It’s not right that my sister still blames me for the delays, the misunderstandings, and the near-death experience we endured on that cold April morning so many Thursdays ago. At the time, I did what I thought I was supposed to be doing. I reacted as I was conditioned to react. Everything worked out in the end.
And she knows I don’t make my best decisions while I am asleep.
Yet she still thinks I should have done things differently. How, I don’t know.
I didn’t ask to be ‘the’ contact. I said I would, but I never really thought they’d call. How many false alarms had we had? How many times had the Home called and said that she’d had this or that happen and was in the hospital? We’d go to see her and she’d throw food at us. How was I supposed to know that this was the call I was supposed to take seriously? It was anybody’s guess.
I was having a great dream, looking forward to an extra-long Easter weekend when the phone rang. It was five o’clock in the morning; hadn’t I just gone to bed? They told me she fell. Or maybe she had a stroke. Or maybe she had a stroke and then she fell. They didn’t know. But she’d banged her head and needed stitches. That wouldn’t make her a very co-operative patient, was my first thought. A headache would only increase her distance with the jello. I asked if they were sure she had to go to the hospital; they’d never been hit with dry toast. They said yes. I went out on a limb and asked them to have the doctor from the hospital call me when they had more details. Sleep came easy, and I continued on with my dream.
I dreamt my sister was yapping at me about a phone call. She was ordering me to get up and get going. She was telling me to phone him. I remember thinking, she can drive, she can dial a phone, she’ll look great in applesauce.
A ringing telephone woke me again. I only answered because I vaguely recalled a reason to do so. It was Doctor Somebody from the General, and she was looking after my grandmother.
I rolled over, wrapping myself in the cord. She seemed to understand my mumbling because she said that yes, I absolutely had to wake up for this.
I sat up on the side of my bed looking out the window at a still dark city and told her to go ahead. She explained that she wasn’t sure whether it had been a stroke and a fall or a fall and a stroke, but that it wasn’t good. My grandmother had been, and still was, unconscious and there was an order to do no more than keep her comfortable. She wanted me to confirm that.
I told her, yes, she was to let my Baba die. And to let her know I’d be right there.
I dressed in three steps as I crossed my bedroom floor and found my sister at the door, listening. She was angry that I hadn’t called Dad earlier. She was worried he would miss her. I told her to phone him if she wanted, but I was gone.
I left with my shoes in my hand.
When I arrived at the Emergency Department ten minutes later, it was still dark and quiet outside. I found a group of doctors and nurses having coffee and playing on wheeled office chairs, talking about the Easter Bunny. They saw me and fell silent. I guess I looked healthy enough, and I was the only expected visitor. A doctor approached me, introduced herself, and asked me to follow her. As we passed empty room after empty room, I became aware of a painfully laboured sound, a drawing in of breath that seemed to take an unimaginable effort. We entered a room and I wondered why.
The person laid out on the table was not my grandmother. It was some ancient shell of a body that I didn’t recognize. The hair was white and the skin gray. They had removed her dentures, allowing her face to fall into an unfamiliar, melting shape. She was covered in a plain white sheet, starched, clean, and a stark, unwrinkled contrast to the worn soul it covered. I watched as another deafening breath filled the room and the hallway and had to ask if she was in any pain.
As the doctor answered that she wasn’t, the noise of the breathing beside us suddenly stopped. The doctor leaned over my grandmother, gently holding her hand, listening to her heart.
She shook her head and smiled at me. “She’s unconscious, but she knows you’re here. She’s much calmer now.”
“I don’t know. But not very. I’ll leave you here with her.”
I sat in the chair on the other side of the table and held Baba’s hand. In that moment her life flashed before me. I remembered those hands. These were the hands that taught me how to make perogies at five-years-old so I could find a husband. These were the hands that sewed matching dresses for us, and made peaches for us, and always had 7-Up for us. These hands tried desperately to get me to write with my right hand. Their nails were always neatly trimmed, never with a pair of clippers, but oddly, with an ancient pair of sewing scissors. And they were soft and smooth. For all the work these hands had done in their life, they were always so smooth.
And there were her wedding rings. I had seen those rings my whole life, though the man who gave them to her died three days before I was born.
I held her hand, and I told her I loved her. I thanked her for all she had taught me. I told her I was okay and that she could leave now if she needed to go.
She breathed on, and I wondered at the strength of her.
