By Stephanie March
My last living grandparent passed away on Thanksgiving Day this year.
My grandma spent her final days on this earth in her own bed, in her own home, surrounded by those that love her and I was fortunate enough to be counted among them.
I sat with her for countless hours and listened to her talk. When she couldn't talk anymore I sat with her and held her fragile hand. But what you might dismiss as a sad story is actually one of kindness, thankfulness, and gratitude.
She was born right before the start of The Great Depression in the late 1920's. Growing up deep in the heart of the south, during a time of poverty our generation can barely imagine, formed a lot of who she was. She was tough, frugal, and unapologetic.
She was brutally honest and often hurt my feelings when I was a kid.
The latter of which I used to argue and rail against to no avail. I was angry with her for being her for many years.
As I got older I distanced myself from her but I never stopped loving or respecting her. I had my own problems and became self-absorbed in my pain and healing. I was busy. I didn't live close by. I moved away after leaving an abusive relationship. All of these things, while valid, added up to years of little contact with my grandma.
We spoke sporadically on the phone over the years. I took for granted our relationship and her time here. Despite it all she was diligent in sending cards for every holiday, every birthday, and every time she wanted me to know I was loved. I saved those cards even when I was mad at her and ungrateful for them, even when I quite possibly didn't deserve them. It's a pretty big stack now.
Last summer I learned that she was in heart failure and had been given one or two years to live.
She had always suffered from cardiac disease, along with 83.6 million other adults in America, but I assumed her heart would keep on ticking. Instead, she went misdiagnosed for nearly 20 years and a life-saving heart valve surgery was not done while she was still young and healthy enough to survive it. Now it was too late and her heart was in fact going to stop ticking. It was only a matter of time.
I called my grandma as soon as I found out. We resumed our conversation as if it had never ended. Only this was not the sharp-tongued grandma I remembered from my childhood. This was a softer, kinder version. This was the grandma that sent me cards my entire life, showed up at my college graduation, and always joked that I was her favorite granddaughter because I was the only one she had. And, as she reminded me that I was loved and prayed for over the years, a tear of pure love made its way down my cheek. I missed her deeply and everything in me screamed that I had to see her before it was too late.
Please let me get there, I prayed.
Due to money and distance it became obvious that seeing her would be no easy task. She assured me that we could make do with phone calls but my heart twisted and turned at the thought of not seeing her again. Even then, even when palliative care nurses began coming to her house to care for her on a regular basis, I thought I would have more time to get there. So I resumed my life and sent her a few cards to try and give back a tiny part of what she had given me.
With the Thanksgiving holiday growing near I received a call informing me that time was perhaps not so abundant. My grandma had bronchitis and this new development was putting her quality of life in a fast downward spiral. I booked a plane ticket and fretted that my trip was planned too far out.
On our last phone call, a Sunday in November, it was clear her health was declining. She was out of breath and struggling to talk and keep her balance. She was now taking morphine and this set off alarms because I knew from my grandpa's, her husband's, battle with Alzheimer's that morphine is often administered during end of life care.
As the call ended she said something I will never forget, she said she saw her husband, deceased now for 12 years, looking for her. I asked her to explain and she said he was standing in a crowd of angels and looking through the crowd trying to find her.
Whether this was a vision, a dream, or real didn't matter to me. I hung up the phone with chills on my arms and tears in my eyes.
Please let me get there, I prayed.
About a week before my scheduled trip I received another phone call. They thought she was almost gone the day before and it would happen at any minute. I raced in a complete panic to change my flight and leave the next morning. I was finally going home.
When I pulled up to her familiar street and turned into the familiar driveway of her familiar house, my heart flooded with gratitude. I rushed inside and gave her a hug. She was up, sitting in a chair and talking. I made it.
Over the next few days we talked and laughed like time and age had never separated us. I helped my Aunt, her primary caregiver, take care of her. I listened to her talk, greeted her visitors, and spent every second soaking up the presence of this changed woman. She spoke of old memories, regrets, and her faith. I marvelled at her ability to have faith and find laughter in the face of death.
This was a woman with a failing heart that was stronger than almost any heart I had ever seen.
She had survived the deaths of her husband, her grandson, her friends, and her brothers and sisters. She had survived The Great Depression. She had survived loss, heartbreak, and tragedy. Then, when faced with her own mortality, she looked inward and faced herself. She righted wrongs and became softer, kinder. She proved that it is truly never too late to change. Professor Ed Latessa elaborates this point in his webinar stating that;
"It's not easy to change behavior. If you think it is, try changing your own."
It was this transformation that inspired me to once again look inward at my own life and behavior.
After a few days her energy suddenly decreased. I had been there to witness what hospice nurses referred to as a surge in energy or a rally that sometimes occurs prior to death. It's a last hurrah of sorts. She was excited to see me and all of her visitors and this gave her a temporary boost. I can't tell you how grateful I am that I was there to see it. But, like any last hurrah, there is a goodbye and it became time for hers.
This woman that lived almost to the age of 90, this survivor, and my favorite and only grandma was one day too tired and in too much pain to get back up out of her bed. So I pulled up a chair and held her hand.
I talked to her until she could no longer respond and after she could no longer wake up. I told her over and over again how thankful I was for everything, how much I loved her, and that it was okay for her to rest.
One of her last gestures before she slipped into a coma-like state was to reach for my hand. She had barely spoken or moved in a couple of days and still she managed to grab my hand and pull it to her lips and give it a kiss. Then she reached for my face and did the same.
How do you measure the value of a moment like that?
With gratitude. Endless gratitude.
On Thanksgiving Day, 12 years after her husband passed on the same holiday, she took her last defiant breath and went to meet him. My heart was irrevocably broken. But as she exhaled, I inhaled the strength and beauty of a soul I can only hope to one day make proud.
I gained so many things to be thankful for this holiday season in the lessons that can only be taught by the darkness of death and the light of the living.
Goodbye, grandma. Thank you.
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