Photo by Kent of Kent
Reflection by Michael Somers
She's going to die, I thought when I stood in the doorway of her room at the Ovid Healthcare Center. She's really going to die.
My mother, my sister and brother-in-law, my father, my brother and his family, my grandfather, and I all decided to meet at the nursing home that Saturday, that January 12. The words “She's going to die soon” were unspoken. In their places were phrases like “You might want to come see her today, Michael” and “Brian and Anne are coming up” and “Your father is coming, too.” I knew what Mom meant.
Grandma was going to die. I'd better go say goodbye.
* * *
Her eyes were open only a little, less than slits, really, but I could tell she wanted to open them more. She could hear us. She wanted to see us. I wanted her to see me. I wanted to see those milky blue eyes, like a May sky. I wanted to know how much of my grandmother was left.
Perhaps it's better than she couldn't open her eyes more than slits.
Her labored breath rattled. Pneumonia. That's what sent her to the emergency room three days prior. That, and the fact she couldn't swallow anymore. She could tremor. She could shake. She could slump. She could wet herself. But she couldn't swallow.
The tube sent oxygen up her nose, laced with mist. No food. A pain patch. Comfort measures, they called it. For whom?
Who I saw in that bed was not really Marguerite Catherine Rundy Bohil. Not anymore.
* * *
I had to cry. I couldn't be logical. Twenty-five years of Parkinson's and it was finally taking her, finally claiming her. I had tried being logical so I could be strong for Mom and Amy. But that strength gave way and I cried. I grabbed my mother and let it out. She patted my back as I bear-crushed her. She said, “I know, I know…” over and over again. A mantra. I know…
We all cried in front of each other. Amy and Dad joined Mom and me. It felt like we were a close family.
It had been ten years since tears like this had come. Since Uncle Bill and Grandpa Ted, my dad's father and brother, died. Grandpa Ted fast in his sleep, Uncle Bill slow from his cancer.
Grandma Bohil slow from her Parkinson's. I hate Parkinson's as much as I hate cancer.
“I hope we made the right decision,” Amy said to Mom. Moving her to the nursing home after the hospital had exhausted its options, and then to put her on comfort measures once at the nursing home, ate at them both.
“I ask myself that a lot,” Mom answered.
Looking at Grandma's gasping shell, I'd say they did.
What life did she have before the nursing home, anyway? She couldn't talk. She couldn't swallow. She couldn't move except to shake and tremor. She wore a Depends. She had to be strapped into a chair so she wouldn't fall out of it. She couldn't do anything for herself. She was in pain. She was frustrated.
She was trapped inside herself with nowhere to go and no way out.
* * *
Time felt untraceable, yet stretched out before us in the shape of a soon-to-be invisible woman. A woman relegated to the sidelines of photographs now hanging on walls and stored in computers, showing her slumped in a chair wearing a messy bib at family parties. On the sidelines in our everyday lives.
The industrial gray of the sky outside filtered its way inside her room, a room she shared with another soon-to-be-invisible woman who slept the entire time we visited Grandma, a bird wrapped in the down of her nest. That nursing home seemed full of soon-to-be-invisible people, ghosts in training.
We needed to get out of that room, out of that nursing home, out of that reality. None of us could have been very hungry, but the suggestion was made to find a restaurant and “let Grandma rest a bit.”
Before long, I drove down M-21 toward St. Johns, away from Ovid, with my brother's oldest son, Seth, in the car, listening to the 80s channel on Sirius, following Dad, Grandpa and the rest. Left turn signals and brake lights flashed in front of a giant resin cow. The Daisydell. I'd passed it many times in my life, but had never stopped.
Seth and I sat at the counter while my family took over a quiet corner of the restaurant, pushing tables together at an angle so everyone could access a chair. There wasn't any room at the tables for me and Seth, anyway; once again, I was the island of my family, separated from the mainland, only this time I had Seth for company.
The menu is now blurry in memory. Standard diner fare, though. A hodge-podge of burgers, pastas, burritos, cheese curds and ice creams. Simple carbs, non-lean proteins, and saturated fats. Nothing very appetizing. I ordered cheese curds and a diet soda, while Seth ordered spaghetti and fries. What did food and nutrition matter today, anyway?
