daughters · death · grandparents · Grief

A Good Death (from the Momplex Blog archives)

It’s, what, maybe our fifth night at my grandpa’s apartment? I’m losing count now. We’ve been holding bedside vigil with him, all the women in the family, which is not a lot of women and yet nearly all of the family. My mom and her sister. My sister and me. Tonight there’s also my daughter. She’s only 10, but she asked to come. I wasn’t expecting this.

He doesn’t look like himself, I tell her. His mouth is open really wide—like this—and he’s gotten even thinner since you saw him on Thursday. She says she knows. She says okay. He’s gasping, and it sounds like he’s choking, I say. She just wants to give him a card she’s made. He won’t be able to see it, I say. You can tell I’m really scared. She has no idea what dying looks like. I’m just learning myself.

Of course, my dad has been coming and going. It’s “just” his father-in-law, but being that my dad’s own parents were killed in a car crash some 17 years ago, there’s a surrogate thing my grandpa wanted to do. Call me dad, Grandpa asked one day. And my dad obliged the man. This old man. This deaf old man. This man with finger joints thick as walnuts. This no-longer-towering man whose shoes I used to stand on to dance. Walk like a man, fast as I can, sang Frankie Valli. I can still see the hem of my grandpa’s pants swishing over his big Frankenstein shoes. I was so small. He was a giant.

As the giant shrinks, so does his world. Sure, he was always happy to see us, always greeted me with joy when his hunched-over body slowly climbed into my car. He always seemed tickled when he noticed, ten minutes into the drive, that the kids were in the backseat. “Oh, ho, ho!” he’d laugh. “Hello, little snipes!” But mostly he was staying home. Because it was hard to get to the bathroom. Because there were too many steps up to the restaurant. Because scooters don’t go over grass. Because it was too loud to hear. Because it was embarrassing. Because he was kind of tired.

“I’ve been sleeping all the time,” he told me just two weeks ago, when he happily agreed to go for coffee. It was the last time I saw him before he began this slow death. “Every chair I see looks comfortable, and then I sit in it, and it is.”

He’s gasping loudly in the bedroom, like he’s been doing for days. For the umpteenth time, I’m both surprised and secretly relieved he’s still alive when I walk into the apartment. My mom and aunt are playing cards in the front room, and the smell hits me in the face. It’s powerful, thick, and musky, a smell you stop noticing after just a few minutes, as I’m learning. I know it’s a smell that happens when old people want to live independently but barely can. But now I think it’s the smell of dying. I hate thinking that.

“Are you okay?” I ask my daughter. She nods, and we walk back to the bedroom. Great Grandpa doesn’t look like Great Grandpa anymore. I think it’s worse than she thought. But she’s okay. She wants to look, but she doesn’t want to look. She looks and looks away. I don’t know which one of us gives him her card. On the front she’s scrawled, “Get well soon!” But on the inside she’s written, “You’ve had a long life. I hope you enjoyed it!”

During the day, I’ll tell you we haven’t been sitting around crying and wiping our noses constantly. You can’t do that 24/7. Yes, we cry. But we also play card games and board games. We laugh and tell stories. Today my sister takes my daughter for a ride around the complex in his scooter. We time each other to see who can get from living room to fridge and back in the scooter in the shortest time. We eat junk food. But my favorite part is the singing. It’s my favorite because I think the rest might confuse my daughter, or maybe me. Of course, I want her to know it’s okay to be okay. I don’t want her to be devastated—and she isn’t—but I don’t want her to get too silly either. I’m not sure it’s the coping mechanism I want to model. That’s why I love the singing.

We gather around my grandpa’s bed, and we sing songs he loves, including “Me and Bobby McGee,” which sounds a lot different when you sing it to an old man who loved it, an old man who’s actively dying. My mom and aunt can sing in harmony. My daughter has a pretty little voice, and it’s coming at me from over my shoulder. I want to cry. We try to sing my grandpa’s favorite hymn, “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” but we don’t know all the words. My sister looks them up on her iPod so we can sing along, and we do, but the last verse is missing. So, we try a different version, and when we sing the last verse, I see my grandpa’s face clench up a little:

When my feeble life is o’er,
Time for me will be no more,
Guide me gently, safely o’er
To Thy kingdom’s shore, to Thy shore.

The hospice nurses keep telling us it won’t be much longer, maybe today, maybe tonight. He hasn’t had any fluids or food for nearly a week. This is imminent, they say. But it never is. “It’s inhumane,” I told my mom when she asked me yesterday what I was thinking. “This is inhumane.” But now I know that every day has been for something. Every painfully long day that his tired old body has clung to life, has allowed us to do one more sacred thing before he goes. And another. And another. Today it was hearing my daughter sing to her dying great grandfather, to experience the beauty of all these strong women—I’ll count my little girl among them—carrying along a strong, sweet man through the tough work of dying.

