Friday, January 12, 2007

Goodbye, Grandma

My grandmother passed away yesterday evening. She was 92 and had a number of health issues so it was not unexpected. However, I have found myself more shaken by her death than I would have thought. Perhaps that is because she is the first person I have really known, and the first close relative of mine, to die.

We did not have a tremendously close relationship, something that saddens me now, but I was quite fond of her. The tales she told of her younger years spent with my grandfather as they built their businesses, or of their adventures during World War II, had regaled me since I was a child. Later in her life she travelled a bit and even decided to go back to school and earn a college degree (we had a few good laughs when we discovered that, even though we were over a half-century apart in age, it turned out that we had both taken classes from the same professor).

Her health had been rapidly declining, especially over the past six months or so. She had Alzheimer's Disease and had more recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The illnesses and age had taken a heavy toll on her mentally and physically; she had lost a lot of weight, her skin had turned thin and sallow looking, her short-term memory was non-existent and other indignities became more and more evident.

I went to visit her last Saturday, for what would turn out to be the last time. I went by myself, figuring I could squeeze in a short visit between errands and other work. At that point she was fading in and out of consciousness, sometimes responsive to visitors, sometimes not. I brought a book along figuring I would sit with her a while even if she were asleep.

She woke up when I entered her room, smiling a bit as I pulled a heavy chair over next to her bed. I reached over the bed rail and grasped her hand, which she then patted with her other hand. A nurse came in a short while later and Grandma told her, "Look! My favorite boyfriend has come to visit!" I smiled, thinking she didn't recognize who I was (she hadn't in quite some time). She drifted off to sleep as I continued to hold her hand. A few minutes later her eyes fluttered open and she surprised me by saying how nice it was for her grandson to come for a visit. Perhaps she recognized me after all?

She noticed the book in my lap and we talked for a few minutes about books and reading. Our conversation was primarily the same few sentences repeated over and over, as she seemed to forget what she had said just a moment before. We talked about the weather. It was bright, sunny and unseasonably warm outside. She kept thanking me for the wonderful weekend (I wasn't quite sure what she was remembering) and the beautiful day. Then she would drift off to sleep again, only to wake up a few minutes later with me still holding her hand and we would have the same conversation all over again. It was repetitive, but oddly pleasing to me.

I had only planned to stay for ten or fifteen minutes, but that stretched into a half-hour, then an hour and more.

We continued our somewhat circular conversation, punctuated by her frequent dosings. She began to add little prayers (at least that's what they sounded like to me) in between talk of books and the weather. She would ask me about the book I was reading, wanting to see the cover, then she would look at me and say, "Dear Lord, help me. Dear Lord, help my family... take care of my family. Dear Lord, help my children. Bless my family. Bless my children. Dear Lord, help me." Then she'd fall asleep again. I began to wonder if she realized her time on this earth was almost up? With tears welling up in my in my eyes, I prayed with her and tried to reassure her that her family was well taken care of and that she needn't worry about anything.

After a while she seemed to fall into a deeper sleep and giving her hand a final squeeze, I slipped out of her room to head back home.

Late yesterday afternoon, I gathered the kids together and we hopped in the van to go pick my wife up from work a bit early. After picking her up our plan was to head over to see my grandmother again. We were about fifteen minutes away when my cell phone rang and my father told me, his voice choking, that she had just passed away.

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