Apologies for this one–it’s going to be Autumn tinted melancholy, and I cannot seem to change it.
So my grandmother is in the hospital today, and although it looks like she’ll pull through this time, the fact is, the woman is in her nineties, and pretty much, she’s not going to go home again unless it’s for hospice.
Now, I know you all and love you, and I know you’re all going to send me love and hugs–and thank you. I need them, and I’m not proud. But I wanted to put my finger on some specific things, so bear with me.
See, I’ve done this walk a few times. I lost my first grandparent when I was fourteen, and the best thing about that is that Grandpa Rau relaxed in the last two years of his life, and suddenly enjoyed his son and this grandchildren, and when he passed, we were genuinely sorry, as, let’s face it, we might not have been if he’d passed away two years earlier when he’d first gotten ill. Between that moment and this one, and between Mate and I and step-grandparents etc, this grandmother will be the last of eleven grandparents that I’ve seen depart this mortal coil.
And I’ve loved them all (well, one of them was my step-mother’s ex-husband’s mother, and she was incredibly racist and I had never known her to not complain about anything, so maybe that was my one exception) and I’ve been with Mate because he loved his grandparents too, and I’ve come to a couple of conclusions based on this experience that I’d like to share.
The first is that men die before women. Yes, I’m sure there are specific reasons for this, social, medical, testosterone-al, but mostly? I think it’s because men, having had the that sort of innate male confidence granted by a male-centric world, trust that Someone is going to catch them when they fall. The grandfather’s I’ve seen go, while not particularly religious, were serene and content in the knowledge that this was not the end, and that any unfinished business they might have left would be taken care of either in the afterlife or by someone in their own time. Maybe it was a lifetime of having their dishes washed and meals prepared by a woman, or maybe it was just… I don’t know, male simplicity, but the grandpas? When they were ready to let go, they were ready to let go.
Clung to life with gnarled vicious grips of fucking iron. Every. Last. One of them.
And all of the women kept talking about the time they would get better. My Grandpa Chaney had a moment of lucidity about a day before he died in hospice. His vision sharpened, he looked at my aunt, and said, “I think I”m really sick! You might want to call a doctor!”
Teresa said, “Daddy, I called him. He said you should probably stay here.”
“Oh, okay then. We should do what he said.”
My Grandma Rau was talking about when she could drive again, although she was legally blind, up until the week before she died. (I still wake up in a cold sweat sometimes, wondering which idiot gave her a license. If Grandpa Chaney could drive in his 80’s after his second brain tumor, don’t tell me it can’t happen!)
So that’s the first thing. The women had their lists (ladies, you all know that list?) that they could not put down, the things they had planned to do, the way they had made themselves indispensable to the world, and the will to complete this list persevered even as the body was failing around them. Both commendable, and in my case, reassuring. I’ve been able to put that list aside to nap in front of the television for YEARS. Anyway, moving on–
The next thing I’ve noticed is that time travel is possible.
Every grandparent has gone back to the time when they were happiest and busiest and most needed in their lives. You can tell, because they call for their children. Grandma Flossie was constantly asking about Uncle Butch–apparently he was the one she worried about/worried about beating the most as he was growing up, and she kept trying to check and make sure he was there and okay. She still argued with my stepmom, because, I think, they were both nurses, and there was that horrible, mother/daughter thing clicking in that made it impossible for her to believe her daughter was ever going to be as competent as she was. Thank God my stepmom had be through this before and had seen the dynamic–otherwise her wounding would have been terrible to behold. When I couldn’t make it to see Flossie as often as I wanted, my stepmom was kind. “All she sees is us, anyway. We’re the ones she worried about–in her mind, we’re still babies.” And that is both touching and horrible. Touching, because I want to go back to live those times when all my babies were still babies, and horrible, because someday, everyone who knew me as a baby will be here no longer, and I too shall have to grow up.
And the time travel leads to another curious and painful thing.
The children become children again.