Grandpa held court, with my dad as his sidekick. Brian and Anne checked on Seth occasionally, but focused mostly on their other children, two-year-old twins Kaitlin and Tyler, who were coloring and chattering. Amy and Kirk seemed lost in a haze, as did my mother. I talked to Seth mostly, who enjoyed having the attention of someone other than his parents.
Who were any of us fooling? What point was there in escaping, if even for an hour? The industrial gray found us at the Daisydell. Invisible women surrounded us. We were haunted, but pretended like we weren't, like we were free, if only for an hour.
But there was no freedom. Not for Grandma, and certainly not for us. No amount of cheese curds, fries, and empty banter could change those facts, the central facts of why we were even gathered in the first place.
* * *
I asked Grandpa what it was like to watch his best friend get ready to die. It didn't seem like an indelicate question at the time, though it might appear that way now. Or maybe I did phrase it more delicately, and all I remember is the feeling of indelicacy. Either way, he said, “It ain't anything I'd want to do again, Uncle John.”
Sixty-five years is a long time to be someone's wife/lover/best friend/business partner/ occasional enemy/co-parent/co-grandparent/co-great-grandparent. I could not, and still cannot, imagine what he must have felt, and still feel. He loved her so much that he personally cared for her 24/7 for ten years. He devoted his life to her. For a now ninety-two-year-old man in flagging health of his own, that is one incredible gift and sacrifice.
Holding his hand, talking to him, seeing his tears and telling him how much I love him, and how I was lucky to have him and Grandma as my grandparents, I realized how small I am compared to him. I'm a guppy. I'm a grain of sand. He's a whale. He's a mountain. And why hadn't I truly understood that before then?
* * *
I didn't knit the afghan for Grandma specifically (although I started one for her a few times and always stopped because I never thought my efforts did her justice), but I made one the summer before as a way to work through some doubts I had about my ability to finish things. Each loop proved I could. By the time I finished it, I knew I had broken through a barrier. I felt free to let go of certain things.
I took that afghan that Saturday so she could maybe absorb some of my energy about finishing things. Mostly, though, I wanted her to have something I made keep her warm. I wanted a piece of me to be there with her all the time, because I wasn't.
That blanket now sits folded on my grandfather's couch. Occasionally, Mom will find him asleep with it wrapped around him.
* * *
Through talking to Grandpa Bohil that day, I learned my great-grandpa Rundy chewed tobacco and played cards. He would take his card winnings and buy more tobacco. He later died from mouth and throat cancer. Doctors even severed a nerve in his neck so he couldn't feel the pain from the cancer.
I never knew.
Another thing I didn't know was that Grandpa Bohil nearly died in 1999. He saw a light he was drawn to, but felt a tug backward. That's the closest to a talk about faith he and I have ever come, except for when he told me about why he never went to church. He grew up Catholic, strict Catholic, Old Country Catholic. He was even an altar boy. Then one day he saw the monsignor drink whiskey, smoke a cigar, and gamble while playing poker. He turned off his religion that day; he didn't trust something as important as God to be trifled with in human hands anymore.
Until he saw the light, when I think he realized he was right all along: God needs no middleman.
* * *
“It's time to go, hey?” Grandpa said. No one disagreed.
We each decided to take a turn alone with Grandma. Grandpa leaned in and kissed her cheek. He let loose a sob, a belly sob. We turned away from the door. It felt indecent to watch.
When it was my turn, after Mom, Dad, and everyone else, all I could do was look at her oxygen tube, at her gasping mouth, the mouth that used to read Curious George books to me. I touched the blanket I had knit. I avoided her slit eyes. She looked like she wanted to say something, like she wanted to acknowledge me.
I moved my hand from the blanket to her arm. I leaned in. I kissed her. Before I stood up straight, before I left the room, before I would see her next in a coffin, I said the only thing I could think to say, the only thing that summed up thirty-five years: “You can let go now. I love you, Grandma.”
Michael Somers teaches English at Delta College. He is also a member of the Saginaw Bay Writing Project Advisory Board and serves as co-facilitator of the Saginaw Bay Writing Project Summer Institute 2011.