A little over a week ago, as my family and I were preparing to head to Kentucky for the holidays, I received word that my grandmother was not feeling well. I had just spoken with her on her birthday, December 15, and she was in good spirits despite her just having returned from two weeks in the hospital. At 88, she had experienced complications of congestive heart failure.
Christmas Day, as we were celebrating with my in-laws, word came that my grandmother, “Mammaw” as we called her, was hospitalized again. It did not sound overly serious to anyone, so my mother told me not to worry about it and to just stop by the hospital on our way into town. It was like a less severe repeat of what she had experienced at the end of November.
Right after I learned of this news, the hospital staff administered hydromorphone. Mammaw went to sleep and never woke. She was not yet in severe pain so I question the necessity of the timing of that decision. It’s pointless though, because I cannot change the overall outcome. The doctors had said that her body was simply shutting down and there was nothing left to do but make her feel comfortable and pain-free. That raises another question for another time: What is pain-free?
My family and I saw her asleep on her death bed. She labored to breathe every 30 seconds or so and you could visibly see her carotid artery pulsing with vigor, diverting lifeblood away from vital organs in order to preserve the brain. The pulse was highly irregular, and her vitals included blood pressure readings so low I didn’t understand how she could still function. This was 36 hours after she had done her last load of laundry, swept the floors and made my grandfather his breakfast. I stood awestruck at biology, and how despite evidence that science can explain everything, some form of higher intelligence was at work. In that moment I realized her body was shutting down right before us, yet life itself was doing its best to hang on to the failing structure. Life, consciousness as we know it, was preparing its next move, whether that be finding a route to another plane or simply halting altogether. In the blink of an eye, mundane tasks become the last things a person does.
When you hear about an anonymous elderly person passing away of natural causes, It’s easy for the general population to feel comfortable in some way. At least the person is not suffering any longer. That person is much older than I, there’s a long time before I’ll face that for my life. They had a good, long run. Sometimes we know the fast pace of our modern lifestyles would conflict greatly with the reduced pace of the elderly, so we plan very short visits or none at all. Meanwhile, nursing homes are filled with scores of lonely people desperately wishing for the connection between their world that time forgot, and The Now that doesn’t want them. They need to feel significant, like they mattered, and that their lives DID happen. This is not a surreal veil pulled over their eyes.
For your own family, you eventually get to the point where you think, “I should talk to them more; they’re not going to be around forever,” thinking with arbitrary abandon that you’ll have another time to visit, to share a meal or a holiday celebration. I took that attitude on December 15 when Mammaw turned 88. I was at work and should have been finishing my lesson plans. I ended the short, five-minute conversation with, “We’ll see you on December 26th.” Well, we saw her. She didn’t see us. I think her soul was already gone.
You’ve heard it preached before, so you know it’s true. Stop what you’re doing and reach out to a loved one. Take that inconvenient weekend trip, make one of your clients wait so you can place a phone call, and maybe cancel some after school stuff for an evening so you can focus on someone who may not be here tomorrow. Make it a person you rarely see, or each week, contact a different friend or relative. The truth is, none of us are guaranteed the next breath. You have no true idea if you’ll ever have a tomorrow.
Your inconvenient moment could be the most uplifting thing your loved one experiences between now and the end of their life.
For Mammaw, she gets to be one of those people who can have the following dates inscribed on her tombstone:
Goldie Phelps. December 15, 1927 – December 27, 2015
That’s 12/15/27 – 12/27/15
I’m no numerologist, but those are intriguing to me.
The minister said she’s celebrating in heaven today. I want that to be true like anyone else, but death makes it difficult on the living.
Please, make the most of NOW in 2016