A week ago right around this time, I landed in Hartford. Having picked up my rental car, I was cruising up 91-North towards Springfield, trying to find a decent radio station. I knew that I would find my grandfather very ill, and understood that he’d been sleeping much of the time but that when he was awake he was uncharacteristically cranky and confused.
I expected to be helping my grandmother get her breakfast and get out of the house to visit him each day. I imagined we’d be sitting by his side while he slept for hours at a time in the nursing home close to their apartment. After all, that’s what the past week had looked like for the other relatives who’d taken turns visiting. I brought my laptop and a couple of files with me, hoping to write reports while we sat there, or maybe in the evenings when my grandmother went to sleep. I probably said three times to Matt and my Mom, “Thank God no one’s in the hospital this time,” having been through that twice in the last six months with my grandparents, the schlepping across town with the walker in the backseat, the wheelchair at the hospital, the attention to medication and care. It’s a lot to handle, emotionally and physically.
And so I was unprepared when my mother called me, just 15 minutes after leaving the airport, to tell me that my grandfather was being transported to the hospital that afternoon and they were trying to wait for me to pick up my grandmother and bring her over there. My grandmother wanted me to “Step on it”. I drove to pick her up as fast as I could and we got to the nursing home five minutes before the ENTs arrived to transport him. The staff suspected pneumonia and hugged my grandmother with tears in their eyes. We had to follow the ambulance, as simply meeting at the hospital was never acceptable to my grandmother; that was far too much separation from her husband of 65 years.
After 5 pretty awful hours in the ER, my grandfather was transferred late Saturday night to the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit. We visited him in the afternoon on Sunday and again that evening. His breathing was labored and he never seemed to know we were there. Thankfully, the doctor on the unit found us that evening and spoke very seriously to my grandmother, recommending that her husband be switched to “comfort care”, with only morphine being administered. She was not ready for this, despite that fact that at least five family members had discussed it with her in the past week. You see, she has an uncanny ability to deny the existence of death. For someone who is 88 years old and has lost so many family members and friends, you would assume that she understood some basic things about it, but she did not. She claimed never to have heard of morphine, but held very firm beliefs that both morphine and Hospice care actually kill people. It didn’t matter what I explained to the contrary. At one point, she told me that she had always “run from death”, which is entirely accurate.
Although I desperately wanted the hospital to switch him to comfort care immediately, my grandmother struggled that entire night over the decision to stop the interventions at the hospital. She wanted to discuss it with each of her four children before agreeing to it, and intended to do that right away the next morning. But she never had to make the decision. My grandfather passed away suddenly the next morning, his heart finally giving in to the congestive heart failure that plagued him at the end. We made it in record time when the nurse called us, but it was too late. My grandmother thanked my grandfather for taking that difficult decision out of her hands, but was in shock. Although we’d known he was dying for weeks, she hadn’t let herself consider it until just the night before.
We spent a couple hours sitting by his bedside that morning while she came to grips with the fact of his death. My uncles arrived one by one and we waited for morning to come in California so that we could notify my mother and aunt. And within hours we were at a funeral home for a 2-hour meeting, calling a minister to secure a church, and working out who the caterer and florist would be. I had a notebook filled with scribbled notes that only I could’ve read. I kept lists of questions for each professional so that when my grandmother mentioned a concern about anything, I could add it to the right list for our next call with him or her. There was a to do list for each day. We worked and reworked the obituary and four drafts later we had a final copy. The photo for the newspaper was another major project as she had very specific criteria for the perfect picture. She examined each one through a very strong magnifying glass with a flashlight built in and could just barely make it out. We were lucky that everyone she wanted to be involved was available the following Saturday, so we had five days to plan. All of my relatives from California and my cousin from Vienna, Austria had made it by Thursday afternoon. On Friday, Matt and the boys arrived.
I won’t ever say it was easy. My only time alone from the moment I landed was when I had two hours to do errands for my grandmother on Wednesday afternoon, which involved going to Hertz to argue about the extension of my rental car contract, stocking up on food at the grocery store for the weekend, dropping off my grandmother’s “trousers” at the dry cleaner, and picking up her prescriptions at the pharmacy. The phone rang non-stop. Quite often, one of us was on the home phone while the other was on my cell phone. To say that it was intense would be a serious understatement.
But I felt as I did when I was there with my grandfather last fall. It was amazing time for my grandmother and me. We were a team. I knew her routines and was able to take her out to dinner when she didn’t like what was being served in the dining room at her place. I could take the phone off the hook when she napped in her chair and I knew she slept fairly well at night. She stayed quite strong and relatively calm all week. It was a shock to both of our systems when everyone arrived all at once on Thursday; I realized I’d kept things relatively quiet all week, given the situation. We watched the State of the Union together and had long discussions about politics, laughing at Sarah Palin over breakfast. The circumstances were horrible, but it was a special time for us to have. I don’t regret being there when my grandfather passed away, and I will never forget it. The two of us cried hard when I had to leave.
I could never have stayed in Massachusetts all week without the incredible support system I have in Chicago. Matt’s parents stayed with the kids, as Matt happened to have meetings in California last week, and they extended their stay when my grandfather died and I asked to stay all week. Matt came home a day early and somehow combined a full day of work with laundry and packing on Thursday so that he could fly out with the kids on Friday morning. The other parents took over our carpooling for the week, and I received many emails from everyone there offering support and comfort. I was even in touch with the boys’ wonderful teachers via email last week, letting me know that the kids were fine and that Baxter’s teacher would lighten the homework for the week with all that was going on. Matt’s father sent regular texts, letting me know that the kids went off to school smiling or that they went to sleep without a problem even after hearing about the loss of their great-grandfather. My mother-in-law helped hand wash a sweater for me to wear to the funeral and Matt brought it to me. My associate at work took every new referral call and did everything that needed doing right away. It was such a blessing for me to be able to let go of everything going on back home and focus on what needed doing at my grandmother’s house. I was only able to talk to the kids on the phone twice last week, but I knew they were doing fine. Every time someone thanked me for all that I was doing in Massachusetts, I could only think of the large number of people back home who were making it possible, and felt enormously grateful. It felt as if they’d all joined hands to create a web that was holding me up, no matter how far away I was, and this allowed me to support my grandmother and all of my extended family last week.
We should all be so lucky.