I call myself decent at remembering birthdays, but I’m terrible at remembering dates of tragedies. I suppose this is mostly a good thing. However, Facebook Memories was here to remind me at 3am when I woke to let the dog out that 5 years ago today, I was lying in bed beside my grandmother, Mia, while she was dying.
If you’re a long-time reader of my blog or if you’ve known me longer than 5 years, you know how close Mia and I were. If you’ve known me less than 5 years, you probably also know it, to a certain degree at least. So today has been pretty darn tough. I feel like 5 years ago just happened, and I simultaneously can’t believe I’ve been without her for 5 years.
What I do know is that it was the hardest day of my life thus far. There was also no place I’d rather have been. Mia was very healthy until the day that she wasn’t, and so when she lay in that hospital bed at 94 years old, I shouldn’t have been surprised — yet I was.
Just a few days ago we’d been out running errands and she had complained that I bought the wrong size Hershey’s bar (she’d wanted a bigger one).
Just two weeks ago we’d been at South Park Mall, having lunch at Arthur’s Wine Shop (the secret restaurant only old Charlotteans know about), when a younger man (80s?) flirted with her and she flirted back, making sure to throw in a humble brag about her 16 great grandchildren (Is that number right, cousins?).
She was slowing down those past few weeks, and I knew it but I chose not to see it. The reason I’d gotten her the wrong Hershey’s is she’d wanted to wait in the car while we were at CVS; that was highly unusual for her. I had recently been hospitalized after fainting, so I was a bit weak as well. After our day at the mall, we went back to her house and both of us slept for hours, her in her recliner, me on her uncomfortable couch. I have trouble sleeping in uncomfortable places, but that day felt quite right to be next to her. I knew why I wanted to be close; I think even then I was realizing how limited our time together would be, but I didn’t want to admit it to myself. Dad came out from the back bedroom at one point to check on us and said we were two peas in a pod, sleeping away.
This is the same woman who was told by her doctors at 91, while getting a pacemaker installed, that she should probably stop mowing the grass. She was pretty unhappy about that and tried to negotiate. “What if I just use the riding mower?”
That same hospital stay, she also decided to play dead in the post-op room and about gave the poor nurse a heart attack. The joke was supposed to be on me, my dad and my aunt, but she was so good at it the nurse didn’t even know she was fooling.
So her needing a nap after a visit to the mall, or not wanting to walk into a CVS, was telling.
Fastforward to 5 years ago, and this hospital stay would be much different. As many of us could get there visited throughout the day. She was unresponsive mostly, but she squeezed my hand when I talked to her and I knew she could hear me. Once I even asked her if she wanted to go to the mall, just to see if I could get her attention, and she opened her eyes just to roll them at me. She was still in there.
My brother, Kevin, and I left in the afternoon to give my dad, aunt and uncle some time with her. Kevin and I went to swim laps to try to clear our heads, then we went back to my house, unsure of what to do next. My dad called to say the doctors didn’t think she would make it through the night. So Kevin and I loaded up the car with pillows and blankets and headed back to the hospital – we didn’t want my aunt, Josie, who was on night duty, to have to do this alone.
She cried when she saw us and thanked us for being there, and the nurses thanked us for being there, and they brought in another recliner for my brother, and the room was so small there wasn’t room for a third recliner, but that was ok because I just wanted to be as close to Mia as I could. So I crawled in bed next to her, being careful not to hurt or jostle her in any way. I put my head beside her feet and I placed my leg right beside her so she could feel that I was there.
And then we talked. All night, the 3 of us stayed awake and we talked and shared Mia stories. We talked loudly, as Mia was hard of hearing and we wanted to make sure she could hear every word. We laughed and we cried and Mia was right there beside us, resting comfortably.
I told the story about the time Mia was in rehab for her pacemaker for a week, and I stayed with her, and at one point she turned to me and said, “You know, we could sneak out of here, go see a movie, and then get our toes done …”
Josie told the story about her doing a U-turn in the middle of the interstate in Iowa and getting pulled over for it. She got out of the ticket by claiming that “In South Carolina we do that all the time!”
We talked about the time she explained kegal exercises to the entire family. The time she panicked because the news was reporting on the epidemic of “texting and driving” (She looked at me, open mouthed, and said “That’s TERRIBLE! … What’s texting?”). The stories went on, hours and hours of them.
And then, eventually, we all drifted off to sleep. And it was then that Mia decided to let go.
The nurse told us she was probably waiting for us to sleep before she died.
She also told us it was one of the most peaceful goodbyes she’d ever seen.
Dad and Mom came up to the hospital. We all cried together, then when it was time, we went back to her house and sat on the porch with coffee, watching the sun rise over the lake and wondering how we were going to go on without her.
Five years later, and I still wonder that some days. The truth is, we aren’t going on without her. She is in so much of what I do. Birds play in her bird bath in my back yard. When I weed the garden, I do it correctly because she showed me how when I was a kid. I think of her every time I sit down to work on a puzzle; that was something we did together. Her stories are told – frequently, and always with laughter. I think I got part of my personality from her. All of her grandkids would likely — proudly — say the same.
I curse Facebook memories but I also am so thankful that I got to have those last moments with her. As hard as they were, they were so special. Josie, Kevin and I have a special bond over that night – we text each other every year, grateful for each other, grateful that we had that moment together.
This morning I drank my coffee beside a puzzle for a few moments before getting to work. Tonight I think I’ll drive my car, Mildred (named after her), down to South Park Mall and I’ll have dinner at Arthur’s. If a younger man starts flirting with me, I’ll throw in a humble brag about my 17 nieces and nephews.