Thursday, April 4, 2013

Witnessing death

I’ve mentioned my Grandma Betty a few times on this blog. I told you all about the games we used to play and how she was my rock during my parents’ separation. I’ve told you some of the funny things she used to say, like “I wouldn’t take a million dollars for ya, but I wouldn’t pay a dime for another one just like ya either.” And I told you that she passed away when I was a teenager.

But I haven’t told you how she died, or that I was there, or how something inside you changes when you witness a death.

I can’t believe it’s been nineteen years. I remember few things as vividly as that moment.

We discovered she had cancer after she collapsed in her apartment and was rushed to the hospital on Valentine’s Day, 1994. We visited her almost every day for six weeks.

I’m not sure if it was the illness or the medication that made her fade in and out of reality, but some of our conversations scared me. She had been watching the old Patrick Swayze mini-series, North and South, from her hospital bed, and she was convinced that the South had taken me hostage. She claimed to have heard the doctors and nurses talking about it. Tears welled up in her eyes when she saw me. I hid my own tears and assured her I was safe while she hugged me as tight as she could. That was the first time it occurred to me that she might not leave the hospital.

After weeks of doing everything they could, the doctors decided to perform surgery to see how much of the cancer they could remove. Her prognosis was grim and the surgery was risky, but they said surgery might buy her just a little more time.

But once they got started, the doctors realized the cancer had already spread to her vital organs. So they closed her back up and told us she probably wouldn’t wake up from the anesthetic.

So the phone calls started, letting everyone know that it was time. The entire family gathered, knowing there was nothing they could do except sit and wait for my grandmother to die.

I know there were other family members in her room at the time, including my mother, but I can’t remember who else was there. They huddled together and talked in hushed, choked voices. I steered clear of the hugs and hand patting.

I looked down at the extension cord that snaked across the floor under long strips of black tape and wondered if it was a good idea for that cord to be there. It was attached to so many big, important-looking machines. “What if someone steps on this?” I thought. “What if the machine stops working?” I then realized that the machines were merely monitoring her vitals and delivering her meds, not keeping her alive, but I still stepped over the cord with caution and superstition as though it were a sidewalk crack.

Just as my heel came down carefully on the other side of the cord, the steady blip of her heart monitor suddenly changed into a high-pitched squeal. The room gasped and snapped to attention. Someone screamed for a nurse.

“My foot must have touched the cord! I killed her!” thought my fifteen year old, grief-stricken brain, and I fled from the room.

I ran down the hall to the tiny waiting room where the rest of the family sat and talked in another set of hushed voices. I stopped abruptly in the doorway. “Look, it’s Missy,” someone said, and they all looked up at me expectantly. That’s when I realized they didn’t know. I’m not sure why I thought they would. I guess I assumed they could somehow sense her dying.

I didn’t want to be the messenger, so when someone asked me what was wrong, I just murmured, “She’s not going to make it,” as though that was new information. Someone reached out to comfort me, but the sudden need to be there made me turn and rush back to my grandmother’s room.

I seemed to have been gone forever, but there had actually been less than a minute between my flight and my return.

From the doorway, I saw everyone crowded around Grandma’s bed. They spoke of their love for her and rubbed her hands and feet. My mother saw me, and with tears running down her face, gestured for me to come closer. As I approached the bed, I saw my grandma’s eyes were open, and for just a split second she was really there. She saw me. I tried to whisper “I love you,” but I’m not sure the words actually came out.

Then her eyes closed. Her jaw went slack. And the world fell apart.