After a week, my grandpa finally passed one evening with my mom and aunt at his side. He died with my daughter’s card in his hand, and after we washed his body and prepared it to go, my aunt returned the card to the same place. That’s an image I’ll never forget.

I sense a song coming on.
I sense a song coming on.
babies · grandparents · happiness · intentional happiness · motherhood · speed-posts

Not Done Yet: The You Your Kids Haven’t Met Yet (from the Momplex Blog archives)

My living room walls are painted the color of old Coors cans. It’s a sort of muted golden yellow. I didn’t even realize I’d chosen Coors yellow until this week, when I got to feeling sappy about my childhood. The walls have been that color for five years. How could I miss the connection?


Source: Lovelypackage.com
Source: Lovelypackage.com

Coors Banquet Beer made regular appearances at my parents’ neighborhood barbecues when I was a little kid. And I can still almost taste the sweat I’d swipe off the cold ones, freshly popped by my dad and other mutton-chopped men, after golf tournaments in the crusty mining town we called home. They’d scoop them with their gloved hands out of ice barrels near the patio where their scores were posted. I can still hear the hot locusts buzzing as I sat cross-legged in a shady spot watching them, my hair smelling like chlorine and the sun-blistered skin on my shoulders starting to peel. I liked being there around all the dads. They looked mighty high on their low handicaps and tossing back those Coors.

I don’t remember my mom drinking beer, even though she’s the one out of my two parents who will indulge in a cold one now and again. “I never really was a drinker,” I’ve heard my dad say. I can’t argue with that. Knowing how memories go, there were probably just a few backyard barbecues and not nearly so many sweaty Coors cans as I like to imagine. We fudge our childhood memories a lot, maybe more than we think. And some of us take a longer time than others to realize it wasn’t all about us.

I spent this past Saturday in a primitive little hilltop cabin for a quiet getaway with my mom. We had no electricity or running water. The bathroom was an outhouse about 30 feet from the cabin. Snow was up to our knees in some spots, and we had only a wood-burning stove to warm our food. We took little hikes and naps and read quietly from our books. We ate homemade chicken-noodle soup and salad by candlelight and corked a bottle of wine using a shoe and a steak knife. (By God, we were going to open that #%$&* bottle!) At night we curled up together in a loft bed and talked. In the morning we chatted and giggled before heading out to build a snowman and then stab the snow with so many pretty icicles, it looked like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude.

Wait, I think I'm overstating the awesomeness of what we created. (Source: Wodumedia.com)
Wait, I think I’m overstating the awesomeness of what we created. (Source: Wodumedia.com)

None of this was the elemental thing of it all. No, the whole point, for me, was discovering that my childhood version of my mom wasn’t the “real” her.

My mom stayed home taking care of my sister and me for a long time. She and my dad were close friends with several couples that also had kids, and when we congregated, there was drinking and loudness and so much hilarity, the kids running wild and staying up a little too late and all of us playing games of badminton or cards. We were happy and nuts. I can still see my mom laughing and smiling in all these scenes.

When I was in college, she started to change. In fact, though she’s always been an angel to others, over the years, she’s become almost obsessive about helping the elderly, the mentally ill, the poor, animals—just everyone and everything that breaks your heart. Her latest thing is the fight against human trafficking. Sometimes talking with her is depressing. “Mom, I’m sorry. I know you think some of these death stories are sweet,” I remember telling her when she was working with hospice, “but they just terrify me.” There is sadness all over the world, and she can’t just relax. Sometimes I just wish she’d be her old self. I miss the real her.

But as we talked this weekend and I told her how much I hate these Wisconsin winters that I was never cut out to endure, she said this: “Imagine that you’re sitting behind our old house in Arizona, and it’s 100 degrees out, and the LAWN has just been put in—a lawn has been PUT IN—and you’re staring at the wall of dirt over you, where they’ve just cut through the earth so you can have a house, because they just did things like that. And flies are buzzing around your head, and you think, ‘This is where I live now, and I’m going to just live here for a long time, and this is it.’” She explained to me how she made a good life there, how she sought her friends and found ways to make it work, but the things that gave her days meaning were not the things I would have expected. It sure wasn’t the Coors banquet beer cans.

And that’s when it hit me, how blind I’ve been. I know good and well my kids don’t really know the whole me. They have no idea what a detour was taken when we decided to have them—before we moved to a town with polar vortexes that make me feel murderous. Before I quit my editing career to raise them. Before I put on stretch marks and wrinkles. Before I learned how to speak in whole G-rated paragraphs. Before I knew anything about time-outs or changing diapers or making sure homework gets done or shoveling snow or volunteering on school committees or teaching Sunday school—or, really, most of the things they’ll probably remember about me at this age. They have no idea that, like them, I’m not a finished product. There’s more than meets they eye. I’m still becoming something, and I may become many more somethings before I’m done.

