When I was a kid, my sisters and I stayed with my grandma for a few days when my parents had to take a trip to some far-flung northern location to pick up farm equipment. Tracks for the combine, maybe? A ridge-till cultivator? I don’t remember. It probably happened more than once.
We slept in the south-facing living room of her ranch home in town, a home that even then I knew was outdated in decor, including the foldout couch in burnt mustard. Very scratchy. Not at all comfortable to sit on. But it had a silky pattern of curlicues in a lighter cream that I loved to trace. We sat on it and watched Wheel of Fortune on her tiny old TV. Played Mouse Trap on the coffee table across from it. And so on.
I was sitting on that couch yesterday morning at 11:20 a.m. or so in quite a different location: Grandma’s assisted living apartment, talking to my aunts while their husbands were sitting with their mother. The calls had come in at school sendoff time: they can’t wake your grandmother this morning. Your uncle’s on the way up now. Do what you need to do, but it looks like the end.
I had four hours between preschool dropoff and preschool pickup. I came back home, changed Michael into a disposable diaper, got gas and headed north. By the time I arrived, both my uncles and their wives were there. We took turns sitting by her bed.
After a bit, the parish priest came and anointed her. It was so, so beautiful. When he finished, he leaned over and put a hand on her forehead. “Okay,” he said, “now it’s up to you and Jesus.”
We stood and chatted with Father for a bit, until Grandma’s breath, which had been labored in a way I’ve never heard before–you couldn’t tell what was inhale and what was exhale–suddenly changed. We stopped talking for a few seconds; I thought she was choking. After that the breathing was quieter. We left my uncles with their mother. Not long after, I was sitting on that uncomfortable, burnt mustard couch while Michael did repeated “trust falls” off the arm onto my lap. I was thinking I needed to go back in again when my uncle came out and said, “It’s over.”
My first reaction was: Oh, no, I was sitting out here laughing and talking. I hurried in with Michael clinging to my hand, and realized…no, it wasn’t quite over yet. She was close. The breaths were short, soft, but not gone yet, after all. We all gathered around the bed: two sons, their wives, one grandchild, one great grandchild. And somewhere in between wrestling Michael and watching her mouth, there was no more breathing.
I kept waiting for it to come back. I just couldn’t believe it could be that…ambiguous. We thought Grandma was leaving us six weeks ago–twice. We were so sure it was the end, in fact, that people flew in from halfway across the country. And she came roaring back, moving home, even (briefly) ditching the oxygen tank. She was just so stubborn–and I mean that in the best of ways; Grandma was a spitfire and a spunky, sassy old lady who, much like Julianna, could drive her loved ones mad and create a fan club everywhere she went. “Well, God’s getting an earful tonight,” Christian said last night as we made lunches.
We knelt down and said a rosary around her bed. Michael too, on his knees giving me big twenty-one-month “look what a big boy I am” eyes. Until he decided it would be more fun to play tightrope walking on my calves. And I thought that was appropriate. A woman who lived with such fire and vitality probably was chuckling about it. Chuckling, with her hands clasped over her big belly, much like my babies do.
When it was all over, I stood in the apartment looking around, seeing her in everything: in the broken calculator she kept on the coffee table for kids to push buttons, the Good Old Days magazines, her handwriting on mundane little lists I wanted to grab and bring home and scrapbook.
And when I came home, I pulled out the iron skillet she passed on to me a year or so ago–”I ain’t got no use for it,” she said–and cooked my Italian sausage to make lasagna for dinner. I could almost feel her with me.
Rest in peace, Grandma. May angels lead you to paradise.