Four years ago today my grandmother died. She had spent the better part of two weeks in the hospital, but the end came more suddenly than I was prepared for. Looking back on it, I should have been ready for her to slip away that morning, but I wasn’t. No family members were with her in her last moments, as I had chosen to go to work that day after most of a week away, and my mom’s younger brother was sleeping off a cold at the apartment, fearful that had he been with her in the hospital that he would get her sick(er).
I remember going to find her in the emergency room, when I couldn’t reach anyone in the apartment for most of the day. She was little and alone in a big hospital bed, waiting to be admitted. She had lost the bulk of her expressive powers to a stroke ten years earlier, and for reasons that still infuriate me, her aide had left her by herself in a curtained off triage cubby, confident that the nurses would take care of her. I stayed with her that entire night, walking along side her bed as they rolled her into a room at 2 am, sleeping on the lightly padded window seat until morning.
I spent large parts of the next two weeks with her at the hospital, ever thankful that the non-profit I worked for at the time was run by a woman who had known my grandparents for more than 3 decades, and wanted to ensure that my grandmother got the very best care. I brought in bottles of lotion, bags of candy, hand mirrors and tubes of lipstick, hoping to make Tutu comfortable and happy. She slept away several days, and then suddenly started to perk up. Visitors came and went, and I stayed. I held her hand and quietly sang. I rubbed circles on her back and smoothed scented cream into the backs of her hands, the skin there resembling vintage silk. I cried a lot and told her it was okay to go.
Her period of improvement peaked and then started to recede. She became mostly unconscious and her breathing became labored. I will never forget the gurgling sound that accompanied each intake of air. With the help of a nurse and some vaseline, we pulled her rings off her swelling fingers, to relieve the pressure. They were hard to remove and it wrenched my gut to pull at her fingers like that. It was during that act that I knew she was already essentially gone, as had she been lucid she never would have stood for such treatment.
I was at work the morning she died, having gone in for a couple of hours with the idea in mind that I would head over to visit during my lunch hour. My phone rang and the island-accented voice on the other end said, “Marisa, it’s Margaret. It’s over. She’s gone.” I left work in a fog, and walked the four blocks from my office to Jefferson hospital. When I got there, Margaret was standing in the hallway, with a bag of my grandmother’s personal things. A sign had been posted on the door, asking that anyone who wished to go in first speak to the duty nurse. Margaret headed back to the apartment, and I stayed there, to call the funeral home and handle anything else. I peaked into the room, but could hardly look at the body in the bed. I remember from my quick glance that her neck was bent at a funny angle, and that her hair had reverted to it’s natural curl, after years of religious straightening. Most people say that when they see a loved one after death, that they realize quickly that the one to whom they were close isn’t in that shell anymore. I’d like to say that was true, but my grandmother identified so deeply with her body, with being beautiful, that it was hard for me to separate her spirit from her body.
I quickly walked out and stood in the hallway, waiting to talk to someone. A social work student who was interning on the floor came up to the door and started to go in, but then read the sign on the door and stopped. She turned to me and asked why she couldn’t go in. That was the moment that I started to weep. I wanted to scream at her, and a part of me didn’t understand how it was possible that she was proceeding with her normal routine, when my life had just changed so drastically.
After I dealt with what needed to be dealt with at the hospital, I started making phone calls as I walked home. My uncle was sound asleep in the apartment, he sleeps with a machine that blows air up his nose (to manage his sleep apnea), and so I hadn’t been able to wake him with the phone. I woke him, and we went for breakfast at Little Pete’s, the restaurant that had been my grandparents’ home away from home. Telling some of the waitresses there that she had died was harder than telling some members of my family.
The funeral was held several days later. My grandmother was dressed in leopard print pajamas (it was a closed casket, but I liked knowing that she wore animal prints to the end) and I dressed like she would have, in all black, with lots of eye makeup and heels. Little Pete’s catered the reception.
I moved to Philadelphia in part to be here for my grandmother. I had no idea that we would only get 10 weeks together before she would make her exit. But having spent those last days with her, I would never choose to do it differently. I will forever be grateful to have had that time with her, and to have helped her know how deeply she was loved.