A Beautiful Goodbye
I was born into death. My mother lost both her parents young, one while I was still in the womb and the other just a few months after I was born. I remember being a kid and her showing me the maternity coat she wore to her mother’s funeral. I don’t think I understood what that must have been like until I carried my own babies: life kicking inside you while you bury the woman who gave you life. I was bathed in my mother’s grief from the inside out while my brain was busy growing and my personality and temperament were developing. I have often wondered how much of a determining factor that has been in my sensitive nature.
Then came high school and college and two gigantic, astronomical, stop-the-world losses: a close friend and then just a few years later, my boyfriend. I have said goodbye to my beloved grandfather and great Aunt Ada. These losses broke me down and pressed re-boot on my life in ways that could fill an entire book rather than a blog post; I only bring them up now to demonstrate that I am no stranger to loss. I should be an expert. I should know how to weather grief and to shoulder loss. And yet, here I am, preparing to say goodbye to that person and I realize once again that you never really get good at this.
Do you have that person? That person who, at the mere mention of her name, you smile and feel a visceral flood of feelings and memories? This is my grandmother to me. Just the sound of the name Mama fills my brain with the balm of a life time of warm, sunshine-filled days, cookies baking, stories shared, hands patted, rooms filled with laughter. Lazy summer afternoons laying in the grass on a warm, faded picnic blanket. Cousins and aunts and uncles gathering. Scrap books and the hum of the slide projector as our families’ history is clicked through late in the evenings. Picnics and trips and adventures. Daffodils and a blooming magnolia. Peace and safety and serenity.
In my entire life, she has never raised her voice at me. Never expressed irritation or disappointment. I have never been too much or not enough. Her door is always open and her face always, always lights up in delight as she claps her hands together and says, “Oh my, look at that sweetie coming in my door.” Those who meet Mama feel it instantly: she is love, personified. My husband Mike says, “It’s like nothing bad can happen to you there…she’s magic.” To put it succinctly, Mama is my soul’s rest from this weary world.
I am constantly asked how Mama is doing and recently, I have begun to take a moment to close my eyes and breathe in that feeling of having had her name mentioned to me. I know from experience that once she is gone, after a certain period of time, people will stop saying her name around me because they will be afraid of causing me pain. I don’t want to take this for granted, this time in which Mama and I are still in the present-tense. You see, the answer to the question, “How is your grandma doing?” has always been a proud shake of the head as I bragged about her vitality and independence through the years. “Amazing, as always,” I would preen. “I can barely keep up with her!” But suddenly, my answer to that question has changed. She is getting older and her body is betraying her. She has weathered hospitalization after hospitalization this year and she is beginning to wear down. We are losing her, little bit by little bit. Goodbye is coming and we can all feel it.
I called her today from my clinic over lunch. Standing in an empty patient room, stethoscope still around my neck, eyes gazing out the third-story window at storm clouds rolling in, I talked to her about her code status. I have performed CPR on elderly patients and have felt their ribs popping and cracking beneath my hands. I cannot imagine a worse goodbye for this beautiful soul. Mama agreed: no CPR. I asked her how she is feeling, for once not screening to see if she needed to head back to the ER but meaning, how does she feel about these conversations? I want her to know we know. She should not have to pretend for us that she’s not sad or mad or maybe even a little glad (Papa is waiting, after all…). I have always wanted to hear her take on things and death is no exception. She is my first close relation who has seen death coming with the clarity and lucidity that she has (I am still not sure whether that is a blessing or a curse) and I am not going to miss this opportunity to experience this with her.
With each hospitalization she endures, I loop through the same stages: panic and data-gathering (what are her vital signs, how is she breathing, how is she acting?), followed by anger that her medical team can’t seem to fix her (they’re not doing enough, not paying enough attention, can’t we get her to a bigger hospital?), and finally bone-deep sorrow. I generally feel as though I’m coming down with a virus and sleep it off for a few hours, only admitting once it passes that my “flu” was actually a broken heart. You see, the anger stage (and I realize this now) is not really anger at all but rather, frustrated hope. No one can fix her and everything within me is shouting, “Damnit, that is unacceptable, can’t you see?! SAVE HER! She is the sun!”
But as acceptance begins to sink in, I have begun to shift focus: if I can’t save her, how can I give her the best, most beautiful farewell? How can I make this a good goodbye? I don’t want to waste my last days/ weeks/ months/ years (dare I hope?) fighting this. I want to breathe in and out with her, pat her hand, reminisce, and grant her safety, peace, and serenity. That is the ultimate good-bye, don’t you think?
Written with love and adoration for my soul’s rest, my Mama, Audrey Gray Sanner.