On October 5th, 2017 at 4:55 in the morning my life changed.
I’ve opened my laptop multiple times to write. I needed to write. I have so many words. So many feelings….. and yet I feel completely empty. A lot of just staring at my screen and willing words to come out even if they didn’t want to. Mainly because I don’t know if I want them to come out and maybe because I am afraid of the words about to come out. Maybe if I don’t write them, this won’t be real. But that’s silly.
I apologize if this seems drawn out as I relive every detail as explicitly as I remember it. I’m sorry if this is too raw. I hope I don’t dredge up something you’ve hidden away, like I will after this. But I have to get this out.
To preface: a lot of what you are about to read are the things I wrote on a pad a paper given to me by Gram’s care providers for this very purpose. I needed to write. I needed to make sure I got these moments on paper, for myself.
I got the phone call while I was out running. I hadn’t run in almost two months. It was Monday and I just bought myself a new pair of running shoes the day before. New month, new shoes, new me.
It was mom.
You know that feeling when you know whatever your parent has to say is not going to be good? Yeah, I knew that. I knew Grams wasn’t doing well. I knew she’d stopped eating the Wednesday before. I naively assumed that this was just a phase in her dementia addled illness. She’d go back to eating like normal and I’d continue my run like normal. But you know what they say: assuming makes an ass of u and me.
Mom’s voice wasn’t her voice. She sounded like a stranger that had accidentally called my number and I decided picked up because I thought I recognized the 10 digits that lit up my screen. I didn’t.
Hospice had come in. Grams had 24-48 hours to live. I didn’t cry there on the side of the road. But when my mom hung up the phone my 20 minute run became my 45 minute run. And when I got home I couldn’t keep it together any more. My world, my hero, was only going to be on this earth for another 24-48 hours, give or take.
24-48 hours. That’s it.
It took me all of 30 seconds to decide that I was going to drive to Oregon Tuesday morning (about 7-10 hours from my home in the Bay, depending on traffic) to be with her.
My mom called me back while she was with Grams and I asked if I could talk to her. My Aunt put the phone up to her ear and I told her I was coming up the next day and that I loved her. My cousin later told me that she’d reached out to grab the phone when I started talking. I cried when she told me. I still get a little sad when I think about it.
The drive was long. I listened to Duma Key on tape, great book I might add. Thanks Stephen. I prayed that she wasn’t going to go while I was on my way up. When I finally got to her care facility 10 hours of driving later (thanks traffic), she was still there. We sat with her for a while and brought my Papa over from his care home to see her as well. Around 8:30 my Aunt and mom took Pops back and left my cousin and I there with Grams. My cousin left around 10, 1030, maybe? I can’t remember the exact time I was left alone with Grams.
After everyone left to get some sleep, I sat on the floor next to her bed the wrapped up in the extra blankets from her closet. It was freezing because her roommate had accidentally left her window open (something none of us realized until early the next morning) to enjoy the Autumn Oregon sun. And I can tell you, there is truly nothing like Oregon Autumn sun. My cousin and I joked that my blanket cocoon was my ‘puddle of sadness’. Nurses came in and out every few hours to make sure she was comfortable and give her morphine and I just sat on the floor watching everything happen way too fast, wrapped up in her extra blankets and favorite tan coat.
I didn’t sleep more than 45 minutes Tuesday night. I was afraid to go to the bathroom or shower, even if I’d traveled for 10 hours and hadn’t showered the day before or brushed my teeth. Lovely, right? I finally decided I needed to shower at 3am and took the quickest shower known to man. I don’t even know if I got clean or if the water touched me and I didn’t care.
Exhausted can’t even define how I felt. I convinced myself that if we fell asleep together, I’d be the only one that was going to wake up. Every second I spent away from her I assumed that she was going to slip away and I wouldn’t be there to tell her it was ok. I was afraid I was going to let her die alone.
I told her to let go and I selfishly begged her to stay. I was afraid to let her die because I knew a little piece of me was about to die right along with her. I apologized to her for not having kids like she’d always dreamed I would. I promised her that if I ever do have kids they’re going to grow up hearing all about their pant-suit wearing, bad-ass, Great Grandma. Every question I’d forgot to ask her raced through my mind, followed closely by the realization that I would never get to ask them anyway. I talked about my hopes for the future. I realized I had my kindle with me and read her the first chapter of The Sorcerer’s Stone aloud. It was the calmest I’d felt in 2 days.
