The weather is very turbulent today in Northern Minnesota and I have to admit it matches my spirit. I try to make my blog a place of comfort and positivity but today I am very low on cheer. This month has been very rough to say the least. My grandmother was diagnosed with a terminal illness on a Monday and she died that Saturday in my home.
Now, I am so sad I can barely breathe. I haven’t cried much about it and I think that’s because in a lot of ways I’m very similar to her. She was not the type to shower any one with affection and in the thirty years I spent with her I never saw her cry; not once. There are times when I forget that she’s gone and I feel almost normal but then something will trigger my memory and I’m reminded of her final days and how hard it was for her.
The last few months of her life she wouldn’t eat or drink unless she was forced. She wouldn’t take her medication if she was left to do it on her own. None of us could get her out of the house anymore and she could barely walk to the toilet let alone do anything for herself. Since she had had several doctors appointments and they found nothing wrong with her I became angry and frustrated with her. I was mad at her for giving up when there was nothing wrong with her physically; I was blaming it on depression. She would say things like “I’m 89; I’m too old for physical therapy.” “Just take me to the river and drown me.” “Why won’t they just leave me in peace to die?” “I have an infection that’s eating me from the inside out.”
She had been right. After my mother, my brother and I found her in her bathroom covered in diarrhea I cleaned her up the best she would allow. She had a huge bruise and cut on her eye suggesting she had fallen at some point but when I asked what had happened she had no recollection of ever falling. She had no idea what time it was, what day it was, or the year and she couldn’t even tell me my name. My mother and I tried to help her to the couch and she collapsed in our arms. At that point I called the paramedics and she was hospitalized.
She was extremely dehydrated and malnourished. She had a severe bladder infection and her kidneys were almost non-functioning. Her blood pressure was shockingly low and she was complaining of pain in her hip. After several days in the hospital she was eating and drinking regularly, the antibiotics had kicked in and she was carrying on conversations but her pain never subsided. Her doctor then ordered a CT scan to see what was causing the pain in her hip. He was expecting to find arthritis or bone spurs but what he found was shocking.
Adversity seems to find us when we are least prepared for it. Hospitalizing my grandma was scary and before I knew better while I was sitting at her bedside in the hospital she told me how tired she was and that she was ready to die. I said “but grandma it’s not time, I would miss you too much” and she looked up at me and said “I know you will.” That memory haunts me. She was so brave and giving me comfort when I was the one who should have been comforting her. I partially blame myself, because I did not advocate for her pain when it was my responsibility to do so.
When the doctor came back in the room I thought he would find something that could be treated or managed with medication but instead he told us that he found a tumor in her chest cavity that had wrapped itself around her spine, her nerves, her aorta, one of her kidneys was in atrophy and the other functioning kidney had been displaced by the tumor. The tumor itself was malignant and had already started to rot within itself; essentially eating her from the inside out. I looked over at her, so small and frail in her hospital bed and she was looking back at me with a smug smile on her face; she had known all along and I had been wrong.
When my two aunts and my mother left the room to make phone calls and inform others I was left alone with grandma I moved my chair closer to her and she asked me “as my health care agent what are you going to do with me.” And I asked her “what would you like to do?”
“I’m done.” She said. She was diagnosed with cancer on a Monday and we made the decision to forego treatment. She was moved to the nursing home Tuesday morning. As I wheeled her into her room I was appalled at the conditions of that place. She said “This place is disgusting.” And I started laughing “it’s not funny!” she said and I said “Grandma, if I don’t laugh I will cry.” Her eyes started to tear up and she said “I don’t have any tears left to cry!”
Throughout the day various people came in to poke at her, they pulled her from her bed and tried to force her to do physical therapy. When I asked why, they said her insurance would only pay for her room and board if she were making strides to improve her condition. “She isn’t going to get any better, she is dying of cancer!” I was absolutely outraged.
At that point I made the decision to contact Hospice and have her moved to my home where I would take care of her myself. No more poking or prodding, no more tests, no more physical therapy. Just rest. After making numerous phone calls all day Wednesday I went to the nursing home after work to tell her the good news but she had already fallen asleep.
