Warning: This post deals with a recent death, and while there’s nothing graphic, it may be upsetting to those who recently lost a loved one.
My grandmother died at 3:58 p.m. on November 26th, and I know because I was there. I didn’t know that was going to be the last day, I was headed for a screening when my sister called and said that Grammy was in the hospital and only had a few hours. I immediately turn around and drive the hour to Redlands, where she’s in the ER. I speed on the way there. I am surprisingly calm though I know this will fade away soon. I stop only for gas because I absolutely have to, otherwise I make it there as fast as I can and walk, calmly, again, into the ER. This is a shitty, cheap hospital with a tacky giftshop but I find my way to the ER and ask for my grandmother, slip inside the crowded hallways, find the room and am halted by the sight of her tiny frame hooked up to all the tubes and wires and oxygen.
My grandmother has dementia and Alzheimer’s and has been in a home for a number of years now, she lived with my parents but became a different person about six or so years ago, so entirely different that my youngest siblings almost didn’t know her for who she truly was. At first it was gradual losses of memory, and then she slowly slipped away into another country where no one else could follow. Sometimes if you spoke to her for a few hours she’d come back, but mostly she was irritable, convinced that she was being held against her will, always trying to escape from home and head off into the hills that surrounded my parent’s house. Eventually she was put into a home and we would visit, but not often enough. I went a few times a year but it usually made me feel so far from her that it took me weeks to recover, or I’d shut down completely.
I remember crying as a child, as I am crying now, telling her that when she died there would be no one who understood me at all, no one who really knew who I was. But this is really the second death, as we lost her some years ago to a disease that destroys every fiber of who you once were, leaving behind only sorrow.
In the hospital, two of my sisters, who are 24 and 21, have been here since 11:30 a.m., and my mother is trying to make her way here, waylaid by a long trip to pick up my uncle before heading to the hospital. I keep insisting that she must not understand how dire the situation is, but my younger sister says that she knows, that she’ll be here as soon as she can. They’ve given my grandmother morphine, comfort care, but the instructions are not to do anything drastic to keep her alive. Her skin feels papery and ancient under my hands, and I try to be reassuring in my touch, although she is beyond recognizing any of us or our actions. I hear someone in the berth next to us say “This is just a normal day.” and then a male nurse repeats it back, “This is just a normal day!” and I think about how this is and is not a normal day.
Because you can’t cry forever, my sisters and I begin to talk quietly of other matters, which only makes me sick when I realize stupidly that stupid life really does go on. We even laugh a bit about dating problems, and my sister shows me a picture of her new boyfriend. We never let go of my grandmother’s hands. As the minutes drag on I begin to notice on the monitor that the numbers are decreasing, all of them. I keep asking Jayne what different numbers mean, “What does that blue one say?” She doesn’t know either. No one comes in to check on us, we are alone, the three of us crowded around her bed in the busy ER as people wait outside in the hallway, waiting for their turn to die. I tell Jayne to take a picture of the monitor so I can text it to a nurse friend, ask for her help in understanding as it feels somehow less awful then asking a nurse nearby. Someone far away should tell me she’s really dying, so I can ignore it, turn the phone off and tuck it away. But the hospital is built of lead and all of us are having trouble getting a signal, and the text never goes through.
As her breathing slows even more we are unsure what to do, we turn to one another, not frantic, but unable to understand. I say that this is horrible, that I wish I could do something. I keep thinking that I would give a year of my life for her to add another to hers, and then imagine how far I could take that, giving year after year of a life I’ve not yet lived to buoy up her decline. Even as we are there, one on either side of her, holding her hands, touching her, eventually she has one last breath and I still know somehow that dying is something we do alone. And I regret how very solitary that is. We stand for a while, stuck, until a nurse comes in and quickly leaves to get a doctor who makes a great show of listening for a heartbeat with a stethoscope and then tells my sister Jayne how sorry he is, but she’s passed. As if the absolute flat lines on the monitor and the fact she hasn’t taken a breath in minutes wasn’t clear enough. Then we are alone and we are alone together with someone who is and who is not my grandmother and it is quiet and she is gone.
The nurses and doctors were kind, far kinder than I would have expected for people who see death every day. All my nursing friends are immune, and I understand how you’d have to build up a shield around you, how you couldn’t let yourself be affected by any one death. I am still moved by their skits, and make a mental note to send a sympathy card to our nurse, but I know I will forget.
