Thursday, Jul 01, 2004
My Grandma Kitty is going to die today.
I don't state this for shock value, but rather because any forthcoming narrative about my own life over these past few weeks would trivialize Katherine if she was treated as a plot point, an element in an interest curve, or a catharsis amid a story about my own inconsequential troubles. Grandma Kitty is none of these things. She's my mother's beloved mother, and later today she's going to die.
Up until last month Grandma lived in Santa Ana, about an hour away from my mom in Encino, in a condominium my mom bought for her 16 years ago. There she acted as a caregiver for those who needed a little help in life. While a decade ago my Aunt Judy and her family lived nearby, over the years the husband was divorced, the kids grew up and scattered over the southland to start their own families, and Judy moved to Phoenix. And so Mom and Grandma decided that it would be a good thing for Grandma to move closer to my mom, and they went real estate shopping for her new home.
After a good deal of looking, they found just the right place a little over a month ago. Just a few miles from the house where mom raised my sister and I, this two-bedroom condo would still afford Grandma her freedom while bringing her and mom closer together geographically and emotionally. Through careful planning and a fair bit of luck, Mom sold the old place and both places were in simultaneous 30-day escrow, and both closed this week.
My grandmother's health hasn't been the best over the last year, and there have been a few bouts of illness that could be chalked up to having a body that isn't as sturdy as it once was. Three weeks ago she felt ill and visited the hospital, and was put under observation for what initially appeared to be a kidney dysfunction.
The next several days were a roller coaster of tests, changing diagnoses, and shifting predictions. At first, she was diagnosed as having failing kidneys and might have to undergo long-term dialysis. The following day tests indicated that her renal functions were almost normal and the illness may have been due to an infection in her blood. The next day they decided to perform an MRI which showed a spot in her bladder that needed further diagnosis. An MRI 'with contrast' couldn't be completed because she wasn't able to drink the ounces of barium-laced fluid needed for the procedure.
The timing of all these events is fuzzy to me since I was in Northern, not Southern California, and my mom was relaying the news on a daily basis. This was still about three weeks ago, and Rachel and I had plans to come down to Los Angeles on the weekend of June 26th (last weekend) to attend my father's burial marker dedication ceremony on the 27th, and to be with my mom and sister on the 28th, my mom's birthday. In light of Grandma, Rachel and I change our plane tickets to return on Wednesday instead of Monday, to spend more time with Grandma and family.
Back to three weeks ago, and my mom's been informed that while in the hospital the previous day, Grandma had a minor heart attack and now had problems with four organs: heart, kidneys, bladder, and I believe something else, possibly liver. She now also has come down with pneumonia. Where the day before things seemed manageable, things are now in serious doubt, and Rachel and I decide to drive down the next morning (two weeks ago, Friday) and spend several days down south, to spend time with Grandma and to help with whatever needs arise.
Saturday we get to see Grandma, along with my Aunt Joanne, Uncle Joe, and cousins Janice and Joel, whom I'd only seen once in the last 20 years. It was really good to see Grandma, and because she didn't have a room to herself, we had to go in shifts of 2 visitors at a time. Grandma was lucid, very happy to see us, and though she was very tired, had six IV drips and a feeding tube, surprised me with her energy in talking to visitor after visitor. Rachel brought copies of flower photos she had taken, including a matted daisy print that's especially beautiful, and Grandma was thrilled to have them on the windowsill.
We spent the next three days at the hospital, generally taking turns being with her and being in the 'solarium' (aka 'waiting room'). The room, with about 12 chairs, would usually sit empty, and sometimes fill to capacity. After a few days there though, it felt like our space, and it felt weird when anyone else would wait there as well.
By the third day it was clear that she was responding well to treatments. She seemed to be overcoming the pneumonia, and after two physical therapy sessions where she got on her feet and took one step, she proactively started exercising in her bed, lifting her arms and legs, doing exercises until she got out of breath. After a week of not being able to eat any food, the doctors let her have some jello, ice cream, and even bits of cookies, and it seemed likely that she could be out of the hospital within a week or two, and possibly living on her own again after a month in a caregiver environment.
When we left on Tuesday, Rachel and I looked forward to seeing her again when we got back into town for our originally scheduled trip the next Sunday.
There are so many things I'm glossing over here that deserve mention:
Over the course of this long weekend, Rachel became a granddaughter in my eyes. Her caring, not just for my grandmother, but for me, my mom, and everyone else involved, was and is incredible.
Also, At the same time that all of this is going on my mom had to plan and act on what would happen to all of Grandma's things. Everything had to be out of her condominium by the 28th, and we couldn't move new things into the new place until the 29th or later, and we were all dealing with the real possibility that she wouldn't make it through, or might never be able to live on her own again. The end solution was to move everything into storage, since no matter what it would be at least several weeks before she could possibly need the things at her new place.
