Home. That place of childhood comforts and first real kisses. And later, goodbye kisses and the refuge between the two.
The last time I was home was for a funeral. I knelt by my nana’s bedside and whispered my thank you’s then kissed her face and walked to my bed 10 feet away – a hospital bed she never used. She didn’t need the railings, she had us to support her.
In the fall, my parents made a bedroom for my grandparents out of our study. A room I remember writing papers in for high school. Being up all night. Clicking my way through the dark.
While home for Christmas I visited that room. Not a study. And not really a bedroom anymore. A part-time room at best. I sat on her bed. Her pink bathrobe still hung in the adjacent bathroom. Her medicine bag rested on one of the shelves. The commode was gone. I would sit on her side of the bed and think about what I wanted to say to her, but found nothing would come out.
December 26th was her birthday. She would have been 83. I spent the evening listening to recordings I made of her last conversations. They make me laugh and help me remember her. They help me remember more than just her last weeks. Weeks when my grampa sat with her in the dark and the light. When he would read the paper and sometimes nothing at all.
I remember how he checked on her as she slept. How he needed a job other than waiting for her to wake. So I made him peel apples – 7 lbs of them. And I made him help me bake pies. And crisps. Later, we did a hack job moving Nana in bed. She was lopsided on the pillows but said she was fine. At 28, I was still waiting for my mom to come back in the room to clean up my messes.
I remember watching my father give my mom and Aunt Dot a lesson on how to use a suction machine for when her coughing worsened. It was big and the tubes long and wide. I was afraid I would have to help use it. And then I felt bad for even thinking that.
In the midst of doing dishes one afternoon Nana rang her bell. I quickly dried my hands and headed to her room, but my mom beat me. She crawled in bed beside her mother and I overheard Nana say, “I didn’t want to be alone.” I turned around so I didn’t interrupt, I turned around so I could swallow.
During those weeks, I began noticing how my mom and I cry exactly the same way. How pretty my Nana looked. And how tired. “Quality of life” became a phrase all too familiar. Then “comfort measures.” Morphine was added to my vocabulary. I was not ready to add others.
In the world of my parents’ house, I didn’t watch the news, read newspapers, and only left to walk the dog. I emailed work. Then returned to the kitchen to cook the meals, ordering only fresh ingredients. Thinking it would help. But she still lost weight. She slept all the time. Eventually there was nothing left to do but wear her out with love. Spend her last days laughing and playing cards into the night even though it made her tired.
Because we didn’t want her laying in the dark to salvage another two months. That is not a life. A life is everybody in her bed eating and watching the Red Sox. It is making the best pie you can and holding your mom’s hand when you see her chin quiver, and laughing when your nana rings her bell and you come running and she says, “I just wanted to make sure you didn’t go and die on me.”
I remember watching grampa retreat to a quiet place. That is to be expected of someone watching their companion of 62 years start to leave him behind. There was nothing he could do except sit by her as she slept and be there for the few moments she was awake. Maybe that is love. Swallowing your needs for someone else.
The process taught me a lot about family and love and dying and all the life you have in between. It was a circle coming to completion. Daughters caring for the woman who gave them life. During coughing spells Nana would go to a place none of us could reach. She closed her eyes and concentrated simply on breathing. That was the only time my mother and Aunt Dot teared up. Because Nana was not really there to see it.
Grampa would help us get her ready for bed. He braced her knees as we lifted her upward to use a bedpan. He did not cry. He did not look away. And I guess that is love too. I don’t think that is a scenario people envision on their wedding day. Flashing forward six decades and imagining having to coax their partner to eat something so she doesn’t disappear before your eyes, or helping her take down her underpants so she can pee. Maybe we would all choose our partners a little differently if we thought about who we want to end our life with rather than begin it.
Her last weeks, my Nana saw snow in October. Bright fall colors exploding in the backyard. Blue skies. It was as if the entire world was preparing for her departure and putting together one last show. Hundreds of ladybugs appeared. They crawled along the eaves of the house and held to the screens outside her windows. They dotted the walls of her room. They even hid between the lettuce leaves in the kitchen. I know science can explain why they came and stayed on the southside of the house. But it’s nice to think that maybe they were there because we needed a little luck.
It was as if our house was not just a house on a block where ordinary things were happening everywhere else but here. Houses where oxygen masks and O2 machines weren’t pumping 24 hours a day. Not a suction machine just in case. Houses that didn’t install doorbells on night tables for emergencies. Or have daughters who shared the burden of giving their mother her last dose of morphine.
“Winter came early,” Nana said looking out at the snow.
And it did. She died November 9. For years she was on blood thinners that caused her to be cold – even in the summer. She hated that. The night she died her hands were warm. Finally.
Sitting in her room does not bring me comfort yet. I’m not sure if the feeling inside is me realizing that I am not alone, or fear that I am. I’m not used to the quiet. Maybe in time I will be ready. Maybe I will one day find solace in that room, in the silence all around. Maybe once I am ok with the quiet – perhaps then, I will hear her once again.
In the months after my grandfather died, my dad couldn’t remember what his father’s voice sounded like, couldn’t recall what he looked like.
“It’s amazing what the mind can do,” he said.
And it is. What the brain can imagine. Can rationalize. Can forget. In order to get us through. The brain can trigger memory loss. Can protect us from ourselves. So that our hearts can continue beating. So that our lungs can continue breathing. So that we may eat. So that we may sleep and not dream. So that one day we can wake and remember. Feel a pain in our chest and smile. And recall all that we can never lose.