by her children and grandchildren. There was nothing that couldn’t later be recounted with a head shake and a laugh.
We surrounded her at the hospital, twenty of us in the room. On Saturday, despite her appearance and the barely audible rasp of her voice, she was conscious and interactive. We reminisced with her on things. I told her that I’d found a picture of her and I when I was child, taken at Disney land. I remembered how excited I was to get on a plane and fly, and once in the air, I asked Grandma if she wanted to look in the window. Grandma, though, was glued to her aisle seat, eyes forward, because she was terrified of flying. No, she told me, you go ahead and look. We laughed together at the memory. She made jokes, too. Despite her appearance, I left feeling better than when I’d arrived. Grandma was still there.
Sunday was different. In just one night she’d changed, and it was clear how fast things were moving. She slept most of the day, and when she was awake, she clearly had more pain than the day before. Worse, she seemed scared. That shook me more than anything. Even then, she still managed to make us smile. Because she was having trouble drinking, we had to use a syringe to give her water. My father was trying to get an air bubble out of the syringe, and in the process he squeezed the plunger too much and sent a stream of water into the air and onto Grandma.
“Nice,” she said with a coating of sarcasm that sent us all into a laughing fit.
There was one moment, though, that I will take with me forever. We thought she was having pain and asked her if she was hurting. She shook her head no and said the pain was okay. “God will take care of it,” she whispered. Despite all the pain, all the fear, she kept her faith. She kept her strength.
Sunday night, we all said our goodbyes. I went into her room by myself. She was sleeping, and I didn’t have the heart to wake her because she looked peaceful. I just held her hand and told her how much she meant to me, how I was glad we named Libby after her, and how I hoped Libby would grow up to be as good and kind as Grandma was. I kissed her on the forehead and left, walking past my relatives in the waiting room into the now-vacant hall. I found a bench and let the sobs come. My father came and found me, putting an arm around me. We sat and cried and talked until we found the strength to stand.
I had to return home on Monday, and that morning, February again took control of the sky, sending down snow during my first hour and covering the sun for most of the trip. Everything looked gray and depressing again, like winter would never end. But for a little while, the sun peaked through, shining bright, reminding me that the rebirth of spring was waiting at the end of all this cold and ice.
I checked with my uncle on Monday. He told me Grandma had been asleep all day and that the end was very close. He called a little while later to tell me she had died, quietly and peacefully in her sleep. That comforted me, knowing that she wasn’t facing her fear, that she wasn’t suffering, because she deserved to go peacefully and quietly. God took care of her, and I can only hope that, when my time comes, I’ll smell fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies and find the strength to take those last steps.
Thanks to everyone for all of the wonderful comments, thoughts, prayers, and wishes. That sort of support, from many people who I only know online, is more meaningful than I can convey.
I am very sad to lose Grandma, but happy for her, that she managed to avoid much suffering at the end of her long, good life. She is in a better place now.