Permission Slip Away: The Moments Before My Grandmother’s Last, Natural Breath

Play if you’d like an artistic companion to the article.

EL CAJON, CA: Her breathing–labored. Her limbs–frustrated. Eyes–open but unable to blink. We have all given my grandmother permission to slip away. The time between taking a breath lengthens from three seconds to five. Five to seven. She gasps for air. This time, eleven seconds without breath. Another gasp. Her son Chris (my uncle), rubs her chest and tells her, “We love you mom. It’s okay to rest now.”

We surround her. We are going to love her to sleep.

When I got the message that my mom’s mom was in her final days/hours, I packed up and headed down to San Diego from Los Angeles. My dad’s dad died before I was born of a heart attack. My dad’s mom died of lung cancer while I was away on tour. My mom’s dad committed suicide when I was eight. So, I’ve never actually dealt with or seen death. I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to see my final grandparent off. It’s a learning experience that, no matter how painful, I was going to be a part of.


A little background on my grandmother. She was no stranger to getting stoned, cross dressing, or hiring strippers for her husband. She committed to living.

She smoked like a chimney, drank like fish and read books like she owned a national library. A few mystery novels a week was child’s play to her. Reading was always accompanied by a healthy of supply of coffee, wine and cigarettes.

SIDE NOTE TO A FUTURE GIRLFRIEND: You should know I used to cringe at the thought of reading, which is ironic because I write. My high school English teachers couldn’t get me to read the cliff’s notes on the greatest pieces of literature ever written. I would get a pop-quiz on The Great Gatsby, sign my name, and return a blank page to Mr. Hansen before he finished passing the quizzes out. I was that little shit.

The last few days leading up to a natural death are particularly challenging. We take turns kissing my grandma on the forehead and saying sweet things to her. The intention behind every syllable spoken is “I love you and goodbye”. That sucks. And just when it feels like she’s making her final departure, she takes another scratchy, deep breath. It’s scratchy because she has no control over the muscles to that would clear the spit pooling in her throat.

One begins to wonder why she doesn’t just let go.

I imagine she’s scanning her entire life’s memory bank. Resolving her maker. Processing the last little bits of life. The corners we only explore on our death beds. Then it seems like she might be slipping away again. So we, again, make sure she knows that this is her decision, that we love her dearly, and it’s okay if she wants to go. We hold her. But again, she gasps for air. One of us gives her morphine to keep any potential pain to a minimum. We like to think this helps her. We don’t know if she’s suffering, but giving her medicine is a decision made from a place of compassion. So we do…

If you haven’t been through this, waiting for the inevitable is really fucking hard. I hug my mom when she cries. Somehow that makes me feel better. I know the chords being struck in my mom’s head and heart are being plucked by the second.

SIDE NOTE TO A FUTURE GIRLFRIEND: My mom is awesome. She’ll be super nice to you whether we work out or not. Moms. Am I right? Just promise you won’t call her if we break up. We probably won’t be friends after. I’d like to think I’m bigger than that, but the truth is I have a track record.

My uncles are stronger than I and this is their mother. I can see my uncle Craig (below right) internalizing as he looks over. He seems to say most of what he needs throughs his eyes and expressions like the one pictured. I’m a lot like him in that way. When it comes to heavy stuff, it seems like humans tend to communicate on look and feeling–not so much words. All the words have been spoken.

My uncle Chris (above left), internalizes also, but interestingly, he has taken on a very care-giver role in the situation. Something I had not expected from him. A real stepper-upper, ya know?

There is something about that relationship that he cherishes more than I realized. It’s very cool to watch. I think it’s extra painful for him though. On two separate occasions he was finally saying goodbye to his mom. To the point that he broke, let go of her hand, and walked away. Then she would gasp for air as if she knew she was playing this terrible joke on him. We laugh our asses off when it happens. You have to. The tension is too great not to. This is a family of jokesters so it’s perfectly appropriate.

Some 25 years ago, my grandfather, the husband to the woman we’re saying goodbye to, was suffering from esophageal cancer. When swallowing a glass of water became impossible, he wheeled his hospital-supplied tree of bagged meds and a shotgun through my family’s backyard and into a neighboring lot. In his suicide note, he apologizes for the selfish act.

