Sunday, April 11, 2010

...Of Life and Death

We arrived in Florida too late and just in time. Just in time to see my Grandmother, so frail, so weak, and still, somehow, so strong. Perhaps some of you have seen a loved one in the final days of their life, but I had not. Life and death hovered. For all the pain, and relinquishing of the body’s strength, there was still a mystifying power present in the slow act of dying.

The power, if I can call it that, was over time itself. Eighty-five years of life, 31,025 days, flowed back again.

At first the pain suppressed her memories. “Let me just go to sleep so I can die,” was the only phrase I heard the first day I saw her.

But, later, with hospice-after my mother’s fierce insistence that whatever pain my grandmother was in needed to be addressed-after this excruciating physical pain eased, her mind was free. And, it floated to moments in her life she loved.

Dancing. Playing with her brothers. Meeting her husband. And, a trip, in her teens, when she rode to the 1939 World’s Fair. “The car held six,” she told me, “and I was the seventh.”

Unable to get out of bed, but still able to set up a joke.

“How does it happen?” she asked the Hospice nurse.

“How does what happen?”

He knew what she meant, but he did not have the answer. The metaphor of the day was “journey.” She was going on one.

To an undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.

We were with her, still, in this world, but she belonged to another one, too. One we felt because it surrounded her, but one that did not need us. The mystical aura made the body seem irrelevant. It was failing, but it was no longer in charge.

Release. Her spirit just needed to be released.

“How can I have a weak heart...” she asked, wondering how she could have so many medical ailments and still be so strong. How can the body be ready to die and not relent?

Maybe for moments—those few ones we got—when she spoke of her youth. A name. A year. A secret cigarette in New York City.

And, just when we thought the end was near, a request for a hamburger and beer. Or a mention of American Idol—the distraction that kept her from organizing the closets the way she’d wanted before...before...

Before stomach pains sent her to the emergency room.

When I sat next to her in her silent moments, I realized I was with her and missing her at the very same time. She looked so soft I was afraid to touch her hand for fear of crushing it.

I thought of eating homemade cherry jam in her Madison house, of sitting in a tree in her back yard, and of playing with the polyester dresses from the 70’s she’d haul out of a closet for dress-up. This woman, only three years before, had hopped on a plane all by herself, to meet us back in Madison for a week with my parents. She loved Sanka, paperbacks, bridge and golf. She could sew a perfect hem and paint her own fingernails—even on the right hand. I thought of her losing her father when she was sixteen and the opportunities that took away. And, the sensibilities it added. “The luck of the Irish,” she’d say, like the real McCoy she was, with a twist of irony.

I left my Grandmother’s town of Ormond Beach early on Tuesday morning. The soft Florida water, the salty air, the smell of baked leather in our rental car—my senses and my mind were at odds. These things were strong, how could Grandma not be in her house, ready to hug us?

Up Granada Boulevard, on our way to Route 4, and later to Orlando for my five year old’s first trip to Disney World. But first, we passed Clyde Morris Boulevard. Just a left turn there and we’d be at my grandmother’s bedside in the rehabilitation center. Could I hold her hand once more? Maybe the progression that was turning her feet purple might have subsided and she’d open her eyes for one more day of stories.

But, the stories were now only for us, not her. She was ready.

There are so few moments that force a person to confront life and death. To see death and life switching places, and shifting from foot to foot like dance partners.

I wish I had visited her more often, I wish I had called just one more time before her decline three weeks ago, I wish she’d not had so much pain in the end.

My Grandmother, Patricia Jean Porter, died yesterday, Saturday, at eleven twenty-one a.m..

April 10th.

How many times had she said that day, lived it, and never thought it would have any significance. Today, as the sun rose, I realized it was the beginning of time without her.

I saw people much older than my grandmother today, and thought for a moment that she was younger, and more vital than they. And, then, I would remind myself that she is dead. Today, no matter what ailments, they have more life than my dear grandmother. The line, after all, is thin.

For the first time I understand something a teacher once scribbled on a brown paper napkin, in the dressing room of my high school, before a trip, interestingly, to Florida, for a competition. It was a few years before he’d succumb to a disease that is now no longer a death sentence, and before Robin Williams made the phrase commonplace, and fortunately a bit after I learned the difference between pig Latin and the real thing:

Carpe Diem.

Seize the day, indeed.

In the end, it was the days she had seized, more than the ones she would not get to see, that filled her thoughts and bedside stories.The purpose of life, as my refrigerator magnet quoting Eleanor Roosevelt reminds me, is to live it. taste experience to the utmost,

to reach out eagerly and

without fear for newer

and richer


When my Grandfather could not make the trip with her, my Grandmother flew solo to Madison so she could spend the week with us all. Just as amazing, at 82, she sat on the floor to play with Heidi.
Nearly eight years ago. Grandma knew how to dress--and dance--a lot better than I can.


Anonymous said...

Beautifully written Sarah. I'm sorry for your loss.

Fran said...

warm blessings, peace and comforts through the days ahead - carpe diem... you were given a very special gift to be there during such near death awareness so profound. sometimes those can be the most lucid times we see our loved ones in just before they depart. am thinking of you and your family. please send my condolences to your mother as well. xo - Frances

Tim Morrissey said...

This is a touching and beautifully-written post and tribute. Condolences.

Liz said...

I'm so sorry for your loss. Cherish the memories and the pictures.


missy mccormick said...

so sorry for your loss--
this was so wonderfully written-- you turned something that can be quite scary into something beautiful.

Anonymous said...

The most beautiful words you've ever written. thank you, sarah

Danielle said...

so touchy and beautifully written. I, too, am sorry for your loss. your grandma sounds liked a wonderful woman. Its amazing to me how much power is still left in people even when they are faced with such finality. When my grandmother was in the hospital when she was dying of cancer, with just a week or so left, I asked her about moving in with a guy I had been seeing and she said " need to learn some patience!" This coming from someone who knew they didn't have much time left.
I wish you and your family peace and wonderful memories while you mourn your loss.

Houston! said...

Amazingly beautiful tribute to your grandmother. I'm speechless.