Hail Mary Full of Grace
For Margaret, II
[See also Eulogy for Margaret and Windmills, Truckstops and Transitions - Living in the In-Between (For Margaret, I)]
The week before last, I held my grandmother’s hand while she died in a quiet room at Mercy Hospital in South Buffalo, New York. Her son and his wife, my uncle and aunt, stood on her other side.
She had seen her mother, she'd said.
“It’s ok to go with her, Mom,” my uncle said. “You did a good job. We love you. We’ll see you again.”
We repeated how much we loved her. We thanked her for her life and waited with her, repeating our words as the time increased between each of her shallow breaths.
My uncle led us in a litany of Hail Marys, and our words ran together where we whispered the prayer over her spare breaths…“Hail Mary, full of grace/ The Lord is with thee/ Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus/ Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death/ Amen.”
It happened in just the way I think my grandmother, Nanny, would have wanted. She did not appear to be in pain. Her do-not-resuscitate orders were respected, after a few moments of confusion in our hurry to sift through the documents she had prepared in an old metal box she’d kept in her closet.
A change came over the nursing and hospital staff, a reverent slowing down as they realized the moment they were witnessing, unlike the moments before, which had asked only for their efficiency, knowledge about making people well, their hurry.
Her eyes were open and I believe she heard us and knew we were there. Then, after some time—twenty minutes? five? an hour?—she closed her eyes as a more full breath escaped her and she was gone.
A young nurse had begun her shift during my grandmother's last hour, and she had hooked up the IV that my aunt (also a nurse) recognized as treatment for pneumonia. Though the nurse was careful with her language in answering my aunt's questions (we had not yet heard the diagnosis from a doctor), my grandmother (another nurse) knew their code, and her eyes widened at the news I only sort of understood. She was gone within the hour.
Afterward, the nurse returned to check on us, and my aunt noticed her nametag.
“Look,” my aunt said. Her name was Angel.
My grandmother’s death was not a surprise, not the unexpected trauma so many have to face without warning or the chance to say good-bye. In fact, I thought I would feel only happiness for her, knowing she had been ready to go for a while.
But selfishly, I could only miss her when I awoke in her empty apartment the next morning, and in the days that followed I imagine I acted as strangely as everyone else does in the irrational immediate behaviors of grief.
Things I do that make no sense (not a comprehensive list):
* For days I could not stop touching and kissing the wedding ring my aunt had taken from Nan's finger
and placed on mine in the moments after she died—as if she were actually inside this object she had
worn for more than 70 years.
* I became unreasonably annoyed with someone who had moved the bag of the clothes she’d been
wearing that night, from behind my passenger seat to another part of my car. He accepted that I
was upset but didn’t understand why it mattered where in the car the bag sat. I didn’t
“It just does,” was all I could say.
* The next day, though I knew she was gone, I was simultaneously confused, asking multiple times
throughout the morning what she’d asked of me so many times in the past few months:
“Isn’t there something I’m supposed to be doing right now?”
I should be recording her vital signs using the machine that walked us through the process every day in a polite, GPS-like voice. On good days, after Machine-Voice Lady thanked my grandmother for submitting to the tests and questions, Nanny would gamely respond, “You’re welcome!”
I should be setting out breakfast and checking her medicines. I should be wrestling with her damned medical leg stockings we loathed for the effort it required to squeeze them on every morning. I should be receiving the kicks in the face she delivered while trying to help, and joking that it wasn't nice to take out latent aggressions on one's granddaughter.
I should be chasing after her in restaurants, calling for her to slow down while she plows through patrons with one arm and attempts to push chairs from her path with her other (The next time you see weakness in a woman behind a walker, think twice. That thing is a weapon).
Our routine had included a litany of questions and answers that continued throughout the day: when the dressing for her leg wound needed to be changed, who was coming the next day, etc. Now, I missed being her rememberer.
Though Nan had been ready to go, she had often wondered and worried about how it would happen, if it would hurt, what would happen next, and how she would get there.
Now, despite my own faith that there is life after this one, I keep wondering just where she is exactly.
If she is no longer rattling her walker around to wake up my uncle, asking us questions, listening to her Josh Groban CDs while watching the walkers go by outside, just what is she up to right now? After the frank discussions we’ve had about death and what happens next, I just want to ask her what she thought of the whole thing.
“It Takes a Village” - Not exclusive to children
It would be too much to write what I've seen of the health care industry in the past few months. My grandmother’s schedule was packed with health care appointments, and at times it seemed she needed a scheduler and receptionist even more than she needed a caregiver.
