Reflections on a Life that Passed Away
This life started to pass away long before the body was shutting down and the soul was leaving earth. It passed away slowly with each new utterance of "I can't" and "It's too hard" and "no" over many, many years.
As holidays approach, I am becoming more and more aware that this will be the first Thanksgiving and the first Christmas without my grandmother. She lived in a small room on the first floor of my parents' house for over twenty years of my life. She was a fixture. Making delicious baked goods and doing laundry and helping with homework. She was always there waiting for my siblings and me when we got off the bus from school. Always there. The house was almost never empty because she rarely left...
My grandmother was a remarkable person. Long-time government employee, secretary for naval ordinance during the war, devoted wife, loving mother of her one son. She turned down a scholarship to college to nurse her mother when she was ill until her mother's early death. She took care of a husband who battled ultimately fatal heart condition which led him into intermittent problems with depression and alcohol abuse until he was also taken too soon. She learned to drive when she had to, but gave it up as soon as she could. She grew up on a farm in the country, going to a tiny two-room schoolhouse but ended her life in a room with an iPad, DVD player, and remote control armchair. She witnessed so much change in her ninety-six years. She never drank, smoked, and only uttered one swear word in her whole life. Clean living to the end.
A hypochondriac from a young age, it was always a vague family joke that despite her constant preoccupation with illness and death, she outlived most of her family members. She would often go from doctor to doctor trying to find a diagnosis for a myriad of pains and complaints. She was always sure that the next thing was what was going to "get her." She could quickly move between the personas of sweet old lady to bitingly witty critic of the world to crotchety and feeble. It could all happen in one conversation.
She would always tell the story of a bad sinus infection that carried away her speaking voice leaving her with a voice slightly louder than whisper with a kentucky-southern drawl. I remember one time my in-laws were in town so they stopped by to see her and my father-in-law kindly remarked on how strong she was sounding that day. She spoke barely audibly for the remainder of the visit. It was just who she was.
She stopped going to church many years ago because it "was just too hard," so people from the church would regularly come visit her during the day. She had a wonderful friend who came to perm her hair weekly using some 1950s style rollers and a large vintage home dryer. After these visits from different friends, which I know she thoroughly enjoyed, she would generally spend the rest of the day mostly good naturedly complaining about her visitors and if they talked too much or if their families seemed crazy etc. etc. She had this tiny little world built around her filled with doctor's appointments, little visits with friends, and phone calls from her remaining family members.
I was her caregiver two years ago for about six months while my daughter was a baby and my parents were deciding when to start professional skilled nursing. Amelia and I would come over every day and make her a breakfast of slightly burnt (her preference) toast with butter and jelly and instant coffee the color of a weak tea with two sweet n low packets. She had a routine. In those days, Amelia was still content to lay on my Nana's bed while I gave her a quick wash and helped her dress for the day in the gown and housecoat she would select.
I saw her lose interest in her soap operas, in reading books, even in coming out of her room during those months. From my classes on geriatrics in nursing school, I knew some of this behavior was common in nonagenarians. She was, as she had been most of her life, in excellent health on paper. She had survived lymphoma with just a few non-chemo infusions. Her heart was good. Lungs good. Her bloodwork results and blood pressure were better than mine at that point. I was determined to help her improve her life and be happier. I found therapists to help her with speech and swallowing and movement. Tried to help her walk more. Tried to get her interested in hearing aids. Tried to find new interests for her. In the end, she refused everything. The therapies were "too hard." The hearing aids would "be uncomfortable" and wouldn't help because everyone just "talked to fast" anyway. Every new interest was declined. Every response was "no" "I can't" "it's too hard."
This past Spring, I was super pregnant with my son when we brought in hospice to help manage her care after a sudden precipitous decline that left her bedfast. Her vital signs were still good. No active disease processes or infections. But, it was clear she would be leaving this world soon. She had many caregivers over those last months of her life, and she fired a lot of them. We were blessed to have some women with the most beautiful souls caring for her during the last weeks of her life. These women lifted the full weight of her body every day to help her maintain her dignity. They helped spoon feed her and wash her when the family couldn't be there. I learned a lot during this whole process about dying, but I believe I learned so much more about living.
I learned that when your body is broken and your spirit is fading, you can always choose to be kind. My grandmother did not always make this choice, but I could still occasionally see glimmers of that sweet but salty Nana-personality in the last weeks. I need to constantly remind myself that kindness is a learned behavior and requires daily, hourly practice. I also learned that those words "no," "I can't. "It's too hard" can be just as toxic for the mind and soul as an illness can be for the body. I learned that each step you take into the muck and mire of self-pity can lead you deeper into the stagnant bog of depression and torpor.
My grandmother kept putting limits on herself and narrowing her life, so that in her last months she was completely healthy but also painfully frail. The muscles we use to "suck the marrow out of life" (to quote Thoreau) will atrophy very quickly when a mind begins to withdraw purposely from the world and focus on negative, despair-filled thoughts.
I loved my Nana very very much. She passed away a week after my son was born in the Spring. She lingered long enough to see all of my scattered siblings one last time and to know that her second great-grandchild was healthy and strong. She died with my father and oldest brother holding her hands and with one of her sweetest, most attentive caregivers in the room. In many ways, it was a beautiful death. As she was in her home--that small room in my parents house where she had played cards with her grandkids and watched thousands of Yankee games and met her great-grandbabies. And, I'm glad she is at peace.
But, when I reflect on her death I still mourn, not for her life as it was at the end, but I feel grieved at the unhappiness she felt and the constant dissatisfaction she had with the world around her. The constant refrain of "no, it's too hard, I can't" governed much of her adult life in a way that remains a tragedy to me.
I cannot imagine what the weight of ninety-six long years does to the body, but I resolved, after witnessing her last months on earth, to never let a toxic internal monologue guide my choices. My grandmother's Christian faith was strong until the end, but she did not let it empower her mind and soul to live her life to fullest. As I have now entered my thirties with two babies in tow, I am recognizing that the habits of mind I cultivate now may well remain with me if I am blessed enough to make it through ninety-six years on this planet. Every day, my faith does battle with my spiritual demons of cynicism, depression, anger, and anxiety. This fight is desperately important. In the same way that I'm trying to be consistent with my fitness classes and healthy eating, I need to never stop exercising the muscles of joyfulness, contentment, and kindness. I need to learn lessons from my grandmother's last years without enjoying the cloying pressure of idealizing her.
In the words of one of my favorite authors, "Sickness and healing are in every heart. Death and deliverance in every hand."
We each have it in our power to choose how we live in whatever circumstances life hands us. We must help heal and deliver our own hearts and hands by choosing to be joyful, content, and--above all else--kind.