Monday, March 2, 2015

Watching in the Hour of Death

My grandmother, Tommy Leota Greenhaw, passed away this last November. All of her children and grandchildren were able to come out to be with her in her final days; the last time she was conscious, we were all (but one) in the room with her. At that point it was past two in the morning, and some of us had been traveling since mid-morning the previous day. Since predicting the hour of death is not an exact science, all of the gathered children and all but three of the grandchildren went back to their respective homes and hotel rooms to rest after she drifted off that last time. I and my two youngest sisters stayed at the hospital.

After that, Ivy and Day stayed in the room while I slept in the hall on one of those hospital recliners-- they aren't quite as comfortable as the overstuffed ones that a lot of homes have, but it sure as heck beat leaning my head against the wall while sitting on a metal folding chair, which was what I had been doing before one of the nurses offered to bring the recliner out.

At around six in the morning, Ivy came out and told me Grandma had stopped breathing.

I went into her room again, and saw that it was true. The three of us just stood there, chatting for a bit. Grandma's mouth was hanging open, as it often did when she slept, but of course trying to close it (which I foolishly did) did no good. There was a feeling in that room-- to me; you'd have to check with my sisters-- of relief, of happiness and even joy. After those first few moments, we pulled out our respective cell phones and started figuring out who had whose contact information, and started trying to get the news out.

Because both my older and my just-younger sister were pregnant at that time, they especially needed to be careful about pushing their bodies too hard. It was about an hour before everyone made it out to the hospital again. Klari took a beautiful photograph of the sunrise as they were driving out-- I've written to ask her to send a copy, so I may update this post with it later on. (Update: I got it!) Both babies have been born now; both were preemies; and both are now home from the hospital and doing mostly OK. It has been kind of a stressful year for our extended family.
Throughout that night-- the part of it when I was actually or sometimes just ostensibly sleeping-- I would periodically poke my head up and look over my shoulder, out the huge window at the end of the hall. There was this weird purplish light that kept faking me out into thinking that it might be the dawn, but it never was-- it was just an exterior light at the hospital, lighting up the steam from some exhaust vent and the wall behind it. After I came out of Grandma's room, after she died, I looked again, and then I could see that it was the REAL dawn, and it seemed like one of the most glorious I had ever seen.

This is the funny thing about death. It is pretty strange, and sometimes awful, but somehow along with those things, there can be parts that are glorious and redemptive and even funny. The only funeral I've ever been to that was truly depressing was a suicide funeral. Now, I readily admit that this is probably a function of the fact that of the 20 or so funerals I've been to, all but one were Mormon funerals*, but if you look at other cultures, you can often find at least hints of this brighter view of death there, too. (OK, in the case of the Day of the Dead, definitely more than hints.) What I have discovered over time is that the more experience I have with the dead, the less scary the whole thing becomes.

Anyway, that's why I volunteered to dress my grandmother's body for burial. There was a part of me that felt hesitant, but I was pretty sure I would be glad I had done it, and I was right. But that's a different story for a different day.

The photograph of Grandma-- sorry for the poor quality, but I really wanted to put some sort of illustration up-- is one I took just now of a print from several years ago, when Grandma came out to visit, and she and Mom visited Colonial Williamsburg together. To me, this is classic Grandma: she LOVED guided tours. I remember driving from Alabama to California with her and my older sister (who was then not yet Mrs. Weathercolour) in six days, and Grandma naturally assumed that we were going to stop both at the Petrified Forest (in New Mexico) and at Yosemite National Park, in California. And since it was her car and she did most of the driving, that is what we did. At the time, I thought it was a little weird to take the hours out of such a busy traveling schedule to visit places that I hardly knew about and didn't really care about-- but now I feel deeply grateful to have had the opportunity.

This last photograph is of the Sacramento River at sunset, taken from the Sundial Bridge at Turtle Bay. When I was out visiting Grandma for about a month-- mm-- seven years ago?-- she kept saying that we should make it out there, but we never did during that visit. I finally made it out on the very day I left California this last time. She was right again-- it was definitely worth the visit.

I will try to write more about Grandma herself later-- I realize this isn't much-- but I wanted to get this much up while it was still relatively fresh in my memory. I feel lucky/grateful/blessed that my youngest sister had come out about a week before Grandma died, when things were looking pretty serious, and that she talked to and especially listened to Grandma about what she wanted. It was my sister's listening and then advocacy that had us all there with Grandma, as Grandma wished, just before she died. It was, as I told that same sister this morning about something else, an honor to be asked and a privilege to do.

*Mormon funerals tend to be a little bit solemn but in general relatively cheerful and often quite uplifting. If you've never been to one, I strongly encourage you to go if you can-- crash one, if you feel brave enough. (I don't think anyone would mind, frankly. There are seldom complaints from any faith-- or even non-faith-- tradition about there being too many mourners at a funeral.) At the best funerals, I will usually both laugh and cry. Yes, I have opinions about funerals-- you would too, if you'd been to as many as I have. And now, to prevent this from becoming its own blog-post-within-a-blog-post, I will stop.

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