Gran Is Gone
Yesterday I sat by Gran's bedside with one hand atop her chest and the other in her near-limp right hand. I could feel her chest rattle and wheeze as she labored to take each breath, alternating between shallow, sharp, and smooth exhalations. As I stared at the purplish tinge her hands had started acquiring and the cold, white pallor her forehead assumed, I knew she didn't have long. No longer able to receive sufficient oxygen from merely her nostrils, she'd started breathing primarily through her mouth, which caused it to dry. Mouth agape, Gran was positioned in such a way that the deterioration of her tongue was painfully visible. It had the texture of pinkish-gray concrete after a brief rain.
On Saturday I'd come down with a severe cold, which included a nasty sore throat and extreme nasal congestion. With my own oxygen supply severely restricted, I found it more exhausting sitting with Gran each day. My physical fatigue started approaching the emotional and mental suffocation I've felt since Mom died. Because of my nightly insomnia and this recent health-decline, I took an over-the-counter sleep aid last night. Sophie had driven home, and as we both drifted towards our pill-induced slumbers, she asked if I would turn out the lamp in the room where we were staying. I told her that I felt foolish but that I'd like to keep it on because I had a strong feeling that Gran's spirit might visit me. Sophie thought I was being stupid. But, I had a feeling that Gran didn't have long. And I did end up dreaming of Gran and Mom last night. Who knows... In this dream sequence I also had an Angels in America kind of angel vision, complete with a Prior Walter kind of orgasm. I can't complain there.
This morning Sophie jumped in the shower first. As I waited for her to finish, Dad called to say that the hospice nurse had been in to see Gran and had told him that she didn't have long at all. In fact, she'd said that Gran was dying. I yelled to Sophie to hurry. I brushed my teeth, threw on a mismatched outfit, and headed out the door, with Sophie following close behind. We drove there separately since she thought she would end up working later in the day.
I drove to the nursing home at 85 mph. The highway was traffic-free, so I had no problem reaching the place quickly. Two minutes before I arrived there, I had a feeling that Gran had died. I didn't know how. I just knew. And as I rushed to her room, finding the door closed, my suspicions were confirmed. When a nursing room door is closed, they're usually hiding something distressing from the other residents. And they did keep Gran hidden from as many of them as possible, perhaps to save them from the painful realization that they, too, were all destined for Gran's fate.
I opened the door and saw Aunt Jenna bawling, sobbing so hysterically that she was almost hyperventilating. I hugged her and firmly held her. There are no words that you can say to comfort a person who is grieving, in shock that his or her world is now completely foreign to them. So I just held her. Dad cried, too, and I didn't know what to say to him either. I approached Gran's body and saw that her eyes were slightly open, so I closed them.
Then I stared long and hard at Gran's dead face, which looked nothing like her at all. Once again I felt alienated from the body of a person who I loved. It is odd how a human being can be reduced to a pure material body when they're dead. The body is merely a vessel that carries the precious cargo of the soul. Without that divine spark that animates us, we're just strange shells. I half wanted to laugh at the absurdity of the scene. After 75 years, this is how it ended.
I called family and friends to tell them of Gran's death and everyone else did the same. Sophie and I drove to Scarlett's work to deliver the news. Scarlett works as a cashier at a local grocery store. Sophie and I had found her manager and told her we needed to speak with her. At first she'd eyed us suspiciously and told us that she couldn't tell us where Scarlett was working due to privacy concerns. But when I told her that we were Scarlett's sisters and that we needed to tell Scarlett that her grandmother had just died and take her to view the body, she changed her tune. When Scarlett first saw us, she was beaming, having had a pleasant day, temporarily forgetting the nightmare that our lives had become. The instant her manager told us that we needed to speak with her, her smile dropped. We told her Gran had died and drove her to the nursing home, where she was able to say her goodbyes.
About an hour after we had returned to the nursing home, while we were waiting for the funeral home to pick up Gran's body, Sophie, Scarlett, me, and a great-aunt of ours had examined Gran's dead body, noting the yellowish white purple pallor of her fingers and the reddish purple of her heels. I tried closing Gran's mouth, but gravity fought against me, and her jaw kept slowly dropping open despite efforts. Gran's fingers moved limply against mine, no life left in them. Her face was blanched. I kissed her forehead and could smell the staleness of the oil that came from her hair, a smell that anyone gets when they haven't had a proper shower in a day or two. What I remember most about Gran's forehead is the way it felt cold. It was unnaturally frigid for a person. But that's death: unnatural naturalness/natural unnaturalness.
It wasn't long before the funeral home arrived. Sophie, Scarlett, and I watched as the hospice nurse, Dad, and the funeral director hoisted Gran onto a stretcher. After the funeral director strapped her into it and raised it so that he could roll it down the hall, he and Dad covered Gran with a cheap, red cloth that bore the name of the funeral home. The nurse walked ahead of the funeral director as he wheeled Gran down the hall. She closed doors to residents' rooms, trying to shelter them from the harsh reality that many of them would soon face. But she couldn't hide Gran's red cloth-covered body from the residents who sat eating in the dining area. As we walked past them with our tear-stained faces of grief, I watched several of them look up. The awareness that their own deaths were approaching and could arrive at any moment seemed to strike many of them. You could see it in their eyes.
The funeral director wheeled Gran outside to his funereal minivan. These days hearses are made to look inconspicuous. I couldn't believe it, but I could. Instead of a traditional, unmistakable hearse, the vehicle looked like a van you might see a bunch of kids hopping out of to attend a soccer game. Our society is so anxious about death, and we often do everything that we can to keep it out of our consciousness. Hair color, anti-aging cremes, euphemisms, minivan-looking hearses, controlled displays of grief--you name it.
No matter how ugly Death can seem, I think it's beautiful in all its ugliness. It's raw. It's real. And we're all destined for it. Let's stop pretending we're not.
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