Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Five Days Ago Feels Like Forever

When I arrived at the hospital, Grandma was on a morphine drip. When Mom had called two hours earlier, it looked like this was "it" but now Grandma would probably be with us for another day or two, at least in body. The odds of her ever being the Grandma we remember again are too remote for the medical staff to even mention. All those years of smoking and the resultant emphysema have finally caught up with her. It's a testimony to our family's genetics that she has made it to 82.

I have been pretty blessed, thanks to the aforementioned genetics. Not many 40-year-olds can claim three living grandparents (I lost an alcoholic grandfather 22 years ago). All four of my great grandmothers were still alive when I reached my teens, as was one rather ornery great grandfather. Grandpa gave us a scare awhile ago, but he seems to be doing well for 85 although caring for Grandma has challenged him lately.

Now Grandma was asleep, breathing well but not her usual talkative self (a trait Mom and I inherited from her). A ray of hope emerged last weekend when she left intensive care, but now she was back there in worse condition than before. I had planned for a long night at the hospital, but Grandpa was tired and wanted to get dinner and go home. Who could blame him? He's been at her side day after day for hours and hours.

One by one, we said our goodbyes. Her extended hospital stay has helped to steel us all for the inevitable. Just the same, I whispered, "See you later, Grandma." Even though I knew it could be the last time I see her alive, I couldn't bring myself to say goodbye.

The hardest moment was still to come. Grandpa leaned over to kiss Grandma on the forehead and say goodnight, as he always did. I looked away; the moment was too intimate for me to watch. How does a man say goodnight to the love of his life, the woman who has stood beside him for 62 years, knowing that this might be the last?

Marriages like my grandparents' are becoming rarer. Between marrying later and divorcing more frequently, it's unlikely that many of my peers will celebrate 60th anniversaries despite living longer. In 2009 I met a guy who was impressed that I had been married for ten years! If my wife and I make it to 60, we'll be 88 and 90 years old -- not impossible but somewhat improbable age-wise.

Grandpa quit smoking before I can remember. He tried for years to get Grandma to quit, but she was too stubborn. He would say, "I can't believe you're going to give up years of your life, years you could be with me, for those cigarettes." Even when her mother died of lung cancer, that didn't deter Grandma from smoking. Only when she wound up in the hospital nine years ago with pneumonia and emphysema did she finally stop. If she hadn't quit, she would have died.

I never realized how strong a hold the cigarettes had on her until one day a few years ago. She said something about when she quit smoking, and I said she really didn't have a choice. "Oh, I had a choice!" she retorted. Even when the doctors told her to quit or die, the decision didn't come easily.

Postscript: I wrote the above last Thursday, which was indeed the last time I saw Grandma alive. It felt too personal to share here, and it probably is, but Grandma never restrained herself so why should I? She died on Sunday morning, and the past few days have been a blur. Grandpa wanted to "get it over with" and pushed for a quick burial. Although I threatened to attend in my underpants (my new dress pants weren't supposed to be ready until Wednesday), the wake was Tuesday afternoon and the funeral will be Wednesday morning. Special thanks to Jos. A. Bank in Schaumburg for rushing everything so I wouldn't be standing before Grandma in my skivvies -- it's been many years since Grandma saw that much of me, and it wouldn't seem nearly as cute now as it did then. I've also been asked to write and deliver a eulogy, which I may post later.

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