the simplicity of breath

I finished a workout early Saturday morning and laid my worn-out (and now older) self on the floor completely out of breath.  I had unwillingly found extra time in the day due to an early wake-up call from a horrible (never to be shared aloud again) dream. As I slowly worked back to a normal rhythm of inhales and exhales, all I could do was appreciate that I could and recall that she couldn’t.

It started Sunday. Mike had been sick all weekend (legit man flu) and I offered to hang out with his daughter so he and his little man could rest. I thought it would be a perfect opportunity for a beautiful little girl to visit the little old ladies at the memory care center. I called first to see if grandma was up and at ’em and the staff advised that she hadn’t been up that day. In fact, she hadn’t been up much the day before. We opted out of a visit so she could get her rest and I called dad to see what was up. Apparently, some of grandma’s levels weren’t quite right.

Thankfully, our offices were closed on Monday in honor of MLK Jr. so I had planned a haircut and a movie with the girls. My dad called as I was getting ready and mentioned that he’d received word that grandma really wasn’t doing well at all and in fact, that the staff was pretty sure she was failing. I told him not to worry; Nikki and I were close and there wasn’t anywhere else we’d need to be.

What I learned in the next few days that followed was how much admiration I have for those who care for not those who can no longer care for themselves, but specifically for those facing end-of-life situations. Because my heart broke at least 1,000 times in that same period.

Life between Monday and Wednesday was no longer about work deadlines and to-do lists, but about time spent with a woman who didn’t know me anymore. To her credit, she’d said my name back in July (one day shy of her 90th birthday) and I was so thankful and encouraged for her to recognize me as one of her own. But the reality was, on most days, I was just another pretty girl (her words) with long and beautiful hair. And it was ok. Grandma had known me as that pretty girl (who I’m certain was actually my cousin in Texas but it’s okay … she was always the favorite!) for the past several years, at least most of the eight following my grandpa’s passing in October of 2008. I’d reconciled a long time ago that my grandma was not the same woman I knew growing up and it made our relationship a very unique and special one.

And last week she was a beautiful and frail 90-year-old that taught me more about just how simple life becomes when it’s just about to end. She, my strong and amazing sister and I spent those days just being.

On that Monday, we had moments of awareness and she opened her eyes and would ‘talk’ to us. I’m pretty sure she said some naughty words a few times when her caregivers shifted her or when Nikki and I thought we knew how to move her bed around (oops, sorry about that grandma). But there was also that time when I was right up in her sweet face telling her how beautiful she was and how much we loved her when I’m sure she said, ‘i love you very much’ right back. It was really the last clear(er) communication we had from her.

But her breathing was labored. And as she inhaled and exhaled, I knew just how hard it was getting for her to do so.

Between dad and us girls, the family was made aware of grandma’s decline and several began making arrangements to get home. With dad in Florida, Nikki and I just felt an unspoken sense of responsibility to be there with her. We didn’t want credit or thanks or any of that nonsense. We just wanted to be good daughters for our dad, really.

So we sat with her and focused solely on how we could be good granddaughters for her. And as time progressed, it became so obvious that it was really just about how you love someone in that moment (whether they know you or not). In the place they’re in. With the supplies you have available.

We prayed over her and reassured her that it was okay. That truthfully, she could go whenever she needed to because she fought the best fight. I brought my Bible so we read scripture. I read from John chapter 3 because the 17th verse was my grandpa’s favorite and really, like I heard in church yesterday, it’s just about Jesus anyway. And we sang songs like Amazing Grace and How Great Thou Art and The Old Rugged Cross. We even played some polka music for her (I’m still sort of uncertain about that, grandma). And as time wore on and her breaths became more labored, we made sure she had what she needed to be comfortable. We applied chapstick. We gave her water; that at first she could swallow by bits on her own but then we just started to give her what we could through a straw.

I celebrated my birthday with her and it was a birthday I will never forget. She’d spent my fifth birthday with me as well when my other grandma was losing her battle with colon cancer. She would pass the next day, January 18, 1985. On this day, though, instead of a donut ‘cake’ flanked by a single candle, grandma rested while Nikki, Brian and Lindsey sang a sweet happy birthday to me and shared gluten free brownies my sweet niece made on her own. I broke down when I blew out the candle because my only wish was for grandma to be free. That night, Mike blessed me beyond measure by just allowing me to fall apart on him (and to watch This Is Us, of course).

But like the stubborn old woman that she is, grandma hung on until January 18. I was with her that morning and sincerely prayed that the Lord would give me the strength to stay with her until family arrived early that afternoon because I was literally in agony over her breathing. A friend