my grandma died (pt. 2)
to the airport and back
As my grandmother deteriorated in the hospital room I left behind, I texted my mom that I wanted to talk with her. She had the next shift keeping vigil until I could get my aunt from the airport to the hospital.
I needed to cut the bullshit and have an honest conversation about Nan’s outlook. From where I was sitting at the foot of her bed, things were not looking good. I mentioned that maybe Nan might have a spurt of energy and wake up — my mom said that already happened last night. This likely wasn’t gonna have a happy ending.
I left her at the hospital to sit with my dad. I had a few minutes to refill my gas on the way and stop by home. Before I made it there, my older sister called, and I told her things were grim. I said that if there was a funeral we’d need her back. A text from my mom interrupted our call — Nan had taken a bad turn, hopefully I’d be able to get my aunt to the hospital in time. I told my sister to find flights.
I had the house to myself when I walked in, so I turned on the Hadestown soundtrack, blasting it through the house. The floors were being redone and all our furniture was missing, rendering my childhood home oddly foreign and acoustically resonant. At around 5:45 I was wrapping up and grabbing stuff to go, but I paused to sing my favorite song from the musical, Wait For Me (Reprise). I was happy for an empty house so I could scream out the lyrics in an impromptu duet with Euridice.
I’m coming wait for me,
I hear the walls repeating
The falling of our feet and
It sounds like drumming
And we are not alone
I hear the rocks and stones
Echoing our song
First I thought of myself, as I tend to do. The obvious rendition was belting it to my aunt and cousin, since I was on my way to the airport.
Then I imagined my grandma singing it to my grandpa, who died 20 years ago. I’m coming. Wait for me.
My chest vibrated with the song and sadness of my grandmother dying while the melody echoed away through the empty house. The door to her room was open just down the hall, where she used to live until both of my grandmothers left— an outcome I was active in, if not the catalyst of.
Wait For Me is just over 3 minutes long, and to my recollection it started about 5:45, because I was out the door and up the drive at 5:52. I remember that for sure. Later I heard Nan’s time of death was 5:48, or just around when I was tearing up at a song I’ve sang a hundred times before.
It’s also possible that I’m remembering the events in a way that imbues the timeline with meaning. Otherwise my grandma’s light winked out of the cosmos and I didn’t notice.
I figured out the quickest route to and from the airport to minimize my aunt and cousin’s travel time, and I was parked in the cell lot well before the flight landed. I’d stuffed three books into my bag as I packed that morning. One was just called Death. It’s a quick read I’d already finished, but I figured maybe the guy would have something helpful to contribute in my hour of need. Spoiler: he didn’t.
As my eyes glossed over his platitudes, the sun left me without enough light to read, transfixing the cloudy dusk with vibrant shades of purple and pink and yellow. I thought to myself that Nan might never see another sunset. What a shame to be missing this.
That would’ve made yesterday her last sunset, and today her final sunrise. I didn’t know that when I watched the sky darken yesterday, or as I slept through dawn.
My phone buzzed. I didn’t want a text from my mom with the worst news. I didn’t know how I could drive my family to the hospital and keep my cool if I had to hide Nan’s death from them. Luckily, it was my cousin.
Great. Only carry-ons, right?
Cool. Swinging around. I’ll be waiting by Door #4.
[20 minutes pass]
Off the plane yet?
Yeah, just waiting for our bags at carousel #4. The carry-ons got checked.
Their betrayal enraged me. I was rushing to the airport and back for them to see Nan before they couldn’t, and they had checked their carry-ons. There wasn’t time. And why lie about not having checked bags if they were in fact checked? What if we were just a few minutes too late? Was I supposed to forgive myself? Were they supposed to forgive me?
A police officer started walking my way. I worried that she’d ask me to move my car around, that I’d have to circle. We’d be even later. Why didn’t they tell the flight people they had to be off the plane asap? This was not my fault.
My thoughts trailed off as Door #4 swung open, my aunt and cousin walking out with two small bags. I helped them with the trunk latch and we shared brief hugs.
The ride was unusually quiet. I couldn’t think of what to say to a child being driven towards their dying mom.
After 10 minutes we got to talking about anything except the only thing on our minds, and we hit traffic. Maybe it wouldn’t have been there if they were 5 minutes faster with their bags, I thought — but kept to myself. My cousin wasn’t any more to blame for the traffic than I was. That was life.
We had to enter the hospital through the Emergency Room entrance because it was past regular visiting hours. I dropped my aunt and cousin at the door to park so they could rush up. A minute later I flashed my crumpled bracelet for my own entry. They were still waiting inside — said they didn’t want to go up without me.
