Two weeks went by again in a whirlwind. When I read my last post, it seems like it was a few months ago. We had a lot of ups and downs since then. I really appreciate all the kind thoughts sent our way and instead of writing this out in many separate e-mails, I'll just give a run down here. Grandma passed away Sunday morning, just a few days after the family decided, with the support of the wonderful woman from the hospice program, to let her go. It was a hard decision because she was still conscious and aware at that point and letting her go meant removing a feeding tube and stopping IV fluids. We'd also been given some new hope because they'd put her through a desensitivation process with penicillin because of her severe allergy. Penicillin was the only antibiotic capable of fighting the strep infection. Starting with small doses, they gave her increasing amounts over a half a day up to the full dose. It was amazing, and of course, we hoped she'd get better. She was getting weaker, though, and couldn't swallow even water and the thickened juice they give stroke victims at the end. She was looking at six weeks of antibiotic treatment with a twenty percent failure rate and all the time with the feeding tube. She let us know the day before our meeting with hospice that it was time, struggling against the effects of the strokes to say, "I want to go." After the meeting with the hospice nurse, while she was still receiving full treatment, Grandma lapsed into a coma. She must have felt she had our permission to go and stopped fighting. On Saturday, she came back to us and a large number of the family were able to spend some last time with her. The book we received from the hospice program said that it often happens that just before someone dies they have a period of lucidity.
I had time to do a lot of thinking. I sat with her Friday night and half of Saturday night alone. Friday was the first day she showed any signs of pain and although she was in a coma, she let me know when the morphine was starting to wear off. It was a rough night and yet, I feel privileged to have been able to be with her. I almost wrote "to share it with her" but really dying is something you do alone no matter how many people are around you and so much of it is internal for someone who knows they are dying. I don't know if it is the writer in me or just me, but the whole process was fascinating as well as horrible and exhausting. Where some people would be freaked out by the details of what happens to the body when someone is dying and the signs to watch for that signal the end, I was comforted when the hospice nurse showed them to me. I guess it made the whole thing seem less foreign and more a normal process of life. Her age and her own acceptance (she was deeply religious her whole life and believed that she would be joining my grandfather in heaven) helped, too, although we would have loved to have had her with us longer. Did I mention before that she was a welder building ships in Portland during WWII? She used to say that Rosie the Riveter was nothing compared to the welders who were the really tough ones. Although we don't have any pictures of her welding, I like to picture her that way, short but tough, maybe even scrappy.
Friday, April 16, 2004
All of a sudden it's tax day and I've realized that I've let two weeks of fun activities go by without posting and now I'm deep into the bad stuff. We had a great visit with Barth, Lisa and Iko in their new house, finally used the wedding shower gift certificate from my co-workers for a fabulous dinner at La Belle Vie in Stillwater (so expensive we'd never have done it on our own but sooo good!), lots of writing, movie watching and walks in the warm weather. Easter came and reality hit again. This was the second holiday my grandma missed, which was even sadder since she'd been feeling fine just a couple days before and been outside walking. The list of things wrong this time is way too long. She's fighting a battle against a strep infection in two of her heart valves. They've already caused a series of mini strokes and because she's too old and frail at 87 for surgery, there will probably be more. She was already on an antibiotic for the pneumonia they found on Sunday, but it sounds doubtful that it will have much effect on the strep. My mom's involvement in strep research makes it tough for my family to pretend otherwise. I didn't get to see grandma yesterday because I came when she was off for tests. She's dramatically different already. Although she was alert and responsive, she wasn't able to talk and they've put in a feeding tube. I can't help wondering how much time we'll have with her before she's not aware of us anymore. Seeing her on the hospital bed, all shrunken and with her breathing so labored, I couldn't help remembering my other grandma's death from cancer. Both of my grandfathers went quickly from heart attacks. This is so different. We have a chance to say goodbye and have to figure out how to do it and make our own peace with it and allow her her own dignity in death. All of these things had such a huge impact on me back when I was 11 and going through it with my other grandma. They were such good friends, we were lucky as kids that they were good friends, because each holiday was spent all together. I cried twice during my grandmother's cancer, when my mom told me that her cancer had come back and attacked her brain and it was terminal and later, as we went into the funeral home and I saw my remaining grandma. 87 years is a long life and it was a life filled with a fair amount of pain and struggle but also a lot of love and family and friends. She wasn't allowed to finish high school because her Norwegian born father didn't think a farm girl needed an education. She told me once she'd wanted to be a stewardess but couldn't because they required a high school degree. She and my grandfather worked hard and lived frugally and that allowed her to travel a bit in the later years. She got to see Norway and travelled many times to Beijing, Hong Kong and Japan visiting her son, my uncle, and his family and me. For my college graduation gift, she took me on a visit to the family in Hong Kong, shortly before the turnover, and we took a side trip up into the Pearl River basin of Southern China. She would try any food, impressing our fellow travellers when she popped the mini octopii in barbeque sauce from the buffet into her mouth. She wanted to see the Great Wall and I had to tell her we weren't anywhere near it, but she did see it later with my dad when my uncle moved to Beijing. Except for her snoring, I couldn't have asked for a better travel companion. She did the whole two week trip without complaint, despite the fact her hips badly needed replacement and she'd delayed the surgery until after the trip. You'd think every thing bad in the world could be cured with a good hot bath. Too bad it can't.