Saturday, December 13, 2008

Ten years ago today

Ten years ago today my grandmother died.

It was a Sunday. She died in the early hours of the morning, in bed, in her nursing home. I was the last member of our family to see her alive, and the first one to see her dead.

The next day I went into work for part of the day, ostensibly to wrap some stuff up before taking bereavement leave, but mainly to write this e-mail to a pen pal who had become a friend:

Dec. 14, 1998

My grandmother died on Sunday morning.

I think I forgot to tell you in my last letter how well my grandmother was doing. Let me rectify that omission now. My grandmother began getting treatment for her urinary tract infection early last week - Sunday or Monday - and immediately responded very positively. Her eyes brightened, she stayed awake and alert for hours at a time, she stopped alternating fever and chills, she spoke in complete sentences or longer-than-usual fragments. When I came to see her on - Thursday? Friday? - she was in bed; as I approached, she said, "Don't wake me up. I'm sleeping." This was followed by "What time is it, anyway?" When I told her it was 7:15 at night, not in the morning, she decided to wake up all the way and sit up with me for a while.

On Saturday afternoon she was better than she has been for months. She was bright and alert, sitting in her chair, watching an Andre Rieu Christmas Concert on television. She loved the music, and loved being able to name some of the songs, like "O Come, All Ye Faithful" ("Adeste Fideles".) When I told her that my mother was coming home from my sister's place in Maryland the next day, she simply said, "When?"

My uncle was there when I came in that day. After he commented on how well she looked, he mentioned to me that my grandmother's first long-term roommate in the nursing home, Eleanor Wallace, had died on Friday. My grandmother showed no reaction. I made a note to look up the obituary and go to the viewing - we had developed quite a rapport with Eleanor's family.

That afternoon, before I took my pre-
Tink's nap (or was it after I had napped, worked out, showered, and dressed? Details are so confused right now), I called my mother at my sister's house. I tried to break the news about Eleanor's death gently, and suggested that she might want to come home a little early, to be able to make the viewing.

Tink's was relatively uneventful. I came home at the usual time, around 3:00 AM, and had a before-bedtime meal. I went to sleep at 4:00 with Mazzy Star's "Among My Swan" playing, planning to get up in five hours to go to 10:45 mass at the nursing home with my grandmother.

My father woke me at 5:50, not two hours after I had lay down. My cousin was on the phone. She said, "Babki was rushed to the hospital this morning. When they went to check her at five, she wasn't breathing and didn't have a pulse." I think I responded with "That's not good" and immediately began getting dressed. I called my mother, told her that my grandmother had been taken to the hospital in "bad shape" (read "dead") and suggested that she call my uncle, who had been contacted by the nursing home as the events transpired.

I rushed to the hospital, after verifying which hospital it was. I assigned a high probability to her being dead on arrival - dead since before 5:00 that morning. I assigned a much lower probability to her having been successfully resuscitated, but then assigned a high probability that, if this were the case, she would die again anyway in a very short time. Everything else was assigned a vanishingly small probability.

Mercy Hospital in Wilkes-Barre was not built according to any one plan. You go in the main entrance, up a flight of stairs to the main lobby, and down a series of corridors to the Emergency Room. (Patients, of course, have a direct entrance.) But the doors do not lead to the Emergency Room waiting room, or admissions - you go directly into the ER. As I entered, I was overwhelmed by the calm and silence. There was a single nurse at the desk. There was no activity in the room, no beeps or pings of monitors on patients. All was quiet.

I assigned a high probability to my grandmother being dead. A much lower probability was assigned to her being alive but not in the ER. A very small probability was given to her having not yet arrived at the ER.

I confronted the nurse. "I was told that my grandmother was being brought here. Her name is Anna ____."

She stammered momentarily. "Have you spoken with anyone about this?" she said. I knew what she meant.

"It is very likely that she was dead when she came here," I countered. (That's the way I talk. It sounds really artificial when I read it now, but I think those were my exact words.)

