My grandmother didn’t exactly die so much as gradually ease into death. It took six months, from when she turned 90 and began to lose her faculties and ability to care for herself.
My parents moved her into a nursing home. The worst thing you can do to a fading person is pick them up and drop them in a completely new environment surrounded by brand-new people. She had a stroke, probably from the stress and shock of it all.
She lost the use of half, then most, of her body as well as the ability to speak. She was transferred to a hospice. We went in daily to spoon-feed her. Sometimes the whole family, sometimes just two or one of us. We sat with her, we spoke to her and told her about our lives. No answer. We weren’t sure if there was anyone left.
Then it was a warm June morning in Los Angeles. I heard my grandmother’s voice downstairs and tumbled out of bed, tumbled down the stairs to an empty living room. And then I remembered that my grandmother was dead.
The funeral home had told my mother to show up there that afternoon. We all went, my parents and my brother and me. The mortician ushered us into a dim room with too much air-conditioning. There, just beyond his open palm, was my grandmother’s face. I wasn’t expecting it. They’d shampooed and styled what was left of her hair and made up her face. It looked nothing like her.
The mortician told us we had an hour with her, and retreated. My brother looked at me. We looked at my mom. What do you do with a dead person for an hour? My grandmother had been sick for a long time; we’d done our grieving and crying already. It felt rude to leave early. Seeing her body was strange, but it wasn’t really sad. It wasn’t her.
We stayed until our time was up. None of us would ever admit to it, but we were uniformly relieved, maybe even gladdened. For months we had been rotating in and out of my grandmother’s hospital room, taking turns stationed as makeshift life support. For months we were staring into a pit of uncertainty. We feel obliged to hide the liberation we experience when a loved one’s suffering is over, because it’s really our own suffering that ends. My grandmother had eased out of this world a long time ago, and it was only that day that we finally had permission to unchain ourselves from the hull that remained.