On this day seven years ago, I sat with my grandmother while she died. My mom and I held her hands, comforted, and waited. She’d been moved to hospice the day before and we knew it was almost time, but knowing that and watching it are two very different things. Those weeks, that day, and especially the several hours surrounding her death changed my life.
When she was diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer, I was living 5,000 miles away in The Netherlands. She was given a few months at most to live, so I went home to Texas for a while to be with her. Pancreatic Cancer seems to be mostly very harsh and doesn’t leave a lot of time to linger in good health, but often goes very bad very quickly, as it did in my grandma’s case. She died within several weeks from finding out, and the last few of those could hardly be called living.
My mom lived next door to my grandparents at the time, so I claimed my old bedroom, revived my library card, and spent several weeks in a haze of sadness and books. While my mom and aunt cared for my grandmother, along with the eventual medical staff, I lingered around the edges, trying to support my mom after each long, difficult day. The best I could do was to pause my reading to make sure my mom remembered to rest and eat something, to try to spend time with my grandpa, who was losing the partner he’d been with since his teens, and just try to keep it together. My life was on pause, while my grandmother lingered in a strange space of being very ill and knowing she would never recover, but still being alive. Death really doesn’t look like it does in the movies.
Over those few weeks, I read at least one book every day, and usually more. I visited with my grandma, this formerly bold, strong woman who I grew up running across the street to visit. She was always there, for as long as I could remember, not just on holidays or when we made a special trip to visit her, but right across the street, with the swimming pool and watermelon, cookies and milk, and someone to tattle on my mom to (much to her amusement). After I sat with her, watching her slowly die a little more each day, I cried and cried and cried, until I had to stop. And then I read, slept, and repeated.
And then she died. In the hours right before, she hadn’t seemed to be very aware of things around her or able to respond, but she opened her eyes and inched her hand toward me, as I was the only one in the room at the time, and said she loved me. After that, we waited, and it didn’t take long. She gasped a few last breaths and then she was gone. And when people die? They look dead.
The thing about watching someone die is: there really isn’t a way to anticipate what it will be like. You may recall random movie death scenes that seemed realistic at the time, back when you didn’t know what it looked like. Or you may think someone so close to death looks dead, but they don’t… not quite, at least. It’s a strange, heartbreaking experience, but when you watch someone die, you see them leave that space, exit the room, and just be gone from this world and it’s an odd thing to see and feel and accept. It hurts your heart so much to watch it happen. Being there, though, is important. That experience felt like one of the most important things I’ve ever done at the time, and still.
Even though I watched it happen, I still can’t believe it’s been over seven years since I spent hours chatting with my grandma, or laughing at her schemes to dress down when she went to the bank so no one would realize how much money she had, or sitting in her kitchen eating beans and cornbread.
I will live so much more of my life without her here, than with her, but her presence has shaped my being in ways that even decades without her won’t change. When falter and I almost give too much of myself away or hide from a challenge, I remember her and am better at being myself and loving myself because of her example and advice. For that, I owed her everything I could give in her last days and am glad to have had the chance.