Grandma Ann died last Saturday night.
She was in the hospital, by that point “being kept comfortable,” which is just such a clinical and soulless way of saying that they had accepted that her hurts were too big to be fixed by medicine and so they were doing what they could to approximate mental oblivion for her while her body shut down.
Willem and I were able to make it there in time to say our good-byes. It wasn’t quite the trip we had planned on taking, but then again how exactly does one prepare for this sort of trip? I only learned of the any-day-now nature of her unhealth (as opposed to the constant, low-grade stuff she’d been living with for the prior several years) on Thursday, around noontime. At that point, we understood that she’d fallen at home, twice, once the prior weekend (resulting in an ER trip and home again that night) and again in the wee hours of Thursday morning. That time, she was admitted, and more extensive testing done, and within a matter of hours the doctors had stopped talking about discharge planning. But, as we understood from both the nursing staff and from Cousin A, with whom Grandma had been living since the fall and who had sat vigil in the hospital from Grandma’s admission until the very end, Grandma was still coherent and communicative.
We decided that the most logical plan for us all was to send Willem and the kids off to school on Friday, 2/12, as usual. I would spend the morning running errands and getting organized, and then would retrieve everyone from their respective schools around lunchtime. We would head to Connecticut, grab the ferry to Long Island, and be at Grandma’s bedside by mid-afternoon, would stay as long as she (and the kids) were able to tolerate it, and then would return home that evening. It would be hard for the kids to see their grandmother that sick, but we talked it through with them and they were as prepared as children can be. The discomfort of seeing someone unwell, we thought, would be outweighed by the long-term comfort and importance of saying, and hearing, “I love you.” Far outweighed, really, because it’s easy to exchange smiles and love-you-too’s when everyone is healthy and comfortable, but being able to demonstrate that the love is still there even when the person is sick, even when they’re dying, that’s a bigger deal.
That was the plan. It didn’t work out that way.
Instead, I got a call from Cousin A on Friday morning, explaining that Grandma had taken a sharp turn for the worse overnight, and was no longer coherent when she was waking up; in fact, she was confused, and angry, and belligerent, when she was able to express herself at all. Not only did Cousin A think it wouldn’t be great for my kids to see Grandma that way (a sentiment I appreciate, but I also reserve the right to make the ultimate what’s-best-for-them decisions myself), but she also felt it would only be more confusing and upsetting to Grandma to be around children in that environment (an argument that held a lot more weight, with me, since I’m willing and able to take responsibility for my children’s questions and emotional health after any sort of encounter, but can’t necessarily do a damn thing to help with any damage we might inflict upon Grandma).
Thus began a very long, frantic string of telephone calls, as I searched for someone willing to keep my children supervised and fed for the evening so that Willem and I could make the trip to New York. It wasn’t that I was hearing a string of, “Oh, no, sorry, can’t do it” type responses, it was that everyone in my acquaintance had apparently made an agreement not to answer their telephones that morning. I finally reached Jenny’s husband, and of course he immediately agreed to take care of the kids for the evening, no caveats, because any of a handful of people that I called would have been willing to do it… I just didn’t dare make an assumption involving me dropping the kids on someone’s doorstep without prior agreement. The older I get, the more I appreciate the fact that family evolves, over time; as a child, your family is who you’re stuck with, mostly related by blood or marriage or some other legal paperwork, and you can neither escape those to whom you have been assigned nor cast about for new ones to augment the mix. As an adult, family becomes that which you build, through relationships and trust and mutual reliance.
So the first change in plan had to do with not bringing the kids. They used the car ride from their school to Jenny’s house to draw pictures to send to Grandma, and to ask a bunch of life-and-death-and-sickness-and-God-and-family questions, and generally roll with the idea that, instead of a somber and potentially scary hospital visit, they were going to spend the evening with their friends and said friends’ toys. Resilience comes in many forms.
After depositing the children, Willem and I continued southward. I could, of course, have found some way of getting the car to him and sending him to Long Island alone, but this idea was never seriously entertained by either one of us. His childhood perception of family involved a lot of emotional independence and separation of his-side-versus-her-side, but neither of those have figured prominently in our adult version.
We planned to make the 3:00 ferry. We would have been just fine, had it been a 3:03 ferry, but instead we drove over the bridge leading down to the ferry slip just in time to watch it pull away from the dock. No problem, there are hourly ferry departures… with the single exception of 4:00, which is inexplicably skipped. This meant we had an empty hour, not quite enough time to get anything done but not enough time to sit in line and stare at the empty dock, and more importantly, it means we would be arriving on Long Island at about 6:30… with 15 minutes to get to the hospital and another 15 minutes to get back, and a half hour to visit, because the only return ferry was at 7:45. We could have spent the night, or stayed in the hospital longer and driven back via New York City, but decided that Choice A would just be too disruptive to the kids (not to mention, making it darn near impossible for me to attend my own baby shower the next afternoon) and Choice B made for an unbearably long day (and, again, risking the baby-shower attendance plans).
And within moments of arriving at the hospital, it was clear that a half hour really was long enough. It gave us time to hang up the kids photos, and whisper our messages and thoughts and I-love-you’s to Grandma. To talk with the nurse, and Cousin A, and learn that Grandma had not regained consciousness after noon and was not expected to do so again. To hold Grandma’s hand, and sit quietly a little, and then to accept that there was nothing more we could do. Staying longer would have added more minutes onto our overall tally, but would not have increased the quality of the visit, for us or for her.
She never woke up. She did stir, just slightly, whenever Willem spoke to her, and I think she might have squeezed my hand when I reminded her that, should we be having another boy, his middle name will be Norman. We hung the kids’ pictures up within her line of sight, though I don’t think she ever opened her eyes again.
Her unresponsiveness, all by itself, would have been disturbing to the children, and frankly given my imminent accouchement, I would just as soon not have the kids start to view a hospital as someplace you go to get sick and then to die. But on top of that, Grandma had a horrible, loud, combination-snore-moan sound that she made every few seconds. It was the kind of thing that Willem and I found upsetting, but were able to focus beyond it, especially once the health care staff explained that it was the result of her sleeping position and fluid caught in her throat, not a result of pain or choking or a struggle to breathe. It was the kind of thing that could very well remain with a child, long after the visit has finished, and appear in the form of nightmares and anxieties. Not how I wanted them to remember Grandma; I’m OK with them knowing she was sick, and I would have been OK with them seeing her sick as long as there was still a sense of Grandma underneath… but I would not have been OK with this usurping their prior, pleasant memories.
So we came, we saw, we left quickly, and were all home and in bed sometime very early Saturday morning. Late that evening, I heard from Cousin A; Grandma lived just a bit over 24 hours longer, after we left, and then died in the hospital. We had promised her that we would smile when we thought of her, and that we would make sure the kids grew up hearing stories about their Grandma Ann and Grandpa Norman. Some promises are easy to make, because you know that to do anything differently would be incomprehensible.