Wednesday, July 10, 2013

As She Lay Dying

As she lay dying . . . nobody was outside her window hammering the nails into her coffin*. But there was, outside on her window, a “No Smoking, Oxygen in Use” sign when I pulled up. I didn’t expect to see it. I knew things had gotten bad and that the Hospice nurse had been there but I didn’t realize she was at home on oxygen now. It took me a few minutes to compose myself and walk inside.

She looked so different from when I had last seen her three days before. Now bedridden with an oxygen tube in her nose, mouth constantly open, in a mostly sleep/dream state. To talk to her I had to get right next to her ear and when she could respond I could barely understand her. My mom asked if one of us could stay the night  so I volunteered.

Around 10:30 pm, the priest came to administer her last rites. He was wearing loafers, cargo shorts and a Virgin Islands tee shirt. He told her to let Jesus know that he loves him.

I was thoroughly unimpressed.

After he left my mother thought she’d try to go to sleep for a while in the bed in the other room. She told me if I needed her to call “Marion” (not Mom?). I thought that was kind of funny. Babci began moaning a little so I held her hand and talked to her, telling her it’s okay to pass. She was still moaning but I wasn’t sure what else I could do as she was already wearing two medicine patches and she didn’t seem to want any more water swabbed in her mouth.

Earlier while we were waiting for Father McCasual, my mom ran home to get something. I had decided to hold her hand and sing to her.
“One bright morning when my work is over,
I will fly away home”

As much as I love those lyrics, they definitely sounded better when Mr. Marley sang them. I went with one my old church favorites, Amazing Grace, eventually remembering the lyrics to my favorite verse:

“When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’d first begun.”

She seemed so responsive, trying to turn her head to establish where the sound was coming from and keeping her eyes wide open, so I continued. The Beatles came in handy:

“Blackbird singing in the dead of night,
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see.
All your life
 You were only waiting for this moment to be free.
Blackbird, fly. Blackbird, fly,
Into the light of a dark black night.”

And then:

“Once there was a way to get back homeward,
Once there was a way to get back home,
Sleep pretty darling do not cry,
And I will sing a lullaby.
 Golden Slumbers fill your eyes.
 Smiles await you when you rise,
Sleep pretty darling do not cry,
And I will sing a lullaby.”

I patted myself on the back for thinking of singing to her and about what a good story it would be for my children, particularly my Beatles-obsessed pre-teen. Then she seemed to be saying something, I leaned closer to try to decipher what she was saying.  I couldn’t, so I asked, “Do you want me to sing some more?” She distinctly shook her head no. I laughed out loud.

Later when I recanted the story to Mom and Father McCasual, Babci clearly shot me one of her looks. It was wonderful to have a glimpse of her personality shine through, even if it meant she didn’t enjoy my singing.

So I didn’t think singing to her was a good option to try again. I held her hand and touched her face and she said the first thing I’d been able to understand: “Thank you” and then when I said, “I love you” she said it back to me.  But she was clearly still physically uncomfortable.

I was just about to call, “Marion!” to see if we could give her more painkiller when my mom came back in on her own. I asked her why I shouldn’t have just called out “Mom” and she told me it’s because in this past month of her sleeping here overnight Babci calls out about every hour and a half over night, “Marion! Marion!”

Mom gave her a dose of oral morphine just before midnight. We fashioned beds for ourselves out of chairs and pillows on either side of her bed so we could hold her hands and talk to her. She refused to close her eyes.

“It’s time to go home, Mom, Dad’s been waiting for you a long time,” my mother tried.

I remarked that I was surprised she still had her wedding ring on.

 “She told me yesterday that I better not bury her with it,” my mom said and I laughed.

Of course she said that, my practical, frugal, non-sentimental Grandmother would hate for the ring to be “wasted” that way. I got close to her ear and asked her what we were supposed to do with the ring if not bury her with it.

“Give it to your favorite Granddaughter??” I teased.

She swallowed and gathered some strength to say, “They’re all my favorite.”

It took over an hour for her to get comfortable and fall asleep. Mom and I would settle our heads and then pop up when she made a particularly loud moan or gasp. Eventually we all three managed to sleep with the sounds of her oxygen machine, labored breathing and occasional bouts of moaning remaining a constant through the night.

At 4 am I was woken by terrible smells and I was afraid of what kind of mess we’d have to clean off of her while worried about tearing her paper-thin skin. Death be not pretty. This is not the death I wanted or expected for her. I had always assumed she’d go in her sleep. Then I figured when she went to the hospital two months ago at age 97 and they told us she was septic, that she wasn’t making it out of there alive. Then again at the rehab center with another infection and so many times I’d hold her hand and cry with her and tell her it was okay to let go.

Around 7:30 am, my Dad let himself in so I opened my eyes and gave a little wave.

“Do you want some coffee or something?”

“No, Dad. I’m sleeping.” 

This is making me laugh. He wants to be helpful I suppose but…I don’t know, what do we have to get up for today? It’s an hour later and I’m still on my chair--bed beside her though my mom did get up for some “or something.” Babci’s eyes are shut tight, her mouth is wide open and her chest is heaving with each labored breath. Her arms are bruised from the slightest bumps in the past few weeks and bandaged where the bruises gave away to tears.

I can’t believe she made it through the night.

She was still sleeping at 11 when the Home Health Aide came and at that point it was clear something else had happened since we left the room and came back to horrible smells. Death be not pleasant. I helped the Aide with the clean up job, which turned out to be even worse than I had expected.

In the past several years, whenever someone would remark to Babci on her age or how great she looked, that firecracker would usually reply, “As long as I can get up and wipe my own ass I’m doing alright.”

That’s what was on my mind as I helped roll my still-sleeping Grandmother from one side to the other as someone else helped with basic self-care. Death be not kind in the least.

The relatives began arriving so I decided to go home for a little reprieve. The children were not home and surprisingly the construction workers were not there either. I thought they’d be there framing our house addition but I was happy to be alone. I caught up on my electronic communicating, including letting my Facebook friends know that Babci was still straddling the bridge between both worlds. I wanted to go outside for some quiet time in nature and realized we had the perfect place right in our back yard. So I walked down to the pond and straddled the bridge over the little waterfall from our pond to the stream and meditated there.

For two months she had been unwell and unhappy. I longed for her passing to come quickly, quietly, painlessly. I cried with her when she asked me, “Why? Why? What did I do to deserve this?” But when the time became imminent, I suddenly didn’t feel as ready as I thought I was. As I sat on the bridge, I let my heart be filled with so much love for her and that love allowed me to be absolutely ready to let her go.

Three hours later, my phone rang.

Death be not pretty, nor pleasant, nor kind but at long last death had been decent and had come for her. She was suffering no more.

We will miss her so.

 (*Reference to William Faulkner’s novel “As I Lay Dying” in which that very thing happens)


  1. What a loving, intimate glimpse of the reality of death. You make your Babci proud, Gina. My heartfelt condolences to you and your family.

  2. Thanks Jay. Still a little raw today.