My grandmother died a year ago today. On Tax Day. For some reason, after all that went on during the four and a half months leading up to her death, I found comfort in the fact that Gram got out of doing her taxes this one time. My grandmother was incredibly financially shrewd and might have hated giving her hard earned money to the government more than anyone else I know. So it was a kind of justice that she skipped out on the day taxes are due. During her stay there, the nurses in the ICU often remarked that Gram was “a feisty one.” If they only knew.
The tragedy that happened at the Boston Marathon last April 15th, as horrific and sad as it was, has little meaning to me. This is because I experienced it through a muted television in a hospital room in which my grandmother took her final gasping breaths while hooked up to a monitoring system that now, instead of reflecting her pulse and blood pressure and oxygen levels (that my aunts and grandfather and I used to anxiously watch like hawks), only showed a ticking clock underneath the word “Comfort” in small letters. However selfish it is to say, I experienced a far greater tragedy that day, and as a result, the Boston Marathon bombings fail to resonate with me.
I coped with my grandmother’s death much better than I ever expected at first. For years, as I anticipated the day with dread, I had visions of remaining in bed for days with the curtains drawn, refusing to do things like shower or eat or go to work. I knew her death would devastate me and I had no idea how I would be able to pretend that I was a normal person that did NOT have a huge chunk of her chest missing where her grandmother’s love used to be, and walk around and talk and work like nothing had happened.
But I did it.
I think this was because my grandmother died over the course of a four and a half month long hospital stay. It was torturous, and I say this with guilt, because I know the difficulty of those months for me and my family that stayed by her side every day just pales in comparison to the absolute hell they were for her. As a result, when she finally died, I guiltily felt an overwhelming sense of relief. The hours spent driving to and from the hospital and sitting in the ICU were the best and worst part of my day. The best because I got see her, and kindled a newfound closeness with my family that I continue to treasure to this day, and the worst because I had to watch her suffer and die. At least she was no longer suffering after Tax Day.
I never acted like my grandmother was dying until the day she was unresponsive and taken off the ventilator, and I knew then that I was really saying goodbye. The months she lived in the hospital were a tough time for me socially because we all handle grief differently, and I’m sure my method looked like denial to most of my family and friends. It wasn’t that I thought that Gram would live forever, I just wasn’t ready to think that this was when she would die. I repeated this one thing over and over to myself and to my no doubt exasperated family members: “If I think she’s going to die, and she does, I won’t feel better that I was right.”
And you know what? I don’t regret a second of thinking that way.
You know why? Because Gram taught me to.
Maybe my unflinchingly positive, Pollyanna attitude was annoying or seemed naive to some, but I don’t think it was to her. Because who would want to be surrounded and stared at by people who think you are going to die? I know I wouldn’t, even if I was dying.
If Gram had died quickly, suddenly, of a heart attack or something not as miserable as COPD, it probably would have been easier for all of us, her included, even if we didn’t get to say goodbye. But my grandmother never believed in doing anything the easy way. If there was anything she taught me and my family, it was that if something wasn’t worth working hard for, it wasn’t worth doing. What are you waiting for? Kick off the other water ski.
I believe my grandmother made a choice to endure a horrible death, so she could have time to truly reflect on her wonderful life, and allow the rest of us of to, too. In those four months, I saw the true depth of my grandparents’ love, as my grandfather unfailingly spent every single day by her side in the hospital or whatever rehab center she was momentarily discharged to, holding her hand. On the day she had her tracheostomy surgery, just over two months before her death, her doctor came into the room prior to surgery and wished us a Happy Valentine’s Day. Papa patted Gram’s hand and smiled and said, “Every day is Valentine’s Day.” My grandmother couldn’t speak because of the ventilator tube she was intubated with, but the unmistakable love in her beautiful brown eyes shone back. Moments like that, as sad and terrifying as they can be while you experience them, I treasure now. And I think despite the physical agony she was experiencing, my grandmother did too. They made life worth fighting for.
During the course of those four months, my grandmother likely saw her family together surrounding her more regularly than she had over the course of two years. I have no doubt I held Gram’s hand during that time more than I had in at least a decade. When I was little, my grandmother and I used to play a game where we read each other’s lips and tried to guess what the other was saying. After her trach surgery, this “game” became necessary for communication, and while sometimes it was so frustrating (for her) when I couldn’t understand what she was telling me, it was so exciting when I understood and could help her or “talk” with her again. I felt like I was winning.
It’s easy to feel conflicted or selfish reflecting back on these moments with joy, but I don’t. My grandmother was not a flame that could be extinguished. She needed to burn out in her own time, on her own terms. And when she was finally ready, she did.
Gram taught me so many lessons that I am certain shaped who I am today, and in her death, she taught me her final and most important. I am smart, because she educated me. I am independent, because she encouraged me to never look to anyone else to define who I am. I am strong, because she helped me to be. She is still helping me to be. Which is why, a year later, I can do something I never imaged: look back on my grandmother’s death and not be devastated.* Instead I can look back on Gram’s life and smile. Because she taught me to live without her, even though I never wanted to. I love you, Gram, and I miss you, but I know I’ll see you in my dreams.
*In true fashion, Gram inspired me to reframe the tone of this article. Initially, it was a piece about the tragedy of and my reaction to my grandmother’s death and how, despite my initial relief, I entered a very deep and very real depression several months following it that I wasn’t sure I’d ever come out of. While I did, in fact, recover from this depression and overall the piece had a positive ending, reading it back to myself I found this was not the message I wanted to send. Everyone eventually experiences the death of someone they are very close with, and it is always horrible in many respects, but when I thought about it, I had so many positive experiences in the months leading up to Gram’s death, it seemed foolish to wallow in the depressing moments. So I didn’t, because she taught me not to. I love you, Gram.↩