Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Seventeen years ago yesterday, on a pre-dawn Monday morning, Beve's mother, whom I (along with the grandchildren) called Grammie, sucked in one large gasp of air, let it out and never breathed another.  Beve and I had had the post-midnight watch with her lying in a hospital bed in the family room in their cedar-shake clad house facing the Olympic Mountains.  We'd all gathered over that weekend--her children, in-law children, grandchildren, best friend, eating lots of food prepared in her kitchen, wandering over to give her sips of water, try to make sense of her garbled words, simply to breathe with her in the midst of a family gathering she would have loved.

We'd brought her home a week earlier from a long stay in the hospital, the seats removed from our van with a makeshift bed for her on the floor.  We all knew we were bringing her home to die, though we hoped for months, rather than one short week, in which to enjoy her company.  As we traveled across the Sound on a ferry, Beve's sister, Glo (fortunately, a nurse), stood outside the van's open slider, filling a syringe with morphine.  SK, who was 3, and I sat on the bottom step, so SK could eat her MacDonalds' Happy Meal.  I watched Glo  and watched the people in the car behind her, also staring as she held the syringe high to knock any air pockets from it.  It made me chuckle to imagine what they might have thought was going on behind the smoked windows of our van.

But then, I have to admit, plenty of things made us all chuckle that week, as we watched Grammie grow weaker and weaker. Call it deathbed humor...or maybe it was just our sleep-deprived, worry- filled way of dealing with what we could hardly bear to think of. There was the moment at the dinner table, when Glo said she liked her mother's salt and pepper shakers.  "Want them?" I asked, without missing a beat.  We both laughed until tears were streaming down our faces.  And, though Grammie went to sleep Friday night still speaking in complete, clear sentences, when she awoke Saturday morning, her language was garbled and impossible to understand.  So one of Beve's brothers helpfully made signs for her. "Water" read one, and "Hot/Cold" read another.  B would lean over her, speak in a loud voice (as if her inability to speak meant she had also become hard of hearing), telling her to point to the sign. Across the room, Beve whispered to Glo and me," She really wants a sign that says, 'Put down the damn signs.'"

That same afternoon, a woman showed up with a honey-soaked, spiral ham, one that Grammie had ordered probably a month earlier.  We ate that ham the same day she was taken away in a hearse. We got quite a chuckle out of that as well: only Grammie would have had the foresight, and domestic prowess to plan the menu, order the meat, for her death.  That was her, always entertaining, always, always taking care of others around her, with perfect verve and panache.

When she died that early Monday morning, just 12 hours after her last son had made it home from Finland to say goodbye, she was surrounded by her family.  Strangely--yet, as God does these things!--Glo, Grampie (her husband of 43 years), and her best friend had all gotten up to join Beve and me in our bedside vigil.  We were all standing there as Glo said, "I think this is it!" so we got to watch that amazingly natural process that we're all afraid to face.  "Thank you," I whispered as the silence filled the space where her breathing had been.  "Thank-you," I said a little louder, as we joined hands to surround her bed. "Thank you, God," I said, in an instinct as deep and true as any I've ever had.  And it wasn't just thanks that she had stopped suffering, though she had.  It was more visceral than that.  When I try to decipher it now, I think it was a thanks for all of it--for the completion of a life, for having known her, and--maybe especially--for being present at such a sacred moment.

And now when I think of her, I feel a huge sense of loss--less for me than for my children, especially my daughters.  She adored E, dressed her in frilly clothes when she was tiny, created lovely tea parties for her when she was a toddler, taught her to sew as she grew a little bigger.  Paid for her to take ballet lessons.  But E wasn't really the kind of little girl who was inclined to any of these things.  SK was.  But by the time SK was of an age to take ballet, Grammie had already died.  And though I created many--countless!!!--dresses for SK, Grammie was sick before SK was 2.  She didn't live long enough to watch SK to demand that she wear a dress, even for digging clams or playing outside in the mud.  Grammie missed all of SK's tea party birthdays.

And when I see my lovely daughters look at shoes, sigh over jewelry, talk about hairstyles and dresses (SK loves the same kind of enormous rings Grammie always wore!), I think of how their Grammie would have loved them, how she would have shopped for them all year long, found treasures meant only for, exactly for them.  She would have gotten these girls of mine, would have completely, utterly gotten them, in a way that I, with my more easy-going, make-up-less, comfort-first, style can only shake my head over.  They are Grammie's girls, these daughters, even though Grammie didn't live to know it.

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