A note about the days referenced in this post: I started writing this last year. It took me 8 months to put down my final thoughts, but these things often come in their own time. The events take place in October 2014.
This piece describes my experience of witnessing my grandmother's death.
Last Friday I sat at my computer, trying to compose a Facebook status update. I’d type a few words, maybe a sentence, then pause. Hit backspace, start over. Type. Pause. Backspace. Start over. Over and over. I finally typed: “I don’t quite know what to say.” Not eloquent, but it was truthful. “Long day,” I added. That was truthful, too.
The two days following that Friday night felt like the longest game of jenga ever. Wooden blocks and seconds stacked up high until I looked up at that precarious, wobbling tower and realized the experience had been wearying, amazing, and sad.
My grandmother died today.
Some people are so ill for so long that we don’t quite remember what they were like when they weren’t dying. Other folks go quick; alert and active one day, gone four days later.
The latter happened to my grandmother. The swiftness of her death is surreal because of the conflicting memories that fire blanks inside my head. I saw her Wednesday. I ate at her table, she asked me what kind of chips I had to go with my sandwich. She was always asking people questions about their food. Sunday, I witnessed her death.
The suddenness was astonishing, yes, but the people who rallied and gathered in those final days are extraordinary. Roughly 15 family members came together, driving or flying to meet at the hospital. By Saturday night, all of us there understood that Clarice was not going to survive without assistance from machines. By Sunday, the official decision was made to take her off those machines.
I arrived at the hospital on Sunday shortly before 3 o’clock, just in time to join the family circle around Grandma’s hospital bed. We prayed, we were silent, we sang, we cried, and we giggled. This was our vigil; we were committed to sticking it out until she died. A couple people wouldn’t make it to the very end, and while I never spoke to them to ask why, I suspect I understand. Death can be a violent end or a fading whisper, but either way it’s an intense moment to witness.
Any time we were in her hospital room we had to wear these incredibly fashionable (and uncomfortable) blue plastic gowns and purple non-latex gloves. It didn’t take long for my entire torso to start swimming in its own sweat; I left the room more than once to peel and pry the plastic from my arms to let my skin breathe. But despite the small discomforts, I don’t think any of us complained; at least, not loudly. When you’re holding vigil you just… know to hold the space. That’s all that’s really important. In the moment and in retrospect, I think there’s a certain joy in that reverence.
I watched her breathing slow, become labored. Hours later, after watching, waiting, it finally dipped and rose erratically like an exhausted bird over still waters. It wouldn’t be long before she finally dropped into the sea.
Even so, we were all astounded by how long her heart kept beating in a normal “living” range. Bump. Bump. Bump. Bump. Bump. Her bionic heart was so steady that the nurses were able to move her to a step-down unit a few floors up. By then, her deepest breaths came in rattling, gasping bursts; sometimes she growled like a slumbering lion after several seconds of silent tiny breaths. We wondered just how much longer her heart would last. I watched her pulse on the monitor as it slowly dropped point by point. It’s odd to watch someone’s life trickle away by numbers on a screen; each second is documented like an old school video game you just sit and stare at, waiting for the bumps in the line to stop.
Once we settled into the new room, the hospital staff brought us ice water and graham crackers which we ate and drank gratefully. Most of us were camped out on the floor while others took advantage of the few chairs and bench space available. We took turns playing music on our phones; the Beatles came first. Here Comes the Sun, Blackbird. By this time, Grandma’s big, growling breaths only came once every twenty or thirty seconds, a leaky wind instrument punctuating John Denver’s “I Am the Eagle.” I sat in view of the monitor, still watching her declining heart rate while I munched on crackers and sang quietly with the family. We all agreed: the only things missing were marshmallows and chocolate bars.
Sprinkled between songs, silence, and nurse visits were bouts of giggling and unconstrained laughter. Her heart slowed further, pushing through time like a persistent but weary drummer. The tune is almost over, but there’s still more ending to finish. Once her heart rate dipped below 60, we all stood, gathering around the bed. We waited and we watched. Rather than several seconds, a minute would go by between her gasping breaths. Her pulse lowered to mid-30s. Then back to 56. Then back down again. Is she still breathing? She seems so quiet.
Suddenly, she snort-growled again, startling us so badly we started laughing. Tension broken, that’s when the Young Frankenstein quotes began to circulate. One after the other, we dramatized lines from one of my grandmother’s favorite movies. I think we all have our own memories of seeing that movie for the first time; I’m almost positive mine was at her old house on Wanda Road. Put. Ze Candle. Back.
Uproarious laughter. That amazing laughter carried as we continued standing in a circle around her bed. That was our vigil and I’m still certain that’s exactly how she would have wanted her final moments to be honored. We were laughing as her heartbeat flat-lined. We were smiling when she died.
I can’t speak for anyone else’s experience, but the first time watching someone die was, for me, both humbling and awe inspiring. Certainly, it’s surreal watching the machines and inner workings of the body fail, watching the essence of a person fade until a grey-skinned, slack-jawed shell remains. I couldn’t take my eyes away from her and it wasn’t just because of sadness. People die every second of every day, but this was her death. It was important, just like being born, graduating from college, whatever milestone you might celebrate. This was one of those milestones and the fact that we were all able to be there to witness it? That’s extremely humbling.
I felt stunned by how beautiful it was. In the most new agey way possible I was struck by the most intense feeling of awe and grace. It’s like watching a campfire after the sun has long since set and you’ve already made all your s’mores. The embers are growing dimmer and dimmer and you know at some point they’ll flicker and fade out completely. Your skin prickles with goosebumps as the cool air nips at your arms. You can’t turn your eyes away because it’s mesmerizing and beautiful how the light ripples just beneath the surface of what used to be whole twigs and logs. You hear the owls, crickets, and frogs chorus around you, accompanied by an occasional murmur from the people beside you. Time feels insignificant and while you’re aware of the world, your focus is still on that fire. You don’t want to miss its last flicker. The moment the fire is completely extinguished is the moment the vigil ends; you look up at the faces around you and see tired, old eyes. There isn’t much to say, but hugs are shared and a final round of a camp song is sung. The notes ring true and clear in the night before you turn and leave the fire pit. The world is quiet, the earth is still, and above you, the stars seem extraordinarily bright.