“Happy birthday, Nana. I love you.” These were the last words my grandmother heard me say.
The following post is not related to paleo; however, as a human being, I think it is important that I address something that affects everyone at some point in their life: grief. I haven’t had a chance to grieve over the loss of my grandmother, so this is going to be my place to do that. I can feel the effects of grief catching up with me, so I need a space to share my story.
On February 9, 2014, my grandmother passed away. I called her Nana, so that’s what I will be calling her from now on. It was sudden, scary, and heartbreaking.
Nana’s health problems began in January. She was having “abnormal” conditions, even for a person her age (she was 81). One night, she was in so much pain that we called an ambulance to take her to the hospital. I was holding her hand before they came to take her. As I stroked her hand, Nana was telling me how much pain she was in. I said, “You’re going to be just fine. They’ll fix you and bring you back here.” After she was gone, I anxiously awaited every detail from my parents.
“What’s going on? Have they done anything?” I texted my dad.
“No. Will update you later on,” he replied back.
Hours went by. I checked my phone constantly. Suddenly, there was a text message from my mom. I could feel my heart stop, my blood pump fast, and my eyes swell up. Because, you see.. My mom never texts. Ever.
“It’s not good. She has cancer in her kidneys, lungs, and bones.”
I read every word a million times, but it didn’t seem to click in.
“Uh, what? We don’t even have cancer in our family,” I replied back.
Her bones? Is that even possible? I thought. It turns out that yes, bone cancer is a thing.
Nana was brought back home. When I say home, I mean back to my house. She had been living with us for the past 10 years. This was a woman whose presence was prevalent in my life. I saw her a lot.
“What are we going to do?” I asked my mom.
“I just can’t put her through chemotherapy. She wouldn’t survive it.”
Instead of chemotherapy, it was decided that Nana would have a procedure done to her bladder, which was causing her problems. So, back off to the hospital it was. The next day, she was taken to a different hospital where they could perform the necessary procedures and tests. As it turns out, the bladder was the source of her cancer.
Nana came home after a week in the hospital. Unfortunately, they sent her home and placed her under hospice care. My mom had to sign a “do not resuscitate” form. That translates to: enjoy your time with her now.
It was February 3rd. When Nana came home, she was relatively coherent. I greeted her and told her I loved her. Almost ignoring me, she informed the nurse she was in pain and needed morphine. This cycle continued for days. After a while, she was no longer coherent, though I think she could understand some things when the morphine wore off.
February 7th: my Nana’s birthday. I went downstairs and sat on the side of her hospital bed. My mom told me I would have to come close to her ear to talk to her if I wanted her to hear but warned me, at the same time, that she didn’t appear to be very responsive. Translation: I shouldn’t be upset if she didn’t acknowledge me.
“Happy birthday, Nana. I love you.” I said into her ear, probably a little too quietly.
Mom leaned in and asked, “Did you hear that, mom?”
“That was your Britty; she wished you a happy birthday.”
And then something amazing happened. Nana said, “Ohhhh,” giggled, and then got a huge smile on her face. She was quickly asleep again. I will never forget that moment for the rest of my life.
Nana, Mom, and I had been very excited for February 9th because it was the season premiere of The Walking Dead. Yes, my 81-year-old grandmother loved a zombie show.
I had some friends coming over that night for the premiere, which wasn’t unusual. Mom encouraged me to continue with normality despite everything that was going on, and I needed that reassurance. I was taking six classes; one of them was internship that I loved very much. I needed a small break. My friends and I went out to dinner, which was quite enjoyable.
When I came home, I immediately knew something was wrong.
My boyfriend, who was studying at my house, came to greet me at the door.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“You need to go downstairs,” he replied.
My heart sank. Why? I wanted to scream. Why do I need to go downstairs? What the hell does that mean? What do you know that I don’t?
I didn’t need to ask because I knew.
“I don’t know what to do, my friends are outside,” I said.
But I knew. I knew. I could feel my heart racing, palpitating from the sudden sense of urgency that comes when your adrenaline peaks.
“I don’t even know how to say this.. It’s happening,” I told them. “I’m so sorry. I need to be with my family.” Eyes stinging with tears that I tried to hold back, I apologized profusely to them. After seeing them off, I went downstairs.
My dad, mom, two uncles, and our close friend/nurse Bonnie were standing around Nana’s hospital bed. Gospel music was playing. Everyone was crying. My mom was holding Nana’s head. Dad was holding her right hand. Nana was breathing in weird, raspy breaths.
“What’s happening?” I asked, wishing in the next moment I hadn’t.
Bonnie explained to me what was happening and while I understood at the time, I couldn’t possibly repeat it now. Bonnie lifted up the blanket to show me Nana’s feet. They were purple, as though someone had dipped her feet into Concord grape juice. Her eyes were half open, but she appeared to be staring at nothing. The water sound in her breaths deepened.
After looking around again, I realized my brother wasn’t there.
I looked at Charlie. “Go get Chris. Tell him now. Tell him RIGHT NOW.”
I turned back to Nana. I needed to say goodbye. But, how do you say goodbye to someone? What do you say? I wanted to speak many times but failed. So many thoughts flew through my head.
Was I a good granddaughter? Did I make her proud? Will I make her proud? Is she hurting? Why is this happening? Is she scared? I’m scared. I hope she’s not in pain. I wish I had spent more time with her.
The raspy breath deepened and quickened. My mom later called this watery sound (the fluid backing up into the lungs) the “death rattle,” and I would say that’s a pretty accurate description.
I didn’t know how to say goodbye. I didn’t want to. I wanted to scream STOP! Just stay with us! but I knew it was futile. I knew she was leaving.
After about 10 minutes of the worsening “death rattle,” her muscles began to tense — almost like she was stretching. Then, her entire body tensed. I grabbed her hand. I knew it was coming: the final breath. I watched helplessly as her eyes got bigger like she was taking in the world one last time. Because she had her head facing my way, it looked like she was looking at me for the last time, even though I know she was out of it.
My mom was screaming, “I love you Joycie. Go be with Jesus,” over and over.
And then I heard the last breath. It was deep, long. Much too long to be a normal breath. My mom slammed her head on the hospital bed. She howled. A child’s love for their mother in one single sound. I felt and heard my mom’s pain. It was this sound from my mother, the one most dear to me, the one losing her mother, that snapped me into reality. I continued to hold my Nana’s hand while I watched, tears streaming down my face, as my mom ran out the back door, away from the sadness, the lifelessness, the death.
We buried my Nana on the 15th of February, the same day my grandfather passed away in 2002. It was snowing; the ceremony was beautiful.
This is my first experience watching someone die. It was hard and very heartbreaking. I feel almost selfish wondering what death is like. Where did she go? I’m not religious; I don’t really believe in anything after death. Is it just darkness? Is she dreaming? I hope she is with my other favorite person in the world (if we are so lucky to go to someplace like that), her husband, my Pop Pop. I guess I’ll find out when I get there.
I haven’t been allowed to grieve. My schedule this semester hasn’t allowed it; some days, I am at school for 10 hours. Dropping classes was not an option. But, this experience taught me a lot of things. First, I realized how short life is. It feels like Nana was just moving in with us yesterday. Second, I am a much stronger person than I thought. I saw everything through with my mom: I watched as they took her from the hospital bed, put her in a body bag, and put her in the back of the hearse. You never know what you’re capable of until it happens. Sharing the story feels like a relief, and I thank you for reading it.