During the years that one stroke after another took my grandmother away by inches, as she changed from a vibrant, sassy, intelligent, and loving woman into a shell that looked like her but whose eyes lacked the sparkle and simple joy of life. I went to see her less and less often. It’s hard to lose someone in a senseless accident or after a protracted illness, but to watch the lighthouse of their mind dim slowly is worse.
Strokes took my grandmother’s physical functions first, and each succeeding stroke took a little more of her mind until her body was reforged into a tightening fetal ball that could not be straightened. The gentlest and most loving touch tore her fragile skin and brought screams of pain. During the six years my grandmother existed in the nursing home, my mother went every evening to see her and sit and talk with her and I often went along. Age-dimmed blue eyes looked back at us with no recognition, on her face the smile of an infant to whom our faces and voices were a soft blur of colors and sounds. We reached out to her but she could not reach back to us, a prisoner of her deteriorating mind and weakening body.
The strokes continued to kill half of her brain and the doctors intervened time and again with tubes and medication, cutting holes in her body to force-feed her when the muscles in her throat ceased working, so they could keep her alive a little longer. Finally, when her body could take no more of their interventions, the doctors decided to take my grandmother off all the machines and let her die.
“My brother will be there,” my mother said. “I think your grandmother would like it if you were there.”
I could hardly keep the tears back as I answered, “My grandmother isn’t there any more. She’s gone.
“Well, I want you there.”
I thought it over, trying to match the painfully thin and angular body with the strong and vibrant woman I had known all my life. “I don’t want to be there. You’re treating her death like some sort of circus attraction. I can’t be there to watch.”
“All right. Suit yourself,” my mother’s favorite final words. Suit myself. If I had suited myself I would never have let the doctors forced-feed her or keep bringing her back from the brink of death to lie in a lonely bed among strangers.
The day the doctors took my grandmother off all the machines and took out all the wires and tubes, I stayed home and cried, unsure if I had made the right decision of if I was being selfish and disrespectful. What did Granny Good Witch, my name for my grandmother, want?
She wanted a quiet and simple funeral, and she made and paid for all the arrangements before her first stroke, right after my grandfather died. She wanted love and respect, and what was happening in the nursing home room wasn’t loving or respectful, at least as far as I could see.
When the phone rang later that afternoon, I nearly jumped out of my skin. I knew before I picked up the phone who was calling.
“Mom slipped away peacefully. She’s gone,” my mother said, her voice breaking through her usually iron control.
“Thanks, “I said and hung up, my word lost in the sound of muffled sobs. I knew my mother missed Granny Good Witch terribly and she always would. They had always been close and that was never more evident than watching my mother hold my grandmother’s hand while grandma looked up at her with unfocused innocent eyes, a sweet smile on her face, while Mom cried and said, “Mama, please don’t leave me alone.”
I didn’t feel alone, but I had let my grandmother go many months before when she no longer recognized any of us. I felt that what had died that afternoon was the shell of my grandmother, not the woman with whom I spent so many happy afternoons together laughing and talking and cooking. I clung to those moments like a drowning woman clinging to a bit of wreck-age in a storm-wracked sea.
I went to bed early that night, worn out from crying and unable to concentrate long enough to do anything productive. I tossed and turned, tried to read, and finally, a little after midnight by the nightstand clock, I fell asleep.
I don’t remember any dreams. What I do remember is a light burning brighter and brighter against my eyelids. I sat up on the side of the bed, thinking I forgotten to turn out the hall light, and went to bedroom door. Groggily, I fumbled to open the door wider, reaching around the doorframe for the light, but it was off. I flipped the switch on and then off again, but the light persisted. I walked into the hall and saw a figured dressed in blue. It was my grandmother. She was wearing her favorite ankle-length smocked blue robe with the quilted mandarin collar. Shining with a soft white light, she stood there as if waiting for me to recognize her.
I couldn’t stop the tears running down my cheeks as I reached out to her. She took my hands and held me closely, my chin grazing the soft halo of her silver hair, and patted my back while I cried.
“I’m sorry,” I said between sobs,” but I couldn’t stand to be there today. I just couldn’t watch.”
“It’s all right,” she murmured. “I knew you were there for me even if you weren’t in the room. It’s all right.”
Still holding her hand, I stepped back, and looked down at her as she smiled up at me. I didn’t know what to say and I didn’t want to let her go, but I knew I must, just as I had let her go when she no longer recognized me and I knew she wasn’t coming back.
“I wanted to tell you something,” she said. “I have always believed in you even though you don’t believe in yourself. Believe in yourself and follow your heart and remember I’ll always be just a breath away.” And then she was gone.
When I woke the next morning I wasn’t sure at first if I had dreamed that my grandmother was standing in the hall or if it had been real, but it didn’t matter. I still felt her around me.
I went to the funeral three days later and went up to the coffin, not because it was expected but because I wanted to touch her one last time. Her body was straight again and she wore her favorite blue dress. I touched her cold cheek, but I knew she wasn’t lying in the box; she was just a breath away.