So, that pretty much tells you where my “real” mom went. She went to the cabin with me this past weekend. Turns out she’s been with me all along.

dads · daughters · grandparents · healthcare · transplant

How Parenthood–and a New Heart–Taught Me to Appreciate My Dad (from the Momplex Blog archives)

For six months, I had a battery-operated dad. This is different—significantly—from having a battery-operated “boyfriend.” (We all know what that looks like.) My dad’s battery was a big, heavy square that fit into a wearable pouch given to him in the cardiac ICU. He’d just had open-heart surgery, and the battery connected to a tube that ran through a grotesque little hole in his stomach and up to a device that helped his heart pump. The hole and the device, called an LVAD, were put there on the advice of Mayo Clinic doctors. That’s because my once healthy 62-year-old dad had rapidly and suddenly plummeted into acute heart failure over the six months prior. The doctors called it a mystery of sorts. And they called the LVAD a bridge to transplant.

Before any of this happened, I had a long stretch when I didn’t get along with my dad, for about 15 years. I tried. He tried. But it was really strained, and our fights were poisonous. However sweet my earliest memories of him, they could not support the weight of our inharmonious personalities as I grew up and developed opinions (and hormones). Tender days of horsey-back rides faded miserably into the distance as I traveled the roads of adolescence and beyond. For a time, I suspected he didn’t even like me. Loved, yes, but not liked–and the feeling was mutual. During my mid- to late 20s, we managed to tread lightly around each other, which had the effect of looking like we’d made peace. But sometimes the veneer would crack open. Angry tears were never far away for me.

When I was 31, I gave birth to my first child, a cherubic little girl, and my dad became Grandpa. He was smitten. I have a picture of him sitting next to her on the brightest green lawn during her second spring. He’s showing her how to make a blade of grass whistle. The conversation looks serious, resembling a  photo my mom keeps on the fridge, one of my dad having a fancy tea party with their neighbor’s toddler. Lace gloves were involved. Tiny teapots. In the picture, my dad has the same thoughtful look, like he’s at the labor-negotiations table again. He’s really at that party. I’m a grown woman, but when I first saw the picture, it made me jealous. Why didn’t my dad do those things for me? Why didn’t get that guy?

At least my daughter got him. And as I watched his delight in her unfold, as I walked my own path as a parent, I forged a bridge of empathy toward him. I learned what he’d meant when he once admitted he always loved but didn’t always like me. I learned how hard it was for him to temper his cutting words, because I struggle with that same flaw as a parent. I learned that even the most lovable kids are exhausting. I discovered that sometimes, yes, you’d rather lick an outhouse than play another game with them, especially if it involves you doing voice-over for their toys. I learned that it’s easy to be strong out of the gates but hard not to get whittled down. Mistakes pile up, and you worry you’ll be remembered in the worst light—not as the horsey-back parent you once were but as the parent you became, the one who sometimes lost her shit over nothing.

My daughter was eight and my son was three when Grandpa became battery-operated. I was sick with worry but tried to hide it from them. The thought of them growing up without him, forgetting him even, was overwhelming. Ambulance sirens in the distance would give me an indigestible mix of sympathy and anticipation that’s hard to explain to anyone who’s never awaited a life-saving organ donation. Every time I watched the MedFlight helicopter zooming overhead, the yin and yang of it would choke me up. “Let’s pray for that person to be okay,” I’d tell my kids. And we would. Guiltily, anxiously, I’d wonder if the sirens signaled the phone call my family had been waiting months to receive.

On November 10, 2011, just after noon, I got that call.

“Dad, I’m in a meeting,” I loud-talked into the phone over the din of the restaurant. I was having lunch with a client. “Did you need something?” He was yammering away, and I kept repeating more loudly that I was in a meeting.

“I have a HEART!” he finally shouted. “They found a match.”

The first thing I did once I stopped blubbering into my lunch was to call my daughter’s school and have her pulled from class. As I collected her into her seat and steered toward the sitter’s to pick up my son, I finally divulged to her how very serious this surgery was. I’d held off until then, because I hadn’t wanted to scare her. And, selfishly, I hadn’t wanted to field questions that would scare me. Kids ask hard questions.

In the rear-view mirror, I saw in my daughter’s eyes the most penetrating concern and hope and love. She just wanted Grandpa to be okay. And I felt the feelings right along with her. I wanted him to live long enough for her to remember him, for my son to get to know him, and for me to tell him I was happy to have him back, warts and all. Thanks to one amazing stranger, one generous donor, that’s exactly what happened: