The funny thing about life is that it never actually prepares you for death.
This is a reality that you of course only learn as you sit on someone’s death bed and wait for it to come.
I write this, of course, because I learned his life lesson over the Christmas holiday when my 91-year-old Grandma Margaret passed away.
At 91, it was never a surprise that we were going to lose Grandma someday. When I found myself sitting at her bedside on New Years Eve, I was shocked at how unprepared I was.
Two days before Christmas Grandma fell and broke her hip, shoulder, elbow, neck and ribs. The surgeon could not operate. Grandma would never leave her bed again, but how long she would live was unclear until that New Years Eve, when she stopped drinking and eating and became unresponsive.
The doctors believed she wouldn’t survive the night. I left work that day ready to head out on the town for New Year’s Eve. With Grandma in the hospital, I stopped by to visit with her before heading home.
I found my Dad in the parking lot, puffing on a cigarette and pounding the keys on his phone. Something was wrong. The lines on his face had deepened. His eyes were thoughtful and tired. It was really cold out, and when I reached Dad, he simply said “It’s not good, Annie.”
I didn’t say anything, but I started helping Dad any way I could. He was frazzled, unable to handle the tasks he had to complete next: notifying our family that Grandma might not make it through the night. He called his brother Bob and told him. After that, he had to call his work and cancel his flight out that evening. He had been scheduled to leave that night for Kamloops. The whole time he searched through his suitcase that was in his trunk ready to go. He misplaced things, couldn’t find the right address book, locked the doors when he wasn’t done in the car. My Dad was losing his mother. I was his daughter, and I was grappling with the thought that someday I would be this person.
When we got into the hospital room, my sister Ally was by Grandma’s side. Her eyes were closed and her mouth gasped for air. We sat there for hours. Every so often she’s writhe in pain, and we’d flinch and hold our breath until she relaxed again. Eventually her new doctor came in. She had been transferred from surgical to palliative care. Dr. Andy was wonderful, sweet and kind. She answered our questions and made sure Grandma was comfortable. Dad asked for a private conversation with the doctor and nurse, so Ally and I were left in the quiet room with Grandma. Ally was amazing. She wiped Grandma’s mouth with a wet sponge to try to get some water in her. Adjusted her blankets, held her hand.
Me I sat there in stunned silence. I wasn’t sure what to do. I felt bad because I wasn’t doting like Ally was. I wasn’t a natural nurse. I didn’t know how to be. All I could think about was Grandma, 10 years before when I visited her as a teenager in her Belleville, Ont. home. I made a pledge to myself to remember that Grandma, but in the present that person was gone.
Dad came back eventually and asked us to go. We didn’t want to leave him there, but eventually his partner Jenn showed up, so we weren’t leaving Dad alone. I was exhausted. I think I was there for four hours before I finally got back in my car. I felt as if I was tied to that hospital as we drove away. I didn’t want to leave, but I couldn’t handle the reality of watching Grandma die.
By the time we got home, Ally and I weren’t interested in going out for New Years. It wasn’t even late. My Mom and aunt had cooked a prime rib dinner. We were supposed to eat it and then head our separate ways for the evening. I ate slowly, tried to drink wine but wasn’t feeling it. Dinner was great though. Afterward we sat on the couch, and eventually I set up my inflatable mattress on the floor because Barb was in my room for the weekend. We spent our last moments of 2012 watching episodes of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia with our thoughts turning to Grandma often. We barely made it to midnight. After awhile, with my eyes closing involuntarily, I glanced at my cellphone and realized it was past midnight. We celebrated with a weak “Yay” and a fist bump.
We never got a call in the morning. We wondered if Grandma had passed and Dad had decided not to call us. But when we reached him, it was good news. Grandma had made a miraculous recovery overnight. She was awake, drinking water, eating and making little morphine-induced jokes. I had a job that day shooting family photos for a co-worker, but after that I went to the hospital and spent hours there with my Dad and Grandma. She was hilarious. She thought she was sewing, which was one of her favourite things to do. Uncle Bob had booked a flight, and a silver lining emerged from the situation. He would be bringing with him my cousin Rhonda, who I hadn’t seen since I was about seven years old, and her husband Dalton, whom I’d never met.
Dr. Andy decided it was time to move Grandma back to her care home. Bob would arrive that afternoon so Dad and I waited around, leaving Grandma for a few hours so she could rest up for her new visitors. We picked them up and headed back to see Grandma. We piled five of us into a room when we were only allowed two, but the nurses didn’t mind. Dalton made jokes about Grandma baking for him. Eventually she got tired. I made sure Grandma had a last sip of orange juice and water before we all left.
The next time I visited Grandma, I was actually there to photograph the New Years’ baby, but I offered to do the shoot because I could stop in and visit her. Everyone was out in the parking lot after just arriving. We headed up and were shocked to find Grandma’s room empty. We immediately assumed the worst and began searching for a nurse to tell us what happened. There was no one, but the woman who had shared the room told us she’d been moved back to the care home without our knowledge. There was no one there to meet her when she arrived.
I did my shoot, and everyone else went about their day. Dad tried to get Jenn to meet her. I went back to work. At least we knew where she was.
Two days later, I was working late on a Friday. I was swamped, writing a bunch of stories as my co-worker was still on holidays from Christmas. It was about 3 p.m. when my Mom called. She said “Annalee, your Grandma died. Just stop whatever you’re doing, and come home, okay?” I mumbled okay and put the phone down silently. I felt like I had taken a bullet. I felt claustrophobic. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my publisher walk out of the production office. I remember turning around and saying, “Karen, my Grandma died.”
She was amazing. She hugged me, and told me to let it sink in before I got in my car and left. She’d get a hold of my editor Barry and they would finish my stories. She took care of everything for me, as I sat there stunned. After about 10 minutes I left. In my car it was quiet. I tried calling my boyfriend Josh at work. I never call him at work because we always talk in the evenings.
When I do call, I let it ring three times and hang up, and he calls me back on an international calling card. He didn’t call back right away, so I left. A few minutes later he called, and I pulled over into a parking lot. I told him she had died, and suddenly the crushing silence was gone, and I started crying. I couldn’t say anything for a few minutes. Josh didn’t need to talk. Being in a long distance relationship in times like that is awful. All I needed was to be in his arms, crying on his shoulder, but he wasn’t there. Instead I listened to him breathe until I couldn’t cry anymore.
I got home, and the silence was there again. Ally and Mom were home. We sat in the living room wondering what to do with ourselves. Later Ally and I headed to the grocery store and bought some appetizers to munch on through the evening. We got to Dad’s, and everyone was sorting through some of Grandma’s belongings.
Then we did what the Grant family does best: We drank a ton of alcohol, Dad put on Steve Earl and we shared stories about Grandma all night. It was odd, but we all realized we were relieved. We missed Grandma already — but we were relieved that her pain was gone, that she wouldn’t be bedridden for months longer, that she had joined Grandpa.
It’s hard to feel relief when someone you love dies. It’s hard to admit that you feel it. It was comforting to know it was okay to have those feelings. We all vowed to get together this summer to bring Grandma’s ashes to the cemetery in Belleville, Ont. where her husband, Grandpa Jack is buried. I think about her all the time, yet when I pulled over that day and cried on the phone to Josh, that was the only time I did.
In death, Grandma brought us all back together. I can’t wait to see my family again, and talk more about the wonderful woman who was my Grandma for 24 years. That is her legacy. I’ll always remember the strong, independent woman she was years before her death. I’ll remember her sending hand made Christmas stockings, making dresses for Halloween and other occasions, making curtains for my room and spending summer days with her in Belleville.
In memory of Margaret Grant.