The hardest goodbye

My grandmother passed away in the wee hours of Saturday morning, surrounded by her four children and her husband of nearly 41 years. I was in her bedroom, just the next room over from the living room where we and a hospice nurse had been tending to her since her release from the hospital just a couple of days earlier.

This has been hard on my family for a lot of reasons.  Meem was our anchor, our rock, the glue that held us together.  Her youngest grandchild will not have any memories of her; nor will her only great-grandchild so far or any of those who follow her.  On the other side of the coin, that means Julia, Carly, and any future little ones my siblings, cousins, and I might have won’t know what it was like to go through losing her.  And I am sorry that they won’t have the good memories, but I wouldn’t wish the pain of her loss on my worst enemy.

My family liked to joke (okay, sometimes it wasn’t joking, it was complaining) that I was Meema’s favorite grandchild.  Maybe I was, but even if I wasn’t, I was the first grandchild.  She became a grandmother at the young age of 38, while she still had an elementary school-aged child at home.  She had energy, she had time, and she had so much love to share with me.  She was a second mom to me–the one I’d call before I called my actual mother, most of the time, if I thought I was in some sort of trouble.  She was my biggest cheerleader, the wisest person I knew.  She was my very best friend, and she knew me better than anyone else on the planet, and she’s gone.

The cancer that killed her was probably present in her body for years.  It may have been spreading throughout her bones when she made the long, long trip to Georgia to see me marry my Dallas last summer.  It was certainly lurking when we came home in January for his dissertation defense and only saw her for a short time at my mom’s house.  It was definitely present in early May when she and Pops were so proud to be present when their grandson-in-law was presented as “Dr. Michelbacher” for the first time, and when we spent the better part of a week here at the house with her and Pops.

Back then, she was talking about a sore hip, shrugging off all our attempts to make her see a doctor.  She was sure it was just from her having to compensate for the broken foot on her other leg for a long period of time.  She had gotten so thin, so stooped at the shoulders.  She shuffled when she walked.  Still, we didn’t want to believe anything really serious was happening.

Her death certificate says the official cause of her death was respiratory failure, complicated by metastatic lung cancer; duration, eight days.  Obviously it didn’t all happen in eight days, but that was the length of time we had with her–she had with us–between her diagnosis and her death.  When she was admitted to the hospital, it turned out her hip wasn’t just sore–it was fractured.  So was her spine.  The stooping and gradually getting shorter was something we were all aware of, because it happened to her mother and grandmother before her.  Women in my family have a long history of osteoporosis, and Meem was the latest person to suffer from it.  But when the doctors looked deeper and started running the tests, there was cancer.  Everywhere.  She had smoked most of her life.  Metastatic lung cancer killed her mother, too, almost ten years ago.  Meem tried to quit, but she literally broke out in hives without the nicotine, and the patches, lozenges, and gum didn’t give her enough to keep the itching away.  So the habit stayed.

I think she knew when we were here earlier this month that her time was coming.  When we were here, I felt a little guilty for not spending more time with my parents.  Now I’m glad we spent more time up here.  Meem was one of those people who worried way more about other people than about herself, and she was so tough and stubborn.  She didn’t want to get help for her aches and pains until they were too much for her to handle, and by then, there was nothing anyone could do for her except keep her comfortable while she was waiting.

A little more than twenty-four hours before she died, an old neighbor stopped to see her.  When she asked Meem how she was doing, she smiled and said she was okay because she knew she was going to heaven soon.  After she could no longer speak, my Pops sat at her bedside and told her about all the people who were waiting to see her when she got there.  She made sure he was going to be taken care of, and she hung on until the last three of her eleven grandchildren, coming from two other states, could make it home to say goodbye.  She waited for me to go to bed, so it was just her, Pops, and her kids.  That’s just the kind of person my Meema was.  I don’t think she ever truly disliked anyone.  After she and her first husband divorced and remarried other people, they and their spouses remained friends for the rest of her life.  I can’t imagine that happens too often.

By the time my life is over, if I’m even half the woman, mother, wife, friend, and human being Meem was, I’ll consider it a huge success.  In my eyes, nobody could ever be her equal.  Certainly nobody could surpass her.


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