song du jour: the hum of the VCR recording Mystery!

mood: ok


Just wanted to take a moment and thank everyone, who wrote in with condolences for my family and me after my grandmother's passing. I believed I've emailed back most everyone directly (or tried. Fuad, I think you're having email technical difficulties again.), but I just wanted to say a collective thanks for the heart-felt thoughts and the love everyone shared. I feel privileged to be in a community of such genuine compassion with people who understand.

Lying awake, intending but unable to sleep, I crept back in the studio, finally ready to write the powerful lesson I learned in watching my grandmother fight to live. People often utter well meaning lines of "Well, she was 91." or "Well, she lived a long and happy life." meaning to give solace, but really these things we sometimes say when we are uncomfortable with another's pain may be true, but the implication that death is no less painful is pure BS.

It's not like I could have expected her to live many more years. Quite the contrary. I'd been steeling myself up to prepare for the last 20, partly because of her health, and partly because my mother verbalized such thoughts frequently. My grandmother was a steel magnolia in the truest sense, a very fragile being, who could wither at any moment, but as long as she was present, she was tough as nails.

She was perfectly lucid prior to being admitted to the hospital. Granny had never had a moment of confusion, let alone dementia, in her life (post anesthesia not withstanding). She had probably had a mild stroke the night before due to arrhythmia, a condition which we're fairly certain she'd had for at least 20 years or more, but which was regarded as recent/blown off and attributed to old age. My mother couldn't stop her from eating breakfast at the hospital that next morning. (Mom drove up in the dead of night after being accosted by a large raccoon on her garbage can, see the August blog page.) The left side of her face was drawn, one eye shut, and her speech very slurred. They should have ordered swallow tests before serving her food. My mother said she ate as if she couldn't feel there was food in her mouth. Since she hadn't eaten since the day before, that was when she most likely aspirated food into her lungs, causing pneumonia. Ironically, that hospital is a client of my mother's. Swallow tests prior to anything by mouth for anyone who shows signs of a stroke is about to become hospital policy. Hopefully it will prevent others from unnecessary pain.

Back to "Well, she was 91." No one is to be directly blamed for the scenario, least of all my mother, who did everything but hog tie her mother to keep the woman from eating. Her heart was beginning to wear out from old age. There is no doubt. Still, it is the all too frequent (read most often the situation) that being in the hospital is to submit to no one really having a complete picture, and therefore a plan, of what's going on. There are policies. There are rules. There are charts. No matter how kind or competent the care (and this hospital is considered one of the top 100 in the country), the fact that there is a person attached to that chart is not something that the higher ups always acknowledge. I know. I used to watch the endless parade of specialists walk up to Skyler's bed, go straight to his chart, and read everything new, before even glancing at him or talking to me. There was 3' of space between him and his chart (which was a large 3 ring binder, filled with more pages than hours he was yet alive), and I was in between. Numbers first. People second. Correct application of policies and rules caught in between. The best caregivers are like the ICU nurse, who told my mother in regard to her staying with my grandmother night and day, "Yes, it is ICU policy to only allow visitors 30 minutes, 3 times/day, and we know when it's appropriate to enforce that policy and when we need to just ignore it."

Once the pneumonia hit full force, my grandmother's oxygen levels would drop dramatically, and when they did, she would hallucinate. She would pull at her sheets and start to peel off her hospital gown (we could never figure out if she was hot from her blood sugar getting too high or what). My mother figured out to sneakily give her a pillow case to keep her hands busy. My grandmother began to do things with it, gestures and actions we had seen 1000 times and struggled to remember and place. She was doing the things she had done for more than 70 years. She was stringing beans. She was sewing. She was turning the self belts to the dresses I watched her make in the 70's right side out and ironing the seams.

The worst came when my mother went back to her parents' house to take a shower and a nap the second or third day. The hospital called in desperation. "She's ripping out the tubes and calling your name." My mother turned the car around and went back. In her delusion, my grandmother had decided my mother was ill. She was the one in the hospital, and Granny was there to take care of her little girl. She was wailing and thought she was searching the halls but couldn't find my mother. There is no worse fear for any mother than to feel unable to take care of one's sick child. The nurses wanted to know how to manage until my mother got back. My mother ordered restraints. We all felt completely horrible about that, but there was no other way. (For the record, they're not like being cuffed. They are soft and can allow for movement but not to where anything vital is connected.) My mother learned the trick of leaving her keys on the table and telling her mother, if you see these, I'm in the building and will be right back. It worked well except when she needed stuff from her car.

My grandparents were always THE most fatalistic people I've known. I can remember as a little girl, their going on (and on) about death being a part of life. "When my time comes..." On that side I'm the descendant of English and Scotch-Irish farmers, and the ethic of life/death/renewal was duly passed down. It has been a great shock to see my grandfather at such a complete loss and total confusion of how to proceed. Of all the people in my extended family, he is the least likely I would have expected to react like a lost puppy, a lost child really. My grandmother exhibited no fear of dying. She had been saying only weeks before that she didn't expect to see too many more birthdays, and I was struck by how she declared it as an intent with no hesitation, rather than a mere inevitability of advanced years. In the end, she fought to get well not just to live, and it was absolutely clear that her motivation was ONLY that she had to take care of us. Burned in my mind are the thoughts, "Skyler is alive. His APGAR scores are decent. Now I HAVE to live. Someone HAS to take care of this child, and it's obvious, since no one took very good care of me that I'd better stick around." In the face of out the roof numbers, will was the only thing that made a difference.

That's my grandmother all over. (Both of them, actually. Before also dying of pneumonia, my paternal grandmother was fully resuscitated so many times we lost count.) It was never good enough that I should know my mother was back in town and safe at home. My grandmother had to hear her voice (which usually came in a lie from a phone call somewhere along I-75 south.) What I learned that I hadn't expected to confront was that the extreme drive of Selflessness that is Maternal caregiving NEVER eases up no matter how old one lives to be or how grown and responsible one's children become. No matter how bad things got, no matter how much pain she was in, my grandmother's fight had nothing to do with herself. While some might not be the 'smother' Granny was, I believe that Selfless drive is in some form, universal, perhaps the relative Bodhisattva. Her determination to be around solely to take care of those she loved was no less strong than when my grandparents were first married or when my mother and uncle were little children. If she is out there on the astral plane, sometimes looking down until time for her next incarnation, then she is probably fretting at discovering the work hours my mother actually keeps, and stressing out that my grandfather is rather miserable without her and her cooking.

One final note: For years I was furious with my mother for not stepping in and 'interfering' during what no one acknowledged was a high risk pregnancy until it was too late. We all learned huge life lessons in Skyler's first 2 years. Mom sought medical power of attorney for both of her parents, which proved to be a very good decision, and is something I no longer hesitate to give her over me. She handled her mother's care with such a grace and compassion as I can only hope to one day give her.

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