My Mississippi grandmother, now 83, has never concealed her desire to die early. “I just don’t want to be a burden,” she’s always said, in her lilting Delta accent. “I hope I don’t live to be too old.”
Some people — my ex-boyfriend’s mother, for instance — say things like that to inspire guilt, but my grandmother means it.
Grandma abhors mess and eschews drama. And she can’t stand to suffer, especially not publicly. When I last visited my grandparents in Mississippi, she wore a catheter throughout my trip, but never mentioned it.
Nor did she let on that she felt any discomfort at all. On the contrary, she insisted on accompanying my sister and me to the “Beau Virage Casina.” She wore a pressed blouse and pretty silver shoes and applied her lipstick perfectly even though her vision was getting so bad that she started down the wrong side of the Highway 90 on more than one occasion.
The news of the catheter surfaced only when Grandma’s kidney infection progressed so far that she wound up in the hospital. Then my aunt flew down from Tennessee and got the full story from the doctor. Seeing how dire the situation was, my aunt convinced my grandparents to sell their house and move to an assisted living facility not far from her place in Nashville. Now that they live near her, the health reports I get are much more reliable and the visits much less tearful.
Grandma told me four weeks ago that she had to have a hysterectomy, but she divulged the news reluctantly, only after my grandfather had gone over the basics, and she tried to sugarcoat things.
“The doctor thinks he might have found just a little spot of cancer in my uterus,” she said.
An hour later I talked to my aunt and learned that Grandma’s “little spot” was a uterus positively riddled with cancer, and that the cancer had spread beyond the uterine wall to some other female parts.
Before she went under the knife, I reminded Grandma of her last interaction with my other grandmother, the Texan one, a firebrand of a woman who liked Grandma but always took her to task for being too passive and ladylike.
The last time they saw each other, Granny, in her mid 80’s, hobbled slowly down the walk in front of my mom’s and stepdad’s place and made her way to the car to say hello. She’d fallen and bruised her hip some weeks before.
Grandma, a good fifteen years younger than Granny (women on my mom’s side have children late, if at all), was still spry. She popped out of the car and met Granny halfway. “Oh, Martha, you didn’t have to come all the way out heah,” she said. “I know how hard this fall has been on you.”
Granny frowned. She tugged on her permapress shirt and brandished her cane at Grandma. “I’m a fighter, Lois, not a shrinking violet. And you better be, too, if you want to get to be my age.”
Grandma laughed and tried to demur, but Granny would have none of it. “You listen to me and learn to fight,” she said, her voice progressively rising. “That’s the most important thing.”
Granny grew up poor in small-town Texas and didn’t spend much time worrying about being ladylike. She never bothered with nice shoes or pressed shirts but opted for polyester because it didn’t wrinkle. When the fender fell off her old Chevy Impala, she tied it back on with twine. She did her laundry in the bathtub, ferociously tumbling the whites in bleach with a toilet plunger and wringing them dry with her bare hands.
At 87, she had emergency surgery after scar tissue from a hysterectomy ruptured and intestinal waste leaked into her body. Just before the doctors operated, Granny lay completely still on a stretcher, white as a sheet. You had to look closely to see her breathing.
The head surgeon touched her on the shoulder and said something vaguely patronizing but intended to comfort, something like, “and how are we today?”
Granny didn’t respond.
Then surgeon walked my mom and stepfather ten or twelve paces up the hall, still well within earshot, and said, “You know, I think we have to be realistic here. She’s well into her 80’s, after all. She’s probably not going to make it.”
At that, Granny threw off her blanket. She sat up, sweat running down her neck and forehead, and challenged the doctor. “Don’t you dare tell them what I’m gonna do or not do, goddamnit,” she said.
She lived almost seven years after that. I visited her in Asheville (where she’d moved with my mother) a month and a half before she died. On my last afternoon with her, I left the hospital expecting to return before I drove back to Florida.
The last words I said to her were, “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
If I were an actress and had to conjure up tears for a scene, that’s the memory I would use — the only one that would work. When I was a child, Granny was my world, and I’ll never stop feeling guilty for promising to come right back and then leaving her there to die.
Grandma always claimed to be tickled by Granny’s “be a fighter” lecture. And when I reminded her of it before surgery, she said, “Oh, I’m so glad you remembered that. That’s exactly what I’m going to think about on the operating table.”
I like to think she meant it, that she went in planning to fight with everything she had, but I’ll probably never know.
The surgery revealed that the cancer was more widespread than the doctors realized — widespread enough that it will eventually kill her. And since then she’s had two strokes. The second happened yesterday, leaving her mute and blind, and the right side of her body paralyzed. It’s unclear whether she’s sentient, but the doctors don’t think she is. They doubt she’ll recover, even in the short term.
My father, who’s been absent throughout her illness, arrived not long before the second stroke and is suffering from White Knight Syndrome. He’s calling her a fighter and lobbying for a feeding tube.
Whether or not she’s aware of her surroundings, I can’t help but think my grandma’s tired and ready to go. She’s lying in a hospital bed surrounded by strangers and family members who are discussing her most intimate bodily functions — it took more than a week for her bowels to move after the surgery — and she doesn’t even have her lipstick on. I’m pretty sure the absence of makeup and of a fresh set from the hairdresser would bother her more than anything else. That and the horrible, rough gown with the slit at the back.
I feel weirdly anesthetized, but I know I’m sad because my head aches and I’m not hungry. My thoughts keep returning to an Emily Dickinson poem, the one that starts “The heart asks pleasure first/And then, excuse from pain/And then, those little anodynes/That deaden suffering.”
Anyhow, I fly to Nashville to see my grandmother later this week.
Before I go, I have the usual day job crap to contend with, a Newsday review to write, and a bunch of reading to do for another freelance writing assignment.
Posting will be spotty, if not nonexistent, unless I decide to distract myself with manic blogging.
It’s a crapshoot, really, but please keep your expectations low.