“Will she live to be 100? When’s Greatma going to get out of the hospital?” Clearly, my six-year-old didn’t understand what I was trying to tell him.
My own voice was soft but firm. I didn’t mince my words. “No, John. Greatma is never going to leave the hospital. She’s going to die. She’s very very sick, and she’s not getting enough oxygen.”
He stared at me with his eyes wide. Normally, he’s precocious with lots of questions, but he stayed quiet. His brother and sister were already in bed, but I’d let him stay up to finish a Lego project. The two of us were cleaning up the family room when the phone rang. It was my husband calling from the hospital.
After I hung up the phone, I turned and told John. “But I didn’t get to go and say goodbye,” he said wistfully.
I had no idea what to say. “It’s okay John. We didn’t take you guys to the hospital because we didn’t want you to get sick. Hospitals aren’t a great place for little kids.”
“Why would I get sick?” Sometimes I forget he’s a little kid, and that little kids think people go to the hospital to get better.
“Hospitals have a lot of germs, but it’s okay John. It’s okay.”
“Are you going to die?”
“No, John. Greatma was 95. She had a full life behind her. Mommy’s still young. Ish.”
Thankfully, he didn’t ask any more questions about death that I was completely unprepared for. “Can we cuddle before I go to bed?”
“Sure.” I didn’t need any more reminders; cleaning up the house could wait.
And so the death-watch finally ended. My husband’s grandmother went into the hospital ten days ago with the flu, pneumonia, and tachycardia. (We later found out the tachycardia was due to a heart attack.) My mother-in-law was told she’d probably be dead within 24 hours. So my in-laws have spent the last ten days constantly at the hospital, watching her struggle to breathe and seeing her body covered in bedsores. Waiting, just waiting.
The truth is she started talking about wanting to die six months ago. She’d already outlived her husband by nearly twenty years, and spent the last two years in a nursing home, unable to care of herself, and an entirely different person than the woman I first met thirteen years ago.
She was from a different generation; a proud woman who bore her burdens silently. She was quiet, stubborn, modest, and humble, with impeccable manners and taste. Extremely old-fashioned, she never changed the name on any her bills. All of her mail still came to Mrs. Richard Smith*. I was never really able to know her because she was too proud to get her hearing aid adjusted, and my voice was outside her range. She could usually hear my husband, but with me she would just smile and nod. True communication was always just out of reach. By the end though, she was stone-deaf, and couldn’t hear anyone. Even seeing her great-grandchildren had stopped making her smile. When we visited her on Christmas, my husband told me it was probably the last time our children would see her.
I don’t really know if there’s an afterlife or not, but I like to think there is. I don’t want to think life is entirely without meaning. And I hope that Grandma is there, reunited with her husband, at peace and wearing a beautifully tailored green coat.
Addendum: I hope all of you had a good holiday, and my apologies for being a terrible blogger recently. We are currently living with my in-laws and don’t have Wi-Fi. This makes keeping up with blogs difficult, as well as comment responses. I’ve also been struggling with a nasty case of writer’s block, where words seem empty and meaningless. Thanks for being patient with me.
*Smith is a fictive last name, but she was a very private person.
**The photo is my property, but isn’t of her.