She saw a primary care doctor, a surgeon for the leg wound connected to her congestive heart failure, an eye doctor, and a podiatrist for her feet while her leg wound was wrapped. At home she had a nurse and wound specialist who visited every week, a home health care aide, a physical therapist, an occupational therapist, a social worker and more.
With only one exception, a Nurse Ratchett who seemed more concerned about enforcing the insurance company's “homebound” rule than she was about my grandmother, many days I nearly cried with gratitude for the ways the health care team empowered my grandmother, increasing her physical strength, independence and the quality of her life in her last few months.
This does not count all the people I needed as much as she did, to preserve my own emotional health and time—her close friend who came by once a week while I ran errands, a nun from Sisters of Mercy, family members nearby and visiting, and my uncle who arrived every Friday from Cleveland while I either left to recharge, or stayed so we could support each other and laugh together at the crazy, frayed threads that tied our schedules and hearts together through an otherwise discouraging time.
Many times in the past few months I have been overwhelmed by the gift I have been given in my grandmother, and in the chance to spend these last months with her. But without this system of support, I would likely have fizzled quickly. I have not yet begun to understand how people do this on their own, and for much longer periods of time.
Loss > Strength > Jedi Mind-Tricks
As I mentioned in her eulogy, many people often commented on how tiny my grandmother was, and she had a small, high voice to match. But her five-foot tall, less than 90-pound frame was a Jedi mind trick. She was bigger and stronger than most people I know.
She lived through the Great Depression, two world wars and 17 U.S. presidents. She lost a husband to lung cancer nearly 35 years ago after his years working for Bethlehem Steel when the steel industry had thrived in Buffalo. She outlived her four brothers and most of her friends. She knew the pain of miscarriage and diseases that claimed those she loved. She had four children, 12 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
She was at my wedding and listened me through my divorce, always pushing me to love again no matter how chicken I was. When people she knew experienced loss, she was adamant that healing and moving on were our responsibilities to ourselves.
“People can’t drown in their sorrows forever,” she would say. “You have to go and do and have, live your life. You have to carry on.”
Now in walks around her neighborhood, crows have been replaced by butterflies, and they are everywhere.
Shopping for nail polish at the supermarket the other day, though I faced hundreds of bottles and shades of color, immediately my eye fell on only one, a shade of purple (Note to those who do not buy nail polish: rarely will you see a plain descriptor like “red” or “purple” on the bottle. I think the last bottle I bought was called “I’m not a Waitress.” It was red.)
I did not browse or pick up different colors to compare, as I usually do. I went straight for the purple bottle to put it in my cart, glancing at the sticker for its name.
“Carry on,” it said.
Ok, Nan. I get it.
Josh Groban and Fried Green Tomatoes
On my way out for dinner the other night, when I asked a friend to pick a place, he unknowingly picked her favorite restaurant. The special was scallops over fried green tomatoes, part of the last meal I had cooked for her, which I'd left uneaten on the table as the EMTs carried her out and she asked through labored breaths if I had remembered to turn the oven off.
She'd never had fried green tomatoes before, and I'd never made them. I'd teased her that night that she had not fooled anyone with her "run for the hospital" trick to avoid trying my experimental dish. Who knew a plate of day-old, soggy green tomatoes could induce tears to throw away.
As I was telling my dinner companion about this, a Josh Groban song came on overhead. Nan had followed Josh Groban like a groupie, loving his music and defending him to my uncle whenever he railed against the singer's shaggy haircut. We had recently reminisced about seeing Groban perform in Cleveland years before with my uncle and his partner.
They work at Starbucks too...
As my grandmother had moved from one way of living to her next, I knew it was also time to end the in-between I had been struggling with in recent months, time to land on one side of the fence in a relationship that was important to me.
We decided to take a previously scheduled vacation as planned, and in a back corner of a rest stop Sbarro on the last leg of our trip, we had the conversation we’d been dreading, deciding to continue our relationship as the best version of us that we knew, the friendship that had begun nearly twenty years before and that neither of us wanted to lose.
After the funeral, my uncle had given him some of my grandmother's petty cash with directions to treat me to a few nice dinners together as a gift from her, and we had not spent it all by the end of our trip. Sad at the possibilities we were losing, but confident we had made the right choice about us, we went to Starbucks for one last treat from Nanny before we returned to the highway.
When the cashier who had taken our order put our coffees and cookie on the table, I said out loud, “Thanks, Nan!”
"Look," whispered the man who had been traveling with me--a good, beautiful and searching man, who had by now book-ended almost two decades of my life, by my side and with my family at both of my grandmothers’ funerals.
He pointed at the nametag of the cashier who had served us.
Her name was Angela, from the Greek Angelos, Messenger of God...Angel. And I knew it would be ok.