Goodbye, Grammy

Thursday, July 7, 2011

I am always fascinated when I read birth stories. It's amazing what women endure to bring new life into the world. I don't have a birth story to tell, but I do have a death story. It seems strange to put it that way, but this is my account of the end of my sweet Grammy's life.

Alice Gabbert Willis was born on August 15, 1923. She died on June 15, 2011. She was 87 years old... almost 88.

Last Christmas we took her up to Wesley's grandmother's house. Nana is gone (she died in February of 2010), but our family celebrated at her house anyway. Grammy & Nana were good friends.

After Christmas, Grammy started going down hill. Our last good visit was in March. In May, I stayed in Morgantown for 9 days, thinking she was at the end of her life. I didn't know she had another month. I didn't know she would continue to slowly go downhill.

I didn't know a lot of things. Like how hard it would be. How much uncertainty would fill my heart about whether to stay or go each time I visited. How hard I would cry when I did eventually have to leave. How heavy of a burden I'd feel about leaving my coworker so often. How tiring the drives would be. How much I'd cry because I just didn't know what to do.

My heart was heavy. I was tired. And I missed my Grammy when she wasn't yet gone.

On Thursday, June 9th, we left to be with her for what we were sure were her last days. We were right.

On Friday she could eek out "I love you, too," when I told her I loved her.

On Sunday she could only whisper, "I love," and did so not often at all.

On Tuesday she started breathing laboriously with phlegm in her throat.

On Wednesday she died.

On Tuesday night I wanted to stay with her. I had pushed the vacant bed in her room next to hers and had made a bed for myself, complete with pillows & blankets. I didn't mind laying over a lowered bed rail as long as I got to hold her hand and lay next to her. It didn't matter that she couldn't respond to me. But at around 11 p.m., my uncle, Jody, arrived from Virginia. He wanted to stay with her, so Wes and I left.

I came back on Wednesday morning at 10 a.m., having left Wes at my mom's apartment to study (this was finals week!). I stayed with her until 1 p.m., finally forcing myself to leave for lunch. I picked Wes up, we went to Walmart, ate lunch at Subway, and arrived back to Grammy's side at 3 p.m.

My dad was there. He said that she wasn't doing well. I knew that; I thought he was overreacting. She hadn't been doing well. She didn't look any different than she had the night before.

I held her hand, stroked her hair, kissed her forehead. I said, "Grammy -- David, Bethie, and John Wesley are all here. Jody is on his way. We love you SO much. You are not alone."

I went to the bathroom to put on jeans (it was cold in the room). I prepared my "bed" beside her again. I left to find a pair of fingernail clippers, because I had broken a nail in the car. I was prepared to spend all day with her.

I was clipping my nail when my dad said my name twice, urgently. He was staring at her.

I leapt across the bed to hold her hand and tell her that I loved her. I didn't understand why he had said my name like that... I knew he thought she was dying. I didn't believe him.

I think she was gone before I got to her.

I told her I loved her and held her hand and stroked her hair. He started crying. I stared at her and told her I loved her and held her hand and stroked her hair. He told Wes to go get a nurse. I couldn't fathom that she was gone. I said, "Is she really dead?"

I was so confused. It didn't seem real. I was going to spend the afternoon with her. I was just clipping my fingernail! I was almost done. I was almost ready to lay down with her. We were going to spend the day together.

My dad started crying. I looked at him in a daze. I said, " she really dead?"

He said, "Yes."

I said, "But why didn't she wait? I wish she would've waited. I was so close to laying down with her. I don't understand."

He said, "She did wait. She waited for you to come back from lunch."

Yes. She did.

And now she was gone.

The nurses finally came in and asked us to step outside for a moment. Wes hugged me, and I started crying. It was all so surreal.

And then the busyness of death began. Funeral plans, visitation arrangements, calls to the funeral home. Going through Grammy's meager belongings, staring in shock at her lifeless body, contacting friends & family.

Lenora, an older resident in the nursing home and a friend of Grammy's, came by to see her about ten minutes after she died. "How's she doing today?" she asked. She had just been to visit her the day before. I said, "Oh, Lenora, I'm so sorry, but she just passed away." Lenora just stared at me and then said, "Okay. I knew she wasn't doing well." I said, "You were such a good friend to her! She loved putting together puzzles with you." She said, "Yes. She was my best friend."

Yes. Mine, too.

A lot more happened in the following days. I could write for hours.

The visitation was beautiful; I'm so grateful for everyone who came and expressed condolences for my precious Grammy. When we arrived at the funeral home to flowers, I was so very thankful. {Even though people say "In lieu of flowers..." in obituaries, I don't think they really mean it. It would be so depressing to show up to a funeral home with no flowers!} I was amazed to walk around and see so much beauty addressed to me. Friends from Louisville, friends from my childhood, my coworkers, even teachers from my elementary school where Grammy used to volunteer. What a blessing.

We had a private graveside service at West Virginia National Cemetery. Wes said a few words, we reminisced about her for a few moments, and then it was over. We came home.

It's been twenty five days since she died. Last night I cried myself to sleep. Last week I cried at work. Some days I don't cry at all. I wear her sweatshirt around the house even when I'm not cold. I listen to this just to hear her voice. I stare at her picture on my desk at work. I miss her. I miss her so very much.

I still talk to her. Still tell her how much I love her, how much I miss her. How much I wish I had one more day with her... one more smile, one more I love you.

Most days I can't believe I exist in a world in which she doesn't.

It just doesn't seem real.

A good friend once said, "Joy may come in the morning, but grief is a force to be reckoned with." How right she is. This just isn't easy. All I can do, I suppose, is take one day at a time. But forever and always, I will carry my precious Grammy in my heart.

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)


katygirl said...

ah this brings back memories of when my grandma died. :( i remember just struggling (i still do) so much and then i came to terms with the fact that we were just not created to understand death. it doesn't make it any easier. just helped me realize i'll never be able to say "i get why she died". i'm praying for you.

Linda Haught said...

I am sure that your grammy is in heaven telling everyone about the most wonderful and compassionate granddaughter on earth. If we could all be that light and strength for someone. There is nothing greater than to share your love and time. You are a wonderful lady.

Ashley said...

Beautiful, Beth. Thank you for sharing. Love you.

In Definition said...

this is such a tribute to her.

Kelly Irene said...

Thank you for sharing your story with us, Beth.
A few years ago a friend's two year old daughter died. I remember I was so struck by how final death is. And now reading this and thinking over our conversations, it is apparent that at the same time death isn't final because we continue to grieve, continue to live, continue to seek joy, and continue to love the person who is no longer really with us.
Grief truley is a force to be reckoned with, but know you don't have to reckon with it alone. You have friends who deeply long to help carry your burdens in whatever meager way possible. You are beautiful, friend.

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