Death Took Her

I ascended the stairs at a casual pace. Careful not to land heavy-footed and make the floor panels creek, as if to not wake the house. I cracked the door open to my parent’s bedroom and walked to my father’s bedside. The light from the hallway flooded the room and awoke him before I reached the bed. “Dad,” I said softly, holding my hands out over him to calm him as he flipped the sheets off himself. “Everything’s okay,” I said pausing, carefully relaying the message. “Grandma passed away.”

In a swift movement, he inhaled deeply, removed the covers completely and flipped his legs over the side of the bed. “Oookay,” he said, with another deep inhale, as if preparing to take on a dare. It was 2 a.m. My aunt was already awake as I opted to tell her first. We found ourselves in Grandma’s room all gathered around the bed. Each seeing what the next might do to revive her — to trip the wires and kick-start her again — whom she might respond to with a ‘Ha! Ha! I got you good! You thought I was dead!’ If it would happen at all, it would be to Dad that she’d do it. They had always had that unfortunate banter I’d grown to define as communication. But it never happened.

We turned the lights on in her bedroom, the hallway, the kitchen and the living room. We turned off the ceiling fan, and Dad unplugged the air compressor, ceasing to send oxygen through a tube to her nose. The house instantly became silent as the drone from the compressor we had come to associate with the loud, numbing discomfort of imminent death also came to a halt. Not knowing how to feel — torn between an escalating grief and a heartbreaking sense of relief — it quickly became apparent to me that neither Dad nor Tetka knew how to feel. Even less so than me. Tetka began reciting her superstitious conspiracies and recalling her dreams in which she talked to Grandma and told her it was okay to go. She said she slept next to Grandma’s shirt, in case Grandma wanted to visit her before leaving for the spirit world. “But then I moved the shirt away from me,” she said “because I was scared she really would visit me before leaving.”

We sat together on Grandma’s wooden chest against the wall, peering over her body for the next 15 or 20 minutes or an hour, I don’t know. Time felt four-dimensional. I felt superstitious myself, unwilling to leave the body alone, hoping she could see us with her. Wherever she was. Guilt crept in for brief moments, blurring in and out and layered with shock. Over the previous week, I’d stored the sound bite of her gentle, throbbing wails in a room in my heart I had already begun soldering shut. Why hadn’t I sat with her? Why hadn’t I pulled up a chair and held her foot while she said her last goodnight? I wonder if she was scared to die, and I wonder if I could have comforted her. But those questions didn’t come until later. Staring over her still body I tried to catalog the scenes in my mind. Dad breezed through the house with a purpose. Somewhere in the kitchen he called the hospice nurse on call. Somewhere in his room he dressed for the day. Somewhere downstairs he collected his thoughts, and I’m certain locked part of himself away.

Tetka and I eventually followed suit in the general bustling about the house. I found a church candle in a closet in the basement and lit it in a cup on the dining room table. I didn’t know what it meant or why it felt right to do, but if there was a soul in the house, and if it wanted to be with God, and if my little candle in the dining room could channel that God, I wanted that for her.

The nurse knocked on the door and we showed her to Grandma’s room. It wasn’t the hospital nurse in scrubs I was expecting. It was a middle-aged woman in a sweatshirt and Reebok gym shoes. She looked tired. She checked Grandma’s heartbeat with a stethoscope, but there wasn’t one. Surrounding the bed again, now the four of us, we look to the nurse with childlike anticipation. Maybe she could tell us how to feel. Instead she called the funeral home to come with an unmarked sedan, and we waited for them in the living room. Dad overzealously offered coffee to the nurse while we waited, and I silently brooded over his hospitality. “There’s been a death, Dad,” I thought in my head. “Our death. Your mother’s death.” But my sentiment escaped him.

Two men arrived with another knock at the door and swiftly carried a stretcher upstairs to Grandma’s room. I didn’t watch them move her body. I actively rejected the thought, even as I saw the black bag float down the stairs and out the front door. I checked the room to see if they’d forgotten anything. Like the body.

Tetka, Dad and I walked into the driveway behind Grandma and watched the doors of the car close behind her. The sunrise that June morning began peeking over the horizon at the end of the driveway. On a backdrop of purple, gold and red, the three of us watched Grandma drive off into the sunrise. After decades of warm welcomes and farewells from the window, for the first time and the last time, Grandma left us.