"Yes," she said. She led me to one of the ER berths and drew back the curtain. There was my grandmother's body. Her skin was still pink. I touched her cheek - still warm. Very warm. I commented to the nurse, and then I realized that my hands were still cold from the drop in body temperature all humans experience during sleep, and from my two-minute walk through near-freezing temperatures from the parkade across the street to the main entrance to the hospital. She just seemed warm to me. Her skin was pink - not the darker color I would expect if she had choked to death on mucus or otherwise suffocated. She looked asleep - well, not exactly, since she never slept with her mouth open like that.

I got on the phone, tried to tell my mother that there was no need to hurry. I crossed connections with her - she was trying to call her brother in Georgia. I called my uncle, the father of the cousin who had told me about what had happened, and he said that he had tried to call me to let me know that she was dead, but I had already left. I was glad I missed that call. I might have decided not to go to the hospital.

As it was, I was the last member of our family to see her alive, and the first one to see her dead.

I came into work late this afternoon nominally to take care of some problems that came up over the weekend, but really just to write this letter.

There is another letter I must write, to the people who work here. I'll try to get that one out tonight.

The ten year anniversary makes me think about the ways my life has changed since then. Some things have gotten better, some worse, some have remained the same.

Ten years ago I was a thirty-year-old working his way up the corporate ladder at a well-established company. I had just committed to take a job in a new, exciting branch of our facility - but who knew if this "DVD" thing would take off? Still, I was willing to take the risk of leaving my job as Statistical Process Control Coordinator for our large CD manufacturing section and take on the role of DVD Asset Manager, coordinating the receipt of the DVD content for each project we would be Authoring and determining the precise way in which all of the elements would fit together into an Authored project.

Today I am a forty-year-old who has slipped quite far back down that ladder, smashing his chin off the rungs along the way. I almost said "that same corporate ladder," but in fact the ladder has changed ownership several times since then. I now work as a DVD Molding operator in a moribund industry in a collapsing global economy. No longer am I patiently accepting deferred rewards with the promise of something better to come; now I am scraping along as best I can, looking and working and hoping for something better to come along - just like everybody else.

There is music that I associate with that time. The songs I mentioned here were all songs that I listened to on the last night of my grandmother's life, after I had gotten back from dancing at Tink's. But there is another song, a favorite of my grandmother's. She was the sort of person who loved to sing. She would sing while she worked around the house, old standards like "Old Joe Clark" and religious songs like "Were You There?" But when I was a child there was a song she would sing to me - and, contradicting the song's lyrics, my brother and sister as well. We would sometimes sing it together in her later years, and for one of her last birthdays I bought her a music box that played it. Coincidentally, she was as old when the song first came out as I was when she died, give or take a few months.

The song is this. "You Are My Sunshine" by Jimmy Davis and Charles Mitchell, here performed by Elizabeth Mitchell:

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine
You make me happy when skies are gray
You'll never know, dear, how much I love you
Please don't take my sunshine away.

The other night, dear, as I lay sleeping
I dreamt I held you in my arms
When I awoke, dear, I was mistaken
So I laid my head down and cried.

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine
You make me happy when skies are gray
You'll never know, dear, how much I love you
Please don't take my sunshine away.


dee said...

That's the song I remember my mother singing to me when I was a little girl. Thank you for reminding me of that. She died July 25, 2001 -- the eve of St Ann's, her feast day. At her funeral my niece talked about all the times she and her cousins had shared with their grandmother. During the homily the priest looked over at her four grandchildren, now all grown up, and said "Remember, no matter what you do, your Busia is always watching you." Of course, since she thought none of they could do no wrong, it wasn't much of an admonition.

Todd HellsKitchen said...

Sweet and contemplative post... Blogging at it's best!

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Isis the Scientist said...

What a sweet and touching post, DB. This is an amazing tribute to your grandmother and I have to imagine she would be pleased. What a blessing that you were able to spend a lovely, quality day with her before she passed.

Eternal rest grant unto her, Oh Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon her.

All my best,