These final days before a death are as fraught as the days before a birth. It is all so much more trying on those loved ones surrounding the life in question. I’ve been part of a powerful circle of family, people who love my grandmother and are with her in these last hours.
Somehow she is still living, a week later. Sleeping and relatively pain free, requiring little medication and with pretty strong vitals. Do I stay? Do I go? I am writing this from a recliner in my living room. At some point I had to leave, to return to work, to routines.
We held vigil before Robin’s birth. I waited for labor to begin, paced the creaky wood floors night after night. He was a week late. I walked the neighborhood to stay sane and help him drop. I abandoned my post at work because I couldn’t focus with all the nerves and anticipation.
My mother was on call across the state, ready to jump in her car and drive to me at the first contraction. It is the not knowing that challenges us all. You cannot schedule a life’s beginning or end, but so much must happen around it. It is hardest on those surrounding it, the family who will mourn or welcome the soul that crosses the great divide.
That passing, in or out of life, is natural. It takes care of itself somehow. It works on its own timetable. But it leaves so much uncertainty for the spectators.
In my grandmother’s case, I see things clearly. It is a strange thing, anticipating a death. And a death without tragedy is a rare gift. It is sad she is dying, of course. I have shed many tears and will miss her terribly. But she is 93, has had an amazing life, and is revered by all who know her. It is the best possible way to die.
I feel guilty when the kind aids in her senior living complex express their sympathy. Surely there are people who need it more. This is sad, but it is a natural and good passing. And hospice is a slow and merciful end, death’s rough equivalent of a home birth. The lack of tragedy in this slow departure allows me the luxury of philosophy.
Death happens slowly but surely, with its own protocol. It is like Apgar in reverse, this quiet cataloging of the physical signs of dying: the pulling back of the earlobes, the mottling of skin, the changes in her nail beds.
And this strange dance with death. I have seen her dip and rally over the many hours I spent at her bedside. We felt sure Monday was the day. My cousins rushed over. We encouraged Grandma to hang on for my aunt and uncle’s arrival, for the end of their long drive to her.
Listening to her breathing, we heard disturbingly long pauses. Then a reassuring rise in her chest. We hung on each breath as the pauses grew longer. I told my mother I felt like I should be timing them, like contractions.
But my aunt and uncle arrived. And somehow she rallied. Her vitals, taken a couple hours later, were stronger than they had been in days. The nurse speculated that she relaxed when she knew her son was there.
We all know she was aware of their planned arrival: a body letting go. Relax. Breathe.
Are we in the Braxton Hicks of death? Is this false labor? Or the long and painful work of dying. Labor is long, messy, uneven. Its duration is unpredictable. Why wouldn’t dying work the same way?
It is abstract to me now. I sleepwalk through a couple work days and my weekend of mundane household chores. I am six hours away. Not knowing when the time will come, my thoughts are totally consumed with my grandmother. My cell phone is in my pocket, the ringer on and cranked up.
I have no idea how long this will take. I have no idea when. I need to save my time for after.
My heart is heavy and my thoughts are with my mother. I cannot wait to go to her when it is all over, to hold her and help her heal. To say my final goodbye to Grandma.