Exponent II Classics: December Departure

Grandma’s stuffy house smelled of stale garbage and dust. The golden December sun made a brilliant window-print on the worn quilt that covered Grandma and the floral couch. She was in a semi-coma; the doctor said that she may live for several hours or even a few days. Her final words were: “No hospitals, no hospitals.”

I realize that no one gets a written invitation to a death, but I felt like an intruder as I watched Grandma die. Her sons and daughters-in-law were rightfully there, as well as Kent, her unofficial favorite grandchild. But as a granddaughter-in-law that had shared less than one-tenth of her life, I felt uncomfortable and self-conscious, like a seventh-grader in her first P.E. shower.

I sat on the kitchen chair in the most remote corner of the tiny room, feeling guilty for not visiting Grandma a month ago when she first started to fail. “As soon as the baby comes,” I had told Ken, “we’ll go see Grandma.” But Spencer came late, and even though I held my week-old son that day, I knew that she would never see him.

Grandma’s breathing was shallow and irregular, and after every breath, I would wonder, “Is that the last breath? Do people usually die so quietly and submissively, or is the last breath a violent gasp like the fireworks finale on the Fourth of July?” Occasionally Grandma would make a low, gurgling noise, and her body would shudder as if her spirit were struggling to break free. Then everyone would gather around to see if perhaps she would gain consciousness and say new final words.

I wanted to ask her what it felt like to die. Sore and emotional from the labor of a week ago, I wanted to know if dying is like giving birth. Is death, like birth, a longed-for deliverance, the beginning of a new life? Does an infirm, eighty-six-year-old widow anticipate death the same way an overdue mother-to-be looks forward to birth? I felt that we were timing her breaths like labor pains—never knowing which would be the last.

Grandma’s skin was a lifeless, grayish color, and her hair was thin and yellow-white. I tried to picture her twenty-five years younger with a freckled, blond grandson hollering through the unlocked screen door. Kent grew up next door to Grandma, and I knew that she was the part of him that I loved the most. She was pancakes and syrup when he skipped Sunday School at her house. She was earth-brown fingers that showed him how to garden. She was corny jokes and a box of stale chocolates, an unclipped, sliver-haired poodle, and his first (and only) sip of beer. Most of all, she adored Kent, and I loved her for that.

The afternoon flowed slowly and peacefully. The clock chimed every half-hour. The furnace silently turned on and off, making the already warm house seem unbearable. Aunt Mary served dry tuna fish sandwiches. We whispered about the weather and Christmas and if the funeral should be on Thursday or Friday. The peaceful melody of the room smothered a screaming voice within me, “Grandma, I need to know, ‘How does it feel to die? Are you afraid?’”

The sun slowly faded, and a dim lamp made Grandma’s face look waxy and artificial. For a few moments, it seemed as though her breathing had stopped. We checked our watches. Then we watched her take one final, troubled breath, struggling and straining for air like a chocked newborn gasping for life outside the womb. Afterwards, there was a silence. In the peaceful moments after Grandma’s death, the room turned dark and cold. I silently mourned as I sensed that my unanswered questions, like the tiny flecks of dust illuminate by a dim lamp, would slowly fade but would never disappear.

Annette Evans
Mapleton, Utah
Vol. 14, No. 4 (1989)

EmilyCC

EmilyCC works for a national non-profit and lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her spouse and three children. She is a former editor of Exponent II and a founding blogger at The Exponent.

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2 Responses

  1. jana says:

    This is a lovely reflection on the process of dying. Like the author of this piece, I witnessed my first death just after the birth of my first child. I couldn’t help but compare the two experiences. During Dad’s last hours I often held my son’s new hand up to my Dad’s slightly-bluish one.

    The process of death continues to be mysterious to me. For my Dad it was long and drawn out, with much struggle for breath and a great deal of pain. The parallels to my labor/birth experience are many.

  2. Caroline says:

    Emily, I often don’t comment on these classics, but I so appreciate you posting them. Thank you!

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