His death was on November 6th — my sister’s birthday. After talking to my uncle Craig about it, he never considered his dad’s method to be a selfish thing. He was already in an unfathomable amount of pain. So, while his death came under the guise of a selfish act, my grandfather, a military veteran, was guided by selfless intentions. He knew how much the cancerous experience was costing the family on all levels.

Me (right) trying to cop a bite of cereal from my Grandpa Don (left)

Sitting next to someone experiencing their slow, natural death calls on a variety of recollections from your time together. For example, we can all recall the countless times my grandma has pulled the end-of-life fire alarm.

Mary Carol Poulsen (left) & Don Poulsen (right) circa 1956

SIDE NOTE TO A FUTURE GIRLFRIEND: Marriage in the traditional context isn’t important to me. It’s a piece of paper. However, an unconditional level of commitment is critical. I learned that from my parents and my grandparents…on both sides. They’ve all been in good, sometimes challenging, but always healthy marriages. I don’t, for one second, take for granted that privilege of that experience.

Family pic • San Diego, CA • early 90’s • left to right: front row: sister, mom, grandma; back row: dad, me, grandpa

SIDE NOTE CONTINUED: I’m also looking for a good cook. I can’t cook. I don’t care about the stereotypes of women or anything. It’s not that. It’s just that I can’t cook. So if you’re a good cook and I’m not, I’ll swap you skill for skill. You teach me how to cook healthy. I teach you how to color correct a film negative or anything else I have to offer.

Back to the ‘fire alarm’ my grandma so clearly gets a kick out of pulling–she’s had skin cancer, heart attacks and strokes galore. She’s gone under the knife on more than one occasion, and yet, the energizer bunny kept going and going and going. She scares everyone every time, but always pulls through.

I remember her having a heart attack, while on a full flight, trying to leave Las Vegas where she was visiting her sister in nearby Laughlin. I was a broke college kid at the time, but knew it was the right thing to fly in and say my goodbyes. So I did. But of course, she bounced back to almost normal. Her one souvenir was the beginning of her battle with dementia.

Mary Carol, known affectionately as Grandma M.C., has always been a beautiful woman through and through. A little grumpy later in life, but not without her underlying jovial motivations. She’s been through some crazy things, but lived a good life. This is someone who has inspired endless jokes in my family, and an amazing family at that.

Left to right: Craig (uncle), Candy (my mom), Chris (uncle)

A SIDE NOTE TO A FUTURE GIRLFRIEND: If you don’t like bad jokes, hand-me-down recipes, the occasional drink, traveling, grilling, big cities, small suburbs, camping, surfing, running, hiking, spaghetti on Christmas, animals, deep talk, coffee talk, or not talking, you’re on your own and you’re batshit crazy because we’re awesome. But if you’re cool with being embraced by a family that is able to laugh their asses off through death’s bitter process, by celebrating the joys of life, we may just have a chance. Without my grandmother, I cannot be me.


It’s the morning of June 13th. My mom’s birthday. I’ve been writing this all night on 5-Hour Energy’s. I haven’t slept more than a half hour. She’s been at this fight for nearly nine years. Nine years since her heart attack in Las Vegas. My keyboard is wet and the energizer bunny has left the room. It’s very close now. It’s about 7am.

Her heart slows. Her feet are turning a grayish purple. They’re cold to the touch now. She swings in and out of fever. Her breath is extremely shallow. Like a fish out of water. She can’t swallow the accumulating spit at the back of her throat. She gargles with every breath. That is a sight and sound you cannot prepare for. I finally understand why my parents have protected me from this.

But I am here. I’m to the brim with grief and gratitude. It’s amazing how those two things can go hand in hand. The smiles this woman has inspired are too many to share. Look at the face below and try to frown. I dare you. I’m lucky and honored to know this woman.

Grandma MC (top)

At 9:04am, on June 13, 2014, we watch as my mom’s mom, Mary Carol Poulsen, at 84 years old, takes her last breath. My mom considers it a privilege and an honor to share her birthday with her mother’s passing.

What a woman my grandma was. What a life. What a beauty.

To be with the ones we love on their journeys. This is why we live.

Mary Carol Poulsen