On the 19th, my mother called to tell me my grandmother had died. Over the last 3 years, my grandmother had had a heart attack. She had survived and underwent a triple bypass surgery. Thankfully, she recovered. In recent months, she was diagnosed with cancer. She had survived hair loss and chemotherapy. Her cancer was in remission. Things were looking good. Then early last month, my grandmother was on the phone with her sister when she had a stroke. I thank God for that. Judi called my grandfather and response was immediate.
Upon reaching the hospital, she was in good spirits, responsive but unable to talk. Some days later, they decided to make her more comfortable. By moving her feeding tube from her nose, directly into her belly she would gain mobility. This small act of kindness proved to be a turning point in her story. The tube began to leak. Her stomach was filled up with food particulate and it caused her great deal of pain. She began to swell. To prevent further injury to her brain, the team placed her into a medically induced coma. This is the first time I thought I may actually lose her.
Typically, the women in our family live to see their 90’s. I had watched my great grandmother nearly die on several occasions but modern medicine was always able to revive her. I had total faith that my grandmother would come out of this unscathed. I sat at my computer contemplating the circumstances. Should I fly out? What if I go and she’s fine? What if I go and next month she’s gone? We could not afford two trips. Then, my stepmother asked me this question “Would you rather be there for her in life or death?” I knew the answer to that one. Life. It was always life. Within 12 hours of that decision, I was boarding my plane.
Early the next morning, we were on the road to Baltimore. I was utterly shocked when I saw her. She hardly looked like herself but I was not hesitant to take her hand. The pain medications were very strong. She fought earnestly to keep her eyes open. My grandmother continued communicating by thoughtful hand squeezes. She was in there. I knew it. I left her a Mother’s Day card and few gifts just in case.
A few weeks later, the excess fluids were drained. They began to mobilize her. There was even talk of rehabilitation. Weening her off of the respirator would prove tricky. It could be weeks before she was moved. My grandfather grew increasingly agitated that her nurses were no longer speaking to her directly. Then came the stark realization that my grandmother could no longer recognize speech. They claimed she currently held the intelligence level of a small child. She made it known that the respirator and feeding tube were causing her a great deal of pain. Later we would receive news that her cancer had taken over an entire lung. In her present state, she would not survive treatment and was given 5-6 months to live.
I remember watching the Terri Schaivo case back in 2005. This woman had gone into cardiac arrest in 1990 and for 8 years she lived in a vegetative state before her husband finally petitioned the courts for her right to die. In 2005, that right was granted. 15 years. 15 years. My grandmother was adamant this would not be the case for her. She would not be kept alive on a tube. I’m certain she told every one of us.
Yet, that was exactly what was happening. My grandmother would not survive if the doctors shut off the ventilator. Part of me wondered if God would step in and make her breath just despite them. Was it possible? Most likely not. On Tuesday, my family chose to honor her wishes. They turned off the ventilator and let her pass. She showed no awareness of the circumstances. It was peace. It was just. It was kind.
Over the next 7 days, my family will gather in her honor. Pictures and stories and meals will be shared. As I said before, I chose life. I will not be present. Instead, I will tell my children about their GiGi. They will know how much she truly loved this family. They will know of her profound love of puzzles, Christmas and the Olive Garden. I will continue to correct their grammar and race to the dictionary with her in mind. Together, we will pray and release balloons. Though we may not all be at that funeral home, I hope my grandmother knows just how much we love her.