I sat with her for a lifetime in the ten minutes that it took for my sister to arrive. I still don’t know why we didn’t come together. She came in and sat on the other side of Baba.
She asked me the same questions I had asked the doctor. I told her what I knew. She seemed satisfied with that. She had called Dad, and we figured he’d be there in about an hour. Then we sat. And waited.
Waiting felt as inappropriate as it sounds.
Every once in a while, her breath would seem to catch, and her tongue would jump as if it had fallen in the way. At first this was startling, as we were waiting very quietly. Then we began to watch for these episodes as signs of life. Our vigil turned wary. I began to doubt our purpose there and questioned my sister about that.
“Do you think she knows we’re here?”
“Are we supposed to be saying something?”
“I don’t know.”
“What does her hand feel like?”
“Cold,” I answered without thinking. Then upon thinking, I quickly, but gently, put it down.
We both examined her closely.
“How do we know when… You know.”
“I don’t know. How would I know?”
“I don’t know. But she hasn’t done that tongue thing for a while.”
“Yeah,” I agreed.
We waited some more, watching closely.
“Stick your finger under her nose,” my loving sister suggested.
“I’m not sticking my finger under her nose. You do it.”
“Get a mirror,” I suggested.
She began looking around the room for a small mirror.
“Don’t you have one in your purse?”
We looked around the room for something shiny. Laying eyes on the bedpan under the table at the same time, we looked at each other and simply shook our heads.
“What do we do?”
“I don’t think poking her would help.”
“Go get the doctor,” I decided.
“You go get the doctor.”
She looked at me with that look that carried years of ‘I hate you when you do this.’
She opened the door and peeked out politely.
“Excuse me,” she said cautiously to the group of chatting experts in the hall.
Our doctor immediately put on her professional face and came right over.
“How do we know? Um?”
“When she’s passed?” she helped.
“Yeah,” we both said, relieved.
The doctor leaned carefully over Baba’s body and listened to her heart. She listened for a long time, finally explaining that the heart doesn’t just stop, it slows down until, well…
At last she stopped listening and simply said, “It’s stopped. I’m sorry.”
We looked at her, and I felt myself shrug my shoulders and nod my head. I didn’t feel sad. I didn’t feel right. I felt like someone should take me and tell me what to do next.
Someone did. A nurse came for us and led us down the hall to a small crying room. I sat there with my sister feeling quite surprised that Baba had actually died this time. In my lifetime, every invitation – to weddings, Christmas, graduations, Sunday dinner – that had ever been offered to Baba had been answered with, “If I’m still here.”
And now she wasn’t.
“You’re going to have to tell Dad.”
“I will,” I promised.
“You should have called him earlier, you know.”
I looked at my little sister. In her entire lifetime, she had fought for Baba’s attention and never received any that she deserved. Even as a young woman, she would visit the Home regularly, more faithful than any of us. Even long after Baba could remember who she was. And yet…
“She waited for you.”
“Dad should have been here.”
“He wouldn’t have made it. Her biggest fear was to die alone. When I got here, she calmed down, but she didn’t die. She didn’t go until you got here. She waited for you.”
I don’t think that realization ever did sink in.
We waited forever for my parents to arrive, and when they did, I steeled myself to tell my Dad the news.
I looked at him, his face, not knowing yet that his mom had finally died and simply said, “She’s gone, Dad.”
He blinked at me and replied, “What? They sent her back up to the Home already?”
I laughed. “No, Dad. She died. About an hour or so ago.”
His body seemed to melt a couple of inches then. His hands were in the pockets of his jacket. He shook his head. “Really?”
I smiled at him and nodded.
“You were there?”
“Yeah. We both were.”
“Then everything’s okay.”
“Yeah,” I told him.
We made the funeral arrangements, and said our goodbyes.
Baba lives on in our hearts and my children’s hearts. We tell stories about her and her life. I don’t sew, but the kids and I still make perogies using Baba’s old pots and ladle. My husband married me even though he hates perogies.
And my sister and I still laugh about the morning Baba died and we made such fools of ourselves. We are sure that her spirit left her body long before we realized it and hung around long enough to watch us and our antics. I know that Baba died laughing. And probably shaking her head wondering how we would ever get by being as incompetent as she left us.
My first and only close brush with death left me knowing that every little laugh along the way, is something you get to take with you. Every time I smile, or hear my children laugh, I know that Baba enjoys us, too. Even if we are a little too stupid for our own good!