Seriously. Who needs a 48 pack of Natural Light? I just wanted one good beer, or maybe a refreshing wine cooler – because yes, I’m really 16 at heart. My sweat soaked tank-top and yoga capris that I’d been wearing for at least two days stuck to me and I was shivering as I stood dumbstruck in the cold beverage aisle at the only place to shop for groceries for thirty miles. The Wal Mart. I probably would have fared better at the gas station. Instead, I had my choice of mega-packs of off brand alcohol spritzers, whatever the hell those are, and beer that you only buy to bury the good stuff so your mooching neighbor doesn’t find your IPA of the day. Even boxed wine sounded better than the choices I faced, but it was mid-August and there was no AC at the house, I wanted cold carbonated courage in a bottle (but a can would do).
As I stood there, frozen in indecision, I thought about the past week. How my life had gone from mediocre to catastrophic in just a few days. With just a few words really. My neck ached from the accident two weeks earlier. And I couldn’t decide if my inability to pick a crappy beer was due to lack of appealing options, remnants of the concussion, or the sheer stress of the past three days. Whatever the cause, I settled on Truly Spiked and Sparkling a “refreshing sparkling water, only more fun” drink in a can. At least it didn’t look like beer. I could drink one in front of Grandma without much explaining. I lugged the 12-pack carton, the bagged salad, and a bunch of bananas around the store three times, sans cart – because those are truly a pain in the butt, before finally submitting to the hell that is Wal Mart check out.
“We found a tumor”
My world collapsed with those words. The very last thing she wanted to hear was the exact thing I was going to have to tell her. I’ve given her distasteful news in the past, “Grandma, I’m joining the Navy,” “Grandma, I won’t be home for Thanksgiving,” “Yes, Grandma, I know it’s far, but I’ll only be gone for a month…” but this was different. There was no returning from this.
Just five days before, the entire family was gathered in her yard having just eaten a birthday feast and celebrating her 96th birthday. She was tired and feeling “puny” but she delighted in having everyone around her as we sang “Happy Birthday” and joked and teased as our family always does. But just as she’d muttered last December that that would be the last time the family celebrated Christmas in that house, she said more matter-of-factly that she guessed this was her last birthday. And it is. Was. Will be.
Five days. I watched the light in her eyes dim as I took her to the emergency room. She knew it would be life changing. We both did. Looking back, I’m not sure what either of us hoped to gain from the tests and exams – perhaps knowledge, some relief? We both knew it wasn’t going to be anything good. When I got the report from the doctor, I begged him to not say anything until my uncles could join us. There was no way I could deliver her death sentence to Grandma. As we waited in the recovery room for her transport back to the ward, me barely holding it together, both of us trying not to laugh at the woman in the next curtain who’d obviously had a more challenging sedation and was shouting the most inappropriate things as she regained her senses (it truly was funny – and I was grateful for the diversion), but as we waited Grandma kept fretting over what the doctor may have found, how the procedure went, when would he come talk to her. She said, as she had frequently over the past months, “I hope it’s not cancer.” Knowing it was, but trying not to reveal it, I asked her what it about cancer that she was afraid of. “Because that’ll be the end.” I feigned a reason to move around behind her so my face wouldn’t betray me. The tension only broken when the woman next door hollered “I’m gonna fart!!”
Leaving the hospital the next day, we left part of her spirit behind – along with a fair amount of her dignity, and with any grace, her memories of the worst of the procedures she endured. She just wanted to go home. As grateful as I was to be with her, I scrambled to make sense of what the next weeks and months would bring. She declined any further testing or treatment, so we had no knowledge of how bad things were or would get. More than a few times that day and many to come, she would look at me pleadingly, asking “did I do the right thing?” She knew she couldn’t tolerate another hospitalization, much less any surgery, so she had opted to “live out her days as best she could.”
I walked up the three steps to the porch I’d spent my childhood on, twisting to get myself and the groceries through the screen door. Taking a deep breath and pasting a smile on my face, I yelled “I’m back.” Her reply, “Well it took you long enough.” I’d been gone less than 45 minutes.
