April 7th, 2009
Jacob has lately been telling us “gate gamma kassen so sick” (Great Grandma Klassen is so sick), after his visit to the hospital, and it’s true.
Today started normal enough, but by 2:45 I got an email from my mom, saying that grandma had taken yet another turn for the worse; her pulse was racing, her temperature feverish, and her breathing shallow and difficult. The last grandchild that was going to be there made it, and got the last flicker of recognition from grandma. I wrapped some things up at work.
Then I made the short drive from work to the nursing home, and got there just after 4. I went in to her room there, and it was full of family. Two of her children were singing her favorite hymns. I can never forget my uncle’s deep bass voice as he stood at her bedside, holding her arm, while my aunt patted her head, both of them singing. Grandma’s only remaining sibling, her younger brother Melvin, sat on the other side of the bed, looking on.
Grandma’s white table and chairs, which were in grandma and grandpa’s house as long as I can remember, and followed grandma through all of the four other places she lived in the last years of her life, were in her room at the nursing home too. It always felt like home to be with grandma and those familiar things that she always took with her. Despite what was happening, I was glad she was back at home.
My uncle motioned me over to her bedside, and I took her hand for a few minutes. It felt cold and weak; for the first time, she didn’t grab my hand at all.
A nurse came in to check oxygen saturation, but the machine wasn’t able to get a reading due to poor circulation to her hand. She wasn’t able to get a heart rate either because the heart was racing so fast. She discussed briefly whether the family wanted them to continue giving her oxygen, and they decided that they would, for her comfort.
My uncle and aunt kept singing. I blew my nose and dabbed at my eyes, and there were hugs all around. And just a few minutes later, grandma peacefully stopped breathing, maybe 20 minutes after I had arrived.
They went to get the nurse, who came back to listen to grandma’s heart again, though we knew what she would find. She took the stethoscope off, and she almost lost her composure, but managed to say “you can turn the oxygen off now.” Several people gave grandma a last hug.
After a few minutes with just the family, they told the nurses to go ahead and call the funeral home. That set off a lot of activity making arrangements for the next few days, funeral plans, and the like. I stepped back into grandma’s room a few times, while the family was in the sitting area right outside it discussing. I looked around at the family photos on the wall, the old table and chairs, the recliner. Now, these are the things that were grandma’s. It didn’t feel like home anymore.
Terah and Jacob were stuck at home — Terah’s car was at the mechanic for repair today. I called to give her the news. She wanted to come to be with the family, but I didn’t really want to leave. She tried calling some friends to see if they could give her a lift to the mechanic, but not one of them was available. I talked to her again and suggested she just call the mechanic. She wasn’t even halfway through describing the situation when he interrupted with, “We’ll have it at your place right away!” “Well, I don’t expect you to have to do that, or you could certainly wait until you close.” “Nope, this isn’t your average community, we’ll bring it right over. You should be there.”
Grandma has enjoyed a simple life and had requested a simple death: no extraordinary measures at the end of life, no embalming either. So, by law, the burial must happen within 24 hours of death, and will be tomorrow.
After all the arrangements, people realized nobody had supper yet. We went to the quickest available option — pizza — and ate there. It was paid for out of grandma’s remaining money — the last meal of so many that she provided for her family over the years. It was a happy meal.
As I drove home, NPR news was on the radio. There were the same stories we hear all the time: the economy, the mideast, the president. Normally I’m interested, but today I shut it off. Today is different.
Tomorrow, for the second time in four years, I will help carry a grandparent’s casket a few days before Easter.
I’ll end tonight with this photo. It was taken soon after Jacob was born. Grandma came to the hospital and held him. That smile sums her up perfectly.