I found the first part of this entry sitting in the Drafts folder on my dashboard here on WordPress, written a short seventeen days before the long and heartbreaking night I spent with my family at a quiet little nursing home in a sleepy suburb somewhere in southwest Ohio, an achingly unknowing eighteen late afternoons before the Wednesday in the bitter cold November when my grandmother departed this earth.
The rest just sort of happened.
I wish things didn’t have to be this way.
I wish you didn’t have to go to the hospital.
I wish that breathing – such a natural, human thing to do – didn’t have to be so hard for you.
I wish I could undo sitting there with you this morning. You slept, groggy from pain medication, as I gently lifted your mottled, bruised, wrinkled hand into mine. I wish I could tell you how much it hurts for me to see you like this. I wish you could see the way I cried for you when my mom left the room.
But at the same time, I wish I could have stayed there with you forever. And I mean that. I wish I could stare into your peaceful smile until the sun sets. I wish I could keep vigil at your bedside in the comforting quiet, jumping every time a machine went off and smiling every time you snored, until a minute faded into an hour, until an hour faded into a morning and a morning into a day. And then, I’d still be holding your hand when today faded into infinity, somewhere off in the distance past the rising sun out your window.
I wish I could go back to that time I sat with you, only about two weeks ago now, when I was blissfully unaware of what was going on inside your body. When I thought that stint in the hospital was just another blip on the radar, another down in a roller-coaster of emotion. When I had no idea that each labored heave of your chest was among the last I’d ever see. When my mom and I would try to shake you awake because we’d driven an hour to see you and wanted to actually talk to you, and when you would jolt awake, greet us and then slip back into sleep like a child.
If I would have known, I would have let you sleep, content that my world at that moment contained only you, me, our intertwined fingers – yours short and stubby, mine growing long and slender with the promise of a million hellos and goodbyes to wave in a lifetime – and the sheets I kept draping over your shoulders like a loving mother, mesmerized by the way those shoulders rhythmically rose and fell with each breath you drew from somewhere deep in your damaged lungs.
I wish I weren’t here, with you, and that our family weren’t here with us. I wish I could forget the call made to my dad’s cell phone by my mom’s as my dad, brother and I crowded into a small booth in a fast-food restaurant across town: Come. Now. I wish I could forget the stupor I fell into as we went home, grabbed phone chargers and books and tissues – which we thought my brother would use for his cold, but which my fingers would later probe in a pocket for in the wee hours of the morning as my dad and I sped down the interstate.
I wish I could forget the anguish I felt when we drove into the nursing home parking lot and I slammed the car door and sprinted into my aunt’s hug, and finally made it to your room to find your roommate’s bed made and a hospice nurse quietly holed up in the corner.
Oh, Grandma, you’re in heaven now, so take me back to last night. Take me back to when I was surrounded by people that love me – you included – so I don’t have to be utterly alone in this moment. As awful as last night was, I wish I could still be there, so you’d still be here. I’ll never forget the jokes you told, even though you struggled to breathe, to make us feel at ease. I’m not sure how aware you were of what was happening, but I’d like to think that you were at peace with it all. It sure seemed like you knew something we didn’t, when you asked your husband, my grandpa, to fill up the birdfeeder outside your window. Sure, it was dark already and you’d seen your last sunset, but that was you, through and through: always thinking of someone else.
If you’re looking down on me now and sensing my sadness, know that some good will eventually come out of this. I have never felt closer to other humans than I did last night, as we camped out in the nursing home hallway late at night, passing around the box of tissues and supporting each other as we went into the room, one by one and two by two, to say our formal final goodbyes.
I will always remember going into that stuffy little room and leaning close so you could hear me over the hum of your BiPap machine, feeling the warmth of your final embrace as you pulled me in as best you could. I didn’t know what I was going to say – who ever does? – but I remember taking a deep whiff of the oxygen from your cannula and telling you how much I loved, and will always love, you. I told you that I’d been going through a rough time in my life lately. I’d been trying to hide that from you because I knew how you’d worry, but I figured you’d find out soon enough when you got to heaven, so I admitted as much, but promised you I’d make it through, and told you how much you’d taught me over the sixteen years we got to spend together on earth.
I’m glad I had that last memory with you, but it was so fleeting. I always thought you’d be around so much longer when I was younger. I thought we’d get to spend infinity together – and maybe we will yet – but what did I know? Infinity is but a string of numbers waiting to happen, and your string of numbers was at its end.
You’ve been gone a week now. It still doesn’t feel real. I think I should be able to drive back there and see you again. You’d be lying in the same old bed, waiting for me with a smile and a corny joke or two. I’d have a Reese Cup McFlurry in each hand, one for each of us, but I’d set them down on your bedside tray and hug you tighter than I ever had before. I’d realize you, and I, and every being walking this earth, is living on borrowed time, and I’d never make the same mistakes again.
All the images flash through my head: me sitting out in the hallway at the nursing home, sobbing like I didn’t know I could and pounding the threadbare carpet, screaming the injustices of humanity and of being alive. Eating dinner in the nursing home dining room for the last time and joining hands with my cousins as we prayed for you. Waiting for my uncle to drive all night from a convention in Chicago so he could be with us and you, and huddling around the hospice nurse as she warned us this could be hours, days, or weeks. Taking my last picture with you, and all of us cramming around your bed as they turned down your oxygen levels, then took off your BiPap mask so you could die comfortably and naturally. The way I said my last goodbye, and the way you stuck it out for eighteen hours without any breathing assistance while I paced the floors at home and waited. Tiptoeing into my parents’ bedroom late at night, waking my mom up just so I could whisper that I love her and that I want to be half the woman she is. Driving to my aunt and uncle’s house to spend the day creating a video slideshow, funeral program, poster and eulogy. And the memorial Mass, hugging your best friend whom I hadn’t seen since you’d been sick. And, most of all, the way I reread every email you’d ever sent me, the way I touched your things over and over, trying to bring their owner back to life.
I wish I didn’t have to go back to your house for my first Christmas without you. We only broke one of your traditions this year – eating prime rib for Christmas Eve dinner – because it was expensive and you were the only one who really liked it. I wish I could stop seeing you in everything in that little ranch house. I wish I hadn’t had to go through your things, Grandma, and I wish I could will the words to “Wind Beneath My Wings” out of my mind. But you’d never imagine the tears that sprung from my eyes when, sifting through your things, I found a list of funeral songs scrawled on the back of a receipt…with “Wind Beneath My Wings, the song from Beaches” as the first item. And you’d have no way of knowing how I wept when, on the day I told my mom I wished you had left me a letter, she came downstairs holding a note you’d written to me on flowered stationary, penned in the shaky cursive of a woman on her sickbed.
I wish I could forget it all. And yet, Grandma, I wish I could find some way to remember it all.
Till we’re together again, I love and miss you every single day, Grandma.