Perhaps I will not. I know that by the fifth go-round, my step-mother was very cognizant of the progression of death, and she was poised and sad and philosophical. She told her mother where they were going and what they were doing and when she could no longer stay at home, and she did it dispassionately and with the understanding that her mommy could no longer take care of herself. My aunts and uncles? Until three weeks ago, when my grandmother took a tumble down the stairs, they had continuously refused to believe that their mother, the woman who ruled her kitchen with an iron fist, and who raised five children during the riotous rebellion of the sixties and seventies without hardly batting an eyelash when things got really fucking hairy, that woman, was too sunk into the misery of a failing body to assume responsibility for her own care.
I know that, for some families, this causes horrible, dissociative bickering at a dying person’s bedside, because the children don’t believe that their parents won’t just snap the fuck out of it and shut them all up. (And Goddess, I’m sure the hospital personal sometimes wish that would happen!) But for the lucky families, it just causes a sort of numb surprise. Wait. Mom can’t go home? Is there anything we can do to make it better? I mean… I know she’s ninety-five but she’s my mommy! And that’s painful and sad–but at least there is that memory, that fondness, that love–at least it’s the love that’s causing the confusion, because that’s when the confusion can be overcome.
I think this may be harder and worse with the parents who grew up in the generation in which parents didn’t speak to their children, and bonding meant a family stuck together when they didn’t have enough to eat. There’s an inability to see the person who controlled so much of your life as human, and fallible, and, ultimately frail, and mortal, that’s hard to reconcile with the tiny, fading woman on the bed who really can’t get herself up to go to the bathroom, no matter how much she insists she can because she doesn’t want to leave her own home. I’m pretty sure MY children will cheerfully call me senile and commit me to a home the very first time I forget I’m wearing pajamas in public, so, well, give it about five years. (That’s okay. Mate and I will happily go to the old age home and play bingo, as long as someone makes us dinner. We’ll be the kind of senior citizens those places were made for.)
They may be dying, but they’re still alive. If they’re lucid, and not self-involved bitches (uhm, there was that one grandmother, the bigot) they have been happy to ask me about the kids (and why I didn’t bring them, which sort of blows my mind although it shouldn’t) or to see my next knitting project or to hear what Mate is doing, or what I’m doing. I think this speaks well of the human race in general. It says our business is living, even when business isn’t doing well. That’s one of the few redeeming human things that I cling to.
And speaking of clinging to?
Things go better when the children and the grandchildren have the courage to say goodbye.
I had to say it to my Grandma Rau, because if I hadn’t, I’m firmly convinced that woman would have clung to life with gnarled fingers until they snapped off and something preternaturally horrible happened to that woman’s spirit. Pleasant? Not always. Indomitable? You fuckin’ betcha. The minute my uncle arrived to say it to my Grandpa Harold, he let go serenely and went to meet his maker with smile. If there is one thing my step-mom has taught me it’s that you cannot change how you treated the people in your life in the three days before you think they’re going to die and they die. If you are at peace with the way you treated them–and dammit, you should be!– then simply say goodbye. When we went to visit my husband’s mother, I kissed her forehead (lying at the 180 degree angle to her shoulders, because her spine was twisted so badly) and said, “I’ll tell the kids bye for you.” Then I stopped, and realized Mate’s mom and aunt we’re listening. “I mean hi for you.” She died the next morning. I’m pretty sure she only heard the first one. All of them– even Mate’s grandmother who lived across the country–hung on until the last important person that they loved came to say goodbye.
So what have I learned, boys and girls? What has all this taught me, as middle age looms larger than my middle?
Live your life with all of your loved ones in such a way that all you have to say when you walk out the door is “Goodbye! I love you!” No matter what befalls you after that moment, no matter if you are a mommy or a baby, the departed or the left behind, you can trust that the list of things that you have left to do, left to address, left to make happen, can be set behind if you embrace your faith in the universe. Life is that simple at the end. Goodbye, I love you!
There is always hope that you will meet again, but if not, everything you need to say is in those four little words.