When I arrived Thursday morning she greeted me with a smile. I told her that I had arranged for her to be discharged from the nursing home on Friday morning and that she would spend her final days at home with the family. “I suppose I don’t have a choice.” She said. “You have two choices, you can stay here or you can come with me.” I informed her. “I want to go with you.” she said as she smiled. The remainder of the day my aunt and I sat with her and she was in good spirits and at dinner time she even ate most of her meal.
When my mother and I arrived at the nursing home on Friday morning to pick her up her condition had worsened so drastically. She was in so much pain and she was barely responsive. I told her she needed to hang on until I got her home. She said nothing during the car ride and by the time we pulled into the driveway her eyes had begun to glass over and I couldn’t find her pulse.
Between my father, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, the Hospice nurse and myself we got her into the house. The Hospice nurse pulled me aside and told me that my grandmother was “actively dying” She gave me all kinds of medication to help manage her pain as well as instructions on how to administer it. We began making phone calls to the out of town relatives informing them that it wouldn’t be long and if they wanted to see her, now was the time to do it.
My grandma laid still for quite a while before she woke up screaming “How did I get here?! My skin is burning, I feel like I’m burning, how did I get here?!” She did not know who any of us were and she did not even know herself. Needless to say that freaked us out just a tad so I gave her the first dose of morphine to help with any pain and to hopefully calm her down.
Once she settled down and began to recognize us, my aunt told my grandma that there were people coming to visit her. She fell asleep for a short while but by 6:00pm people began arriving at the house to see grandma and say their goodbyes. She rallied and talked with each one of them. When the last group arrived to sit and talk with her for a while I gave her another dose of morphine. “Here comes my nurse” she’d say with a smile every time I came in the room. “That tastes terrible.” She’d say after every dose I gave her, I’d then give her a sponge-full of water and she’d say “tastes good” and those were her last words to me.
She fell asleep shortly after. The rest of the family followed suit. One by one they all wandered off to bed and the house was full of slumber. My two cousins agreed to stay awake with me to help watch grandma but eventually they both fell asleep and as I listened to the three of them breathing in sweet un-interrupted unison I slowly started to drift off too. But then something changed.
At about 3:30am Grandma’s breathing altered. It became more labored and I was unable to wake her. I woke up my mother and we made the decision to call back the few people who had left. The early morning turned into a series of “false alarms” each time her breathing would change again. The room would fill up with people and when nothing significant would happen others would slowly drift out.
I was exhausted I had been awake all night and I was sitting next to her bed resting my head on one arm with my other hand on her chest. I was falling asleep again when her heart began to beat very rapidly, it then slowed and stopped. I lifted my head to look up at her and watched as life slipped away. She died at 10:45am on Saturday, September 26, 2015 and for the first time during all of it I began to cry. I felt a wave of relief that her suffering had ended and then a wave of guilt for feeling relieved and then pure grief because my grandmother had died.
Others had come back in the room when they heard her stop breathing; they were sobbing and shouting through their grief. I could not take it; I got up from her bedside and tried desperately to stumble out of the room, only to be stopped by the comforting arms of my mother. I sobbed into her shoulder and her grip tightened around me.
The rest of the day was a total and complete blur. I bounced from one set of arms to the next never fully knowing who I was hugging. After helping with funeral arrangements I slept. When I woke up I went about my life as usual. I met a friend for drinks that Sunday to celebrate his birthday and I avoided talking about my grandmother completely.
I’m not the type of person to cry easily and I somehow managed to keep dry eyes throughout my grandmother’s entire funeral. But I’m not made of stone and that evening at my parent’s house we watched the video made by the funeral home. A picture of my grandmother holding me as an infant appeared and I could no longer hold it in.
I had spent every Thursday with my grandma while she was alive and now that she is gone I feel somewhat lost and my heart is broken. The storm must rage on for a while and I know it will get easier as time passes but for right now the pain is so incredibly real.