We stepped off the elevator. My parents were waiting for us down the hall. I was walking a bit ahead, and turned around, gesturing that I did what they asked and got his sister there. I was closer than my aunt, so even through his mask I heard my dad say, “She didn’t want to live like that.”
My aunt asked what he said. Maybe because she couldn’t make it out or maybe what he said was a thing you can’t understand the first time you hear it. He repeated himself.
By then they were close enough that he caught her slightly as she stumbled into his arms, weeping. At some point in the embrace and ensuing explanation she nearly fell to the floor, the loss bending her in half. Seeing my aunt’s anguish was like staring at an open lightbulb. I looked away.
My mom was consoling my cousin, and I stood nearer to her until they parted and I asked, “When did this happen?”
Was it just after she texted a warning? Was it before the sunset? Was it when we were waiting for their checked carry on bags to arrive? Was it 5 minutes ago and the traffic kept my aunt from a goodbye?
No. It was after I left, but before I could’ve gotten them here. Nothing I did made any difference.
I wiped some tears from my cheek while my mom and cousin and I shared a half hug, giving my aunt and dad what little space we could. My aunt said, “I didn’t get to tell her I love her. She knew, I know she knew… but I didn’t get to tell her.”
We just didn’t make it.
My dad came over to hug my cousin, as my aunt embraced my mom. I stepped back, but not far enough to miss what my aunt said. “Thank you so much for taking care of her all these years. She could be a bitch, but she was my mom.”
Then my aunt swung towards me, apologizing for not including me in the condolences.
Stop. I thought. Don’t console me, please. Your mom just died — you just lost the most important person in your life. Half the time I didn’t even like her. I should be consoling you.
“I know she was a pain but she loved us all in her own way.”
Surprisingly, I was off-put by the comment. My grandmother was dead. I had no problem speaking ill of her before, but on this side of things, my insistent wish for everyone to admit her failings abandoned me.
We made our way into the ICU, my dad in the lead as I brought up the rear. I wanted them to be in front because I’d already seen her today, and also I assumed they didn’t need me standing in their way.
Her room looked entirely different, empty of the energy exerted earlier by man and machine. Every accompaniment had been removed, except for the heater, which my dad promptly switched off. He said he wanted her to stay warm, to offset rigor mortis — so Nan’s hand wouldn’t be cold when my aunt held it.
My aunt and cousin flanked the bed. They commented on Nan’s veiny hands and matted hair, the hospital clothes, the bandages on her neck hiding battle scars from a recently lost fight.
My dad launched into an explanation of the days events. Both my aunt and cousin have medical training, and they nodded along as the timeline, official cause of death, and procedures were laid out. Apparently when she coded that morning, two of my dad’s friends were in the room to check on her, and they were able to stave off what might’ve otherwise been the end.
Before all this, I thought our family was cursed with mother’s burying their sons. I always resented that Nan would outlast my dad. Guess not.
My aunt asked follow ups, what the next steps were — the funeral, the burial, the mass, the funeral home, where my grandfather was buried, the trip to Pennsylvania, clearing out her apartment.
If it were appropriate I would’ve asked them to stop. Conversing over my grandmother’s lifeless body about upcoming agenda items felt irrelevant. Then again who was I to judge their coping.
During their discussion my cousin stepped away from the bed, and it seemed like the appointed time for me to step forward, if I wanted to at all. I hesitated, because I didn’t want to touch her, but I thought that I might regret not doing so.
There were already enough of those between the two of us, so I reached below the blanket for her hand, which was curled up and small enough that mine covered it entirely. By accident almost, I stuck my finger into her clutches like kids do with their grandparents, this time an inversion of a memory long forgotten.
That’s when her predicament became real to me — my finger nearly wedged in, her grip stronger than she’d been in a long time. It almost took visible effort to pull out of her grasp, as if she was trying so hard to hold on. But she was gone.
Eventually my family’s attention turned away from the mounting to-do list and back to the body of their mother. Turns out that was much worse than the distanced, procedural planning.
Watching them talk to their cooling loved one was horrifying — this plaintive effort to keep on as if Nan could respond when her symphony of life had gone quiet. “Your hair looks great mom”, my aunt said. “I had a parfait for lunch yesterday, I forgot to tell you last night on the phone.” “I caught up more on the Mandalorian, we didn’t talk about that last episode.”
I couldn’t breathe. There were too many people. The body heater had elevated the room temperature past natural limits. My mask was recycling hot breath back into my mouth.
My family’s grief was overwhelming me. I couldn’t feel anything of my own.
So I walked out of Nan’s room for the second time that day.
— a grandchild