My grandmother was my closest confidant as a child, wonderfully creative and giving, always encouraging us to build in the woodshop, or put on plays, or bake in her kitchen, create paintings and art in the patio, and read voraciously. That my parents and grandparents valued reading so highly is likely the only reason I can string two sentences together. We sang songs and learned new skills, swam in lakes and rivers and went on many trips to far away lands. She was also an intelligent and amusing person, a librarian at a school for many years, a writer and accomplished poet who was involved in literacy work in Haiti for as long as I was alive, going there often to organize and work in the libraries in Port-Au-Prince. She was the best person I knew, and I am grateful for what was given, though it will never be enough.
I was reminded in some small way of each of these films while writing this, and I meant to write more about each of these films, but it feels cheap, tawdry to use the life and death of someone who mattered so dearly for something so transient, and so I have just written a little. At the same time, having this all down as it happened will be of use to me, though I know not how, yet. Perhaps the lesson that life has handed me these past few months is not that things will get better, but I will get better at not being destroyed by these events. Maybe, but not just yet.
A Christmas Tale
This is one of my favorite films that almost no one has seen, a warm and interesting Christmas movie that revolves around a large French family and their various struggles and triumphs. Some of the family members are haunted by deaths, and some are struggling with the pending death of the matriarch, played by the lovely Catherine Deneuve.
A Zed and Two Noughts
A movie obsessed with the end and beginning of life. This is one of my favorite movies, revolving around two men whose wives have died and their epic search for answers. Clever, beautiful and strange, director Peter Greenaway’s work is meant to be seen on a large screen. Bonus points if you caught the Vermeer references before they were pointed out in the film.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
It is more the quiet tone of this film, as I can barely remember what it’s about. I remember non-linear plot, ghosts, beasts with red eyes, the quiet of a forest, more ghosts, the undead, the strange noises of sleep and nightfall. A feeling contained, to be sure.
Three Colors Trilogy: Blue
Few films deal with grief as palpable as “Blue,” which finds Juliette Binoche the sole survivor of a car crash which takes her husband and daughter from her. In the film, she’s often swimming and the visual of rising up and then being unable to pull herself free before drowning in it again is perhaps the strongest analogy for grief. As she tries to recover, she keeps being drawn back in and down, sinking ever further into it.
If ever there were a film about the passing of life, it’d be Big Fish. And the story told at the end, with all gathered at the river, is as near a perfect ending as can be had. Beautiful and moving, why doesn’t Tim Burton make ‘em like this anymore?
The Royal Tenenbaums
This has one of my favorite deaths in a film, some moments of reconciliation hard won between father and son, and a very Wes Anderson tombstone.
The Darjeeling Limited
Screw you, it’s my list. I like this best of all Wes Anderson movies I think, but it played right into my India obsessions.
How do we deal with the end, of life, of relationships, of the lives of others. One of the strongest and most genuinely touching films I’ve seen about trying to deal with the passing of a loved one.
Away from Her
I have not seen this film, though I adore the Alice Munro story it’s based on, and the fact it’s directed by Sarah Polley, because, well, it’s about an elderly woman dealing with the devastation of Alzheimer’s. Maybe someday, but not today.
Meet Joe Black
I used to watch this every time I came home from college, no matter how late, I’d pop it in the DVD player and watch the whole thing, like a ritual. Brad Pitt is lovely, Anthony Hopkins really brings the fire, and it’s an interesting meditation on the transition of life into death.
This one made me tear up this year, as Norman is able to still see his grandmother as a ghost in their home, she still offers him love and support. Memories are a kind of ghost.
This is a beautiful foreign film about a family from Taipei dealing with a host of familial drama, love, anguish, truth and beauty, but the story that I remembered most was of the young boy and his grandmother who is in a coma. (I’ve not done this film right, but you should see it anyway. Profoundly moving.) When I went looking for information about it today, I came across this quote where he finally speaks to her in a letter after her death.
“I’m sorry, Grandma. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to talk to you. I think all the stuff I could tell you… You must already know. Otherwise, you wouldn’t always tell me to ‘Listen!’ They all say you’ve gone away. But you didn’t tell me where you went. I guess it’s someplace you think I should know. But, Grandma, I know so little. Do you know what I want to do when I grow up? I want to tell people things they don’t know. Show them stuff they haven’t seen. It’ll be so much fun. Perhaps one day… I’ll find out where you’ve gone. If I do, can I tell everyone, and bring them to visit you? Grandma, I miss you. Especially when I see my newborn cousin who still doesn’t have a name. He reminds me that you always said you felt old. I want to tell him that I feel I am old, too.”
Amanda Mae Meyncke is a granddaughter, she lives in Los Angeles.