Last Christmas, sitting on that front porch next to her as she looked around and nodded and commented on how nice it was to have everyone together, I felt what she did. She wouldn’t see another December in that porch swing. She knew it then. Her symptoms had started a few months before, but we unknowingly attributed the slight improvement to the meds and treatments prescribed by her PCM. They lingered for months, sometimes getting better, never really getting worse. Her doctor dismissed them as signs of cancer – “if it was cancer, you would be getting worse fast. That you aren’t getting worse means it is something else…” So we adjusted to the new normal and chalked it up to 96 years of active living finally catching up to the old gal.
Ninety-six years of pruning day lilies, sprouting seedlings for the garden, raking leaves, weed-eating yard, picking up sticks and hacking away at unruly shrubs with a pocket knife. Ninety-six years of dancing in the dining room, loving her family with food and worry, fussing over jigsaw puzzles, and reading Agatha Christie. Never one to sit still, her motto was “Do what you can, while you can.” And she did. And still is, even though she really shouldn’t.
We talked a lot in those days following the news, usually on the porch swing. She reflected on her life, how much joy she’d had, how good she’d had it, and how full it was. But she still had a list of things that needed doing. The okra was coming in. There was a bush by the front porch that had inexplicably died. And the tress were losing branches and those needed to be piled up and burned. But she couldn’t do any of that. Her body was betraying her. Quickly.
As the heat of the day faded into evening, she used her walker to hobble to the front porch in search of a breeze. I got her settled with some water and opened my can of Truly. (Truly disgusting, by the way.) We sat in silence. Neither of us having any more words for the day. She was dying. Her body was failing. She wouldn’t see her day lilies bloom again. Neither of us dared wonder aloud “how long?” “how bad will it be?”
“How long can you stay? I don’t want to be by myself.” I told her I could stay a few days, get her settled, then would need to run down to Florida to collect my things. She wouldn’t be alone. My uncle lived there, too. He did work some nights, but she was sleeping soundly and able to get around enough to care for herself for a few hours when needed. When we drove up for her birthday the week before, I’d tossed in a few extra clothes, “just in case.” I’d been in Pensacola for over a month and had made myself quite at home at my friend’s house, intending to study and research and write between trips to The Gulf. That I was even this near home was no accident. Planning my summer, I had intentionally wrapped up my obligations and travels by the end of June so I could be closer to home. Closer to Grandma.
“Well, whatever happens. If something happens while you are gone, don’t feel guilty.”
The weeks passed. Grandma was stable enough that the family were able to see through a few planned excursions and vacations without much disruption. I relocated to my home base in Norcross, we enlisted the aid of Hospice, encouraged frequent visits by family and friends. And waited. It didn’t take long. Each week she grew more and more frail. Cooking for herself was the first of many sacrifices over the coming weeks. Already unable to get outside, and now unable to cook for herself or family, her spirit quickly lost its spark. She grew more and more wearisome. Her body was failing, but her mind still sharp. We talked for hours. Me at the foot of her bed. The swing wasn’t as comfortable anymore and it was still stifling hot as August gave way to September.
She trusted me with her fears. She amazed me with her stories – tidbits about her life I’d never known. She and a friend worked for their lunches at the drugstore – clearing the counter during their school lunch break in trade for a sandwich. Yes, she had been to Florida – Miami in fact, taking her first son with family friends. No, she’d never liked sweet peas and didn’t really care for okra either. In fact, she always wondered what the fuss was about whenever there was a family feast and me and my cousins would “sample” the greasy salty fried nuggets of slime just out of the skillet.
Her list of worries grew narrower with each passing day. She hated becoming a burden. She was grateful she was at home and not “in a home.” Her scenery was mostly limited to the worn ceiling tiles, patched a few years earlier, but still needing repair. Still, when she could, she would use every ounce of strength to go to the porch swing. We recalled the years of us sitting like that – her in the swing, me in the rocker. Or, in earlier days, the other way around. But now, the swing was hers. One foot pushing the floor, setting the swing into a gentle motion. She gazed past the screen and wondered aloud about the yellow ribbon on the neighbor’s mail box. Then wondered when the county would cut the bank by the road. Then wondered where those chicken trucks go every day….
Then came the day recently when she begged the Hospice nurse “can you think of anything I can do that will make me get better?” My heart broke that day. Despite knowing she was dying, despite knowing there was no getting better, she still clung to hope. But that was the last day. From that moment on, she has waited in agony, praying to go in her sleep.
The conversations have stopped. The worrying has stopped. The light is gone. We keep her comfortable. And we wait.