A week ago if you had told me that I would be in a room with a dead body and not be freaked out I would have said you were nuts.
I would have been wrong.
Tuesday nights are usually crazy at our house.
Tuesday nights I direct our church Handbell Choir. My dad, Teacher, and Princess all ring in the bell choir. Two Tuesdays a month Jo-Bear and Z-Man go to Pioneers; which is like Boy Scouts but sponsored by our church. Tuesdays are also “Grandma Night” for Peanut and Little Guy and Z-Man when he’s not at Pioneers – they play at Grandma’s while the rest of us are at bells.
Most of the time we walk the kids over to Mom and Dad’s then ride with Dad to rehearsal; it’s silly to take two vehicles when we live so close and are going the same place. This Tuesday was different in two ways; First, Mom asked us to keep the kids home with Angel Face because she was too tired to have them over. Secondly, Teacher had to leave rehearsal early to attend a Union meeting so we told my dad that we’d go to bells with Teacher but would need him to bring us home.
We were finishing dinner and thinking about getting ready to leave for bells when my dad called. He said “I will pick you up after rehearsal tonight. I may be late to bells – if I’m there at all – but I will pick you up after.”
I said “OK… Was this something I knew about but forgot?” It wouldn’t be the first time he’d told me he had a meeting but I’d forgotten.
“No, you didn’t know about it.” he said. I started to tell him that we could get a ride home with someone else, but he went on to say “We’re having a crisis with Grandma.”
You know how people talk about time stopping? That’s what happened.
In the time it took for my dad to take a breath, I stopped breathing, my heart dropped, and my mind started racing: What was going on? How bad was it? Should I go over? Should I go to bells? What’s the right thing to do?
In the next moment he continued, A hospice nurse is here now and another one is on the way.”
I knew it was bad when I heard that the hospice nurse was there. “Should I come over?” I asked.
He paused. “No,” he said firmly; You go to bells. They need you there.”
“OK…” I said uncertainly, “Don’t worry about missing bells; Paula can cover your part.”
“We play on Sunday…” he said.
“I know, but you’ll do fine; and we’ll have Sunday morning to go over it again. Don’t worry, it’ll be OK.” I reassured him.
I don’t remember walking into the kitchen or saying “goodbye” to my dad and hanging up, but suddenly I was standing in the middle of the kitchen with Teacher in front of me. He could tell from my end of the conversation that something serious was going on. He put his arms around me and held me as I told him what Dad had said. “I feel like I should go over but he told me to go to bells. I don’t know what to do…”
Teacher gave me a squeeze, “You need to go over. You won’t be happy if you don’t.” That man knows me so well!
“OK, I’ll just run over and see what’s going on.”
Heart pounding, I jogged down the driveway, pulling on my coat as I went. Approaching the house I was momentarily panicked when I noticed that the garage door where we usually entered was closed. Since the front door is usually locked I didn’t know what to do: Should I open the garage door, or would that disturb everyone inside? They never hear knocks on the front door, but it doesn’t seem right to ring the doorbell.
I was also worried that my dad would be upset that I came over when he said I didn’t need to.
I tried the front door in case it was unlocked, and it was. If I’d been thinking clearly I would have realized they had to unlock it to let the hospice nurse in. But my thinking was anything but clear.
In the living room my mom was sitting on the edge of a chair talking on the phone to Aunt Betty; telling her she needed to come now. As I walked into the room my dad came from the dining room to meet me in the middle of the room with a big hug.
They told me that a piece of the clot had finally broken off. This was it – the thing we’d been fearing yet trying to prepare for.
I asked if I could go in by Grandma, and my mom said “Are you sure? It isn’t pretty.” I thought it was so typical of a mother to try to protect her child; even when that child is forty-something years old.
As I followed my mother to the sunroom I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d never seen anyone die before except on TV, and was more than a little afraid of what I’d find. Despite my fear I had an irresistible feeling inside of me that I had to be with Grandma. I don’t know if it was because I loved her so much or if it was an instinct God created in us, but I couldn’t not be there.
I pushed away all fears and went to my Grandma.
The first thing I saw was a dark-haired lady in blue scrubs – obviously the hospice nurse – sitting next to Grandma’s bed, holding her left hand. In a a surreal moment I thought how strange it was to see the big chair that was usually against the wall in the middle of the room.
Then I looked at Grandma.
In one glance I knew this was it; there was no going back, no getting better, no second chances.
Grandma was sitting upright in bed, hands on her thighs, eyes mostly closed and mouth open, an oxygen tube under her nose. She was very pale, and still except for slow, shallow breaths. Called “agonal” breaths, I recently learned in CPR.
Despite all that, she still looked like my beloved Grandma.
I followed Mom around to the back side of the bed where she took Grandma’s right hand and leaned close to her face. Still in my coat, I put one arm around my mom’s shoulders and caressed Grandma’s knee with the other hand. I felt like I was there more for Mom than for Grandma, and kept thinking “Mom needs you; you have to be strong for her.”
With tears running down her face, Mom spoke continuously to Grandma. She reminded her of all her loved ones who were waiting for her in Heaven, especially my Grandpa who Grandma always called “my Prince” and my Aunt Sharon and little cousin Kerry who were killed before I was born.
The nurse continued to hold Grandma’s hand, murmuring softly to Grandma and supporting mom and I simply with her presence. Dad watched from the kitchen – I don’t know if he was too grief-stricken to come closer, or if he was taking care not to interrupt Mom’s last moments with her mother.
I don’t know how long we stood, tears streaming as we told Grandma how much we loved her, how Grandpa was waiting for her, and that it was OK to let go; just let go.
Then suddenly she was gone.
My mom turned to me and we held each other tightly.
Through my grief a part of me was thinking that I couldn’t fall apart because my mom needed me; I’ve always been proud that my mom raised me to be strong, and I was glad I could be strong for her now.
When our tears lessened I stepped around Mom to give Grandma a kiss on her forehead and say goodbye. “I love you, Grandma.”
I’ve never seen anyone die before and had always imagined that it would be horrible, but watching my grandma slip away was almost peaceful. I feel both humbled and honored to have been there for her last moments. Teacher was right; I never would have forgiven myself if I’d gone to handbells and missed the chance to say goodbye. I hope that Grandma felt surrounded with love as she left this life.
I know I’ll miss my Grandma terribly, but at the same time I’m so very happy for her. She’s not struggling on this earth anymore; she’s in Heaven dancing with her Prince and singing praises to her Savior.
Nothing is better than that.