I want to say she woke up and we got to talk for a bit, but she never squeezed my hand that night. Or said my name. Or told me she loved me, even though I pleaded with her to just say it one more time. With the exception of her shallow, labored, breathing she was completely still. No more hand movements, nothing. I desperately wanted to cradle her in my arms, like she did me when I was as kid, but I was so afraid of hurting her. I tried to reminisce, but my mind kept painting pictures of nothingness. I couldn’t remember any memory with Grams. All the memories felt so far from reach. A different time, another place. It was so hard to be left alone with nothing but my thoughts, her labored breaths, and the ticking of a clock. As quiet as it was, it sounded like some morbid cacophony in that little room.
The hospice nurse told us she’d probably have until 3pm the next day. I would steal glances at the clock and mentally give myself a countdown: 15 hrs, Jess. 13. It’s 3am, 12 hours of Grams left. 12. Make it count.
And on the night of October 3rd, 2017 I realized that it’s amazing how short a second can be when you’re watching a loved one pass away.
My cousin came crashing through the door at 6:30 Oct 4th (Wednesday morning) with coffee and a bunch of stuff in her hands. I was still in a puddle on the floor, with two nurses making sure Grams was comfortable. My cousin caught me totally off guard. We both laughed about her crashing through the door later. It felt like it was from a movie almost.
The rest of the morning of October 4th was a complete blur. And then my best friend from elementary school walked in. My mom told her where we were and how to get there. She drove down from our hometown to say goodbye and help me out. I felt so relieved to have a friend with me after that night. All the emotions I’d pent up and hidden from my family came spilling out as K.K (the pet name I gave her years ago) held me. It was around then that we decided to go for a quick walk and it felt good to get out of the room for a little bit.
The rest of the day was spent laughing, talking, crying and celebrating around Grams. We went and got Pops again and told him he had to say goodbye. One thing I will never, never forget is when we brought Pops over that last day. He grabbed my hand and squeezed and whispered “I love you Jessie” in my ear. I haven’t heard my Gramps say an entire coherent sentence since his stroke two years ago. And this sentence had been what I was begging my Grams to say to me the entire night before.
We told Pops that he had to tell Grams it was ok to go. Watching my Grandparents be together for the last time after 56 years of marriage was truly profound.
That night my mom brought in a bottle of wine and my dad came with fried chicken (Gram’s favorite- she’s from Oklahoma!). My cousin and I played Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You for her, she LOVED Whitney. My family decided to stay that entire night, I am so glad they did.
We all started to take turns sleeping around midnight of Oct 4th. My cousin and I actually curled up on the floor next to Grams bed together and fell asleep for a bit. Every hour or so the care providers would come in and check. They kept telling us that it would probably be around 3 am and for some reason I bolted awake in my little blanket puddle next to Grams at 2:55 and went to find my cousin (she’d moved to a chair outside and fell asleep). Grams didn’t go at 3, I fell back asleep until my cousin shook me awake with a “JESS, HER EYES ARE OPEN” at about 4 am. She hadn’t opened her eyes in two days. At that point, we knew it was close.
On October 5th, 2017 at 4:55 in the morning I held my Grandma as she left this life. I told her it was ok and that I was ready to let her go (even if that was, and still is, a lie). I watched her take her final breath and I could’ve swore (or at least I imagined) she smiled as she went.
It probably seems ridiculous that I would spend so much time and effort on this post. Everyone dies. That is the inevitability of life. We are born, we live, and one day we become nothing but a memory. There is, nor was, anything truly remarkable about my Gram’s death: she died the same way as many dementia patients before her and many that will follow her.
She may have had an unremarkable death, but she sure as hell had a remarkable life and I am so lucky to be a human that can say she is part of the reason that I am here today. She was the first woman to wear pants to work and she got kicked out of class. She was the first woman to go to work pregnant in her district. She was a fighter. And most of all, she was a teacher.
This is how I cope. I write. I retell the same stories over and over again, hoping some missing piece will pop back into my memory and I can puzzle piece events together. I’m still trying to make sense of it all even if there is no sense to be made.
I appreciate if you read this from beginning to end. If you didn’t, I appreciate that too. Losing some one you love is just a part of life. And as hard as it is, know this, the ones that love us never really leave us.