|Gma - Mother's Day 2008|
My grandma died today. She was 93, and the end was a long time coming. She'd been languishing for several weeks, since a bout of aspirational pneumonia in early March. Actually, she'd been languishing for months, really. Her mind started leaving her, a little bit a time, several years ago. It wasn't Alzheimer's... just run-of-the-mill ordinary age-related dementia, eventually amplified by possible transient ischemic attacks (mini strokes). When it became apparent that she wasn't taking proper care of herself about six years ago, her kids (my mom and my two uncles) had to move her to an assisted living facility. (My grandpa had died several years earlier.) She wasn't happy about it, but eventually settled in. I think it helped that one or two of her childhood friends lived there too. (It's a very small southern town.) One of my uncles lives in the same town as well, so he was able to see her every day and make sure she was alright and getting good care. (Can't thank him enough for that!)
I live several states away so I was unable to visit, but I called fairly often when she first moved in. Whenever I called, inevitably the staff would have to go and track her down. She was almost always out on the smoking patio. After she'd been there a while, our conversations became increasingly repetitive as her mind began to fail her more and more. It was like having the same conversation six times in the span of five minutes. Sometimes, I don't think she really knew who I was. I'm pretty sure she confused me with my mom at least once.
I got to visit her there once, four or five years ago. I had flown up to see my mom, who lives in the same state as my grandma (or Gma, as we liked to call her) but five hours away from Gma's town. Mom and I made the trek up to visit her. I remember her face lit up when she saw me. She knew who I was... at least I'm pretty sure she did. We took her to visit her brother, and also the lady who had lived next door to her for years. She enjoyed it, and seemed lucid and cognizant. On the way back to the facility, we stopped at the grocery store to get some ice cream for her to keep in the fridge/freezer in her room. I remember walking through the store, and Gma reached out and took my hand, and held it as we walked. She looked at me and just smiled. She seemed really happy in that moment, and I remember wondering to myself if this would be the last time I saw her in person. Turns out it was. I'm sad that I didn't get to see her again, but I'm glad that my last personal memory of her is one in which she was happy.
I continued to call her for a while, but eventually it just became pointless, really, and painful for me. She drifted farther and farther away in her mind, and combined with reports from my mom and my uncle about her failing memory, I figured that sending a card and/or photo was a better way to go. I feel a bit guilty about that, and also about not sending a greeting more often than I did. At the same time, I doubt she really knew or cared, and she WAS often in my thoughts. It's not like I ever forgot about her, or ever stopped loving or caring about her.
After all, this was the woman who brought me home from the hospital when I was born. (My dad was in Viet Nam at the time.) When I was about 19 years old, my mom handed my Gma $7, a repayment of the army hospital fee my Gma paid when I was born, just so that Gma could no longer say, "She's mine... I paid for her!" My grandma refused to take the money, just so she could continue to lay claim on me! When my parents' marriage ended just before I started sixth grade, my brother and I lived with my Gma and Gpa for a few months while my mom relocated and settled into a new job. We were pretty close. And so it was painful to have her drift away the way she did, stolen piece by piece through the effects of age.
In May of last year, she had declined to the point that she needed more care than her current facility could provide. She had to be moved to another place, more of a nursing home. Age kept advancing, and taking more and more of her mind. Her body began to follow. She had difficulty swallowing, and would sometimes aspirate when she did. In March of this year, she suffered a bout of aspirational pneumonia. A hospice nurse was assigned. It didn't look like she would recover. In all likleihood, a lesser woman wouldn't have, but the women on my mom's side of the family are a stubborn lot! (Myself included!) She got better. Until another bout this month. Her body began to give in. Early last week, the hospice nurse said that Gma was "actively dying". There wasn't much left that could be done, and so the vigil began.
I'm beyond sad that I've lost my dear Gma. But I'm also angry about what she had to go through in the last week of her life. My grandma's advance directives dictated that she was to not be kept alive by artificial means. This included feeding tubes. Once she became mostly unresponsive, further nutrition was withheld, according to her wishes. Remember how I just said the women on my mom's side of the family are a stubborn lot? Gma was a tough old bird. The docs and staff couldn't believe she made it through the first bout of pneumonia. Now, with the second, she was hanging on. But barely. She lasted the better part of a week before giving in, her body worn out but refusing to shut down completely. The staff did what they could to ease her pain and make her comfortable, but I'm sure she was suffering. She wouldn't have wanted to live that way. And she shouldn't have had to.
Why is it that in our society, we'll readily euthanize our pets to alleviate their suffering when they're terminal, but we won't do the same for people? I can't understand how it's acceptable to allow a person to basically starve to death medically, as my Gma did, but's it's illegal to administer a nice healthy dose of morphine to end their suffering. How can we allow our pets to die with dignity and minimize their suffering, but we can't do the same for poor old Gma? It just doesn't seem right, or fair. But maybe it's just me.
I wonder what will happen to me if I get old and lose my faculties. I don't have kids of my own... If I'm ever in a similar situation as my Gma, I hope there will be someone who cares, someone who will be my advocate and make sure I'm getting good care. Time will tell, I guess.
For now, I'm just sad at the loss of my Gma. She was a pistol. I'm glad I'm at least a little like her... I think I inherited some of her sassiness and spunk. At least I hope I did. When my mom was in high school and Gma was making a prom dress for her, Mom wanted a dress with a full hoop skirt. Gma tried to talk her into a slinky one with a slit up the side. Later, when she and Gpa had moved back to that small southern town she grew up in, Gma caused a bit of a scandal when she submitted recipe for Brandy Slush to the county Homemakers Extension cookbook. It was the only recipe with alcohol submitted that year... probably EVER until then. They printed it, but there was talk. Gma didn't care! (And her brandy slush is ridiculously delicious!) Gma didn't take much crap from anyone. But she didn't have to... everyone who knew her loved her.
Here's an excerpt from an e-mail my uncle sent this afternoon:
"Mom died today, peacefully in her sleep, at 1:35 PM. One of the caregivers from the Home was holding her hand when she passed, and said she went peacefully. At her request, we will not have services. She will be cremated, and her ashes mixed with Dad’s, and scattered. There is nothing else I can say. She was loved by all who knew her and by her family, of course. I was truly impressed at the number of caregivers at the Assisted Living Home who were openly crying, and wanted to go into Mom’s room to say a personal goodbye. When they took her out, the staff lined the hall, and showed a degree of respect the funeral director said he had never seen at a Nursing Home. He was amazed to learn she had only lived there for about a year."
I think I really said goodbye to my Gma that day we went to the grocery store for ice cream. There wasn't much personal connection after that. But I'm struggling today with the thought that now she's REALLY gone. Then again, she'll never really be gone. I see some of her in my mom. And some of her in myself. She was a big part of shaping who I am, and still has an influence on who I will become. I'm glad she's no longer suffering, but I will miss her terribly.
I think I'll go fix myself a brandy slush now, and whisper a toast to her memory.
Here's to you, Gma. Say hi to Gpa for me. I love you.