My grandmother looks so small. When I see her in the hospital bed the hospice service has moved into her room, my impulse it to climb in next to her. I spoon her and stroke her back as she goes on sleeping her deep, drugged sleep. She has lost so much weight, and her body is failing. I am startled by her fragility.
As we enter this life, so we depart it. Like the first days after my son was born, everything is more sharply defined now, more laden with meaning and metaphor. Every small kindness shown me is magnified. My Grandmother is on her death bed. I see her body changing, her constant sleep, the agitation we fumble to sooth.
I curl up with her in bed as I did with my own infant son, in awe of the life still in her body, the precariousness of it, the small miracle that her heart still beats at age 93, that her lungs work, though they are full of fluid.
We never co-slept with Robin. I always felt he was too fragile, I was too full of fear. And I shift around carefully, not wanting to jostle Grandma’s oxygen tube. I will pass my night watch in the recliner next to her, dozing if I can but vigilant for any change in her breathing, any sense of pain or discomfort, any departure.
Like Robin within days of birth, I watch intently for the rise and fall of her chest, for evidence of breathing. But it is not SIDS I fear; it is the inevitable. When I am unsure, I place my hand gently on her side. I am reassured by the movement, by her warmth.
The smells in the room are as pungent as in a nursery, though different. Her eyelids are so swollen, her eyes hardly ever open. Like a newborn, I don’t think she can see clearly when they do. The sound is of the oxygen machine, not the sound machine. But its hum soothes me somehow.
This night is sacred. I was relieved when my mother agreed to go home and let me sleep here. She spent last night with Grandma and only slept an hour. Nurses were in and out. Grandma was agitated as different pain medications were administered. And all of this was new. Hospice had only been set up that very afternoon, and in such a rush, the bed arrived before the papers had been signed.
I feel so happy to be trusted, to have this quiet closeness with my grandmother, to share this intimacy. I get more from it than my mother realizes when she thanks me for taking the shift. I will never get this time back. I have never had such a deep sense that this was where I needed to be–at least not since Robin’s infancy.
It was so hard for me to leave Robin when he was so young, so tiny and fragile. But at a certain point I realized my mother needed the time with him as much as I needed the relief of him. I was up over long nights, feeding him every hour or two. I needed to step away as badly as she needed to come in and hold him, to have time alone with him while I rested.
Yes, I do hope my mother will sleep well tonight, or at least rest and recharge. It could be another day or two before my grandmother passes, and mom needs her strength. But more than anything, I feel grateful for this time.
I know to expect disruptions overnight. Staff will be in to administer medication and check vitals. I remember the drill from my first days as a mom, recuperating in the hospital from my C-section. Like clockwork, every time I started to rest, a resident or nurse or doc of some sort was entering to check me or the baby. Robin resisted as Grandma does, a low groan of discomfort coming out of her deep slumber as the nurses struggle to turn her body.
In the place of midwives and doulas, there are hospice nurses and social workers. So much thought and planning is put into the beginning of a life, but rarely is the end of life so well orchestrated. Thankfully there are these angels on the other side of it, helping facilitate a graceful exit from this world.
We all move steadily from cradle to grave, but in this case it seems to be handled more gracefully on the back end somehow. Good night, Grandma. I love you. I hope you slip peacefully away soon. But not on my watch.