Lastly, we got word that Monday that my father's burial marker wouldn't be ready until at least two or three weeks after the scheduled unveiling date, so that would have to be pushed back as well. The unveiling of the burial marker is a Jewish tradition commemorating the first anniversary of a loved one's passing. Until that time the resting place is demarked by a temporary marker, and while the permanent marker doesn't have to be dedicated exactly on the anniversary, it also marks the closure of the traditional year of mourning, so should be reasonably close to the date. All in all under the circumstances, both Mom and I were relieved to have one less thing to deal with at the moment.
Back at work after being out for three days, I fielded several inquiries and well wishes for my grandmother, and felt generally optimistic. She was getting strong enough now that they were going to continue on with the laparoscopy to investigate the mass in grandma's bladder, to determine if it was a blood clot or a tumor, and if it was the latter, what was its stage and nature.
After performing the procedure, the doctor was inclined to think that it was a cancerous tumor, but was waiting for the lab results before drawing a conclusion. The results came last Thursday, when we found that the tumor was malignant and advanced. Under the best circumstances, Grandma would be unlikely to survive the Summer, and quite possibly not the next month.
I wasn't there when the doctor told Grandma the findings, and I consider myself lucky for this, though I wish I was there for her. Grandma, considerate, lost, and scared, told her doctor "I don't know how to die," bringing her doctor to tears, as it did me when I was told.
Rachel and I arrived back in Los Angeles on Sunday morning, and Aunt Davine drove us to the hospital to a changed person. There was a presence that had diminished so much in the intervening five days. The brief moments of lucidity we saw over the course of that day were when we arrived and she smiled and said "you came back!" and a few moments when she tried to speak but didn't have the energy to be understood. We stayed with her, read to her, sang to her, and held her hands. Grandma was in constant pain now and there was only a small morphine-granted window between her pain and resting.
When we came back to the hospital the next morning, my grandma was gone. Her body was still there, breathing, fevered, but from the moment I entered the room, it was clear she wasn't there. Her presence was never so obvious as it was in its absence. All I was left with was the feeling that though she didn't know how to die, she was trying to escape the painful prison her body had become, and what remained would soon follow. In the following days, leading up to today, the doctors have confirmed this deteriorization, sought to ease her pain by putting her on a morphine drip, and they believe that in less than a day she'll be gone.
In my own mind and soul I had been paying what I would be satisfied as my final respects every day that I saw her, in case things should turn before I saw her again. In this I found an inner solace. Nearly a year ago my dad died suddenly, alone, and completely unexpectedly of a heart attack, hours after my birthday. This year is a mirror image, reflected over the calendar date of my birth. Where my father's passing was sudden, giving rise to passion, pain, grieving and coping after the fact, Grandma's impact is like an earthquake in reverse, building up slowly and culminating just before the anniversary of my own birth.
We have been grieving, smaller growing to larger, with foreshocks months ago building in volume and strength to the present, when her passing will be an exhalation instead of a burst. Not to pretend that grieving will end with her passing, not at all, but I appreciate the difference between a passing and a tearing.
Susie, Mom, Rachel and I had planned for months to go to San Juan Island for our summer vacation from this Friday through to Wednesday with my father's side of the family. Now, as has been the rest of the month, I'm up in the air. My mom needs a break more than any of us had ever expected that she would, having organized three times as many things as any person should, before even considering that one of those things is the caretaking and memorial services of her own mother.
It's the planner in my mother whose traits I've inheirited that let me understand that even in the most difficult circumstances, situations don't handle themselves. It's almost amusing in a stupid, cynical and detached way, that the mortuary charges overtime if the service is on Saturday or Monday (this Monday being a federal holiday). They don't perform services at all on Sundays (whether for religious or vocational reasons I'm not certain), and that the city has to certify a death certificate before a memorial service can take place. It may be the case that the city will not perform this task over the extended weekend, or that the service might take place any day from tomorrow through to next Tuesday. Both Judy and Joanne have left their lives and vocations to be out here and need to return to Phoenix and Dallas, respectively, as soon as they can. Like everyone else involved, they also need the rest.
Rachel is at this moment scanning photos from Grandma Kitty's life to prepare a vignette slideshow for the memorial service, a task ironically mirrored by the fact that I helped Ammy do the same thing only two weeks ago for her grandparents' 60th wedding anniversary. Janice, an accomplished vocalist, has recorded three solos that we'll be incorporating into the slideshow as well.
I'm coming to terms with the ineffable nature of the universe, the awareness that planning is so often a fiction, and that still waters are a true blessing, those times when something as ethereal as a plan, a mere intention, can dictate the course of events. Sometimes the waters are calm long enough that you forget that it's simply an aberrance, and that the true nature of the world is chaos. Your plans will always have an impact on the greater whole, but in the end the outcome is just an interference pattern of hills and valleys, bearing little if any resemblance to your intention.
This morning, shortly after midnight as it is, I'm postponing grief. I'm planning through chaos much as a pilot flies through turbulence, both over- and under-compensating, buffeted by invisible forces beyond my control, by the knowledge that this, too, shall pass, and the awareness that even unstable systems reach points of equilibrium, of calm waters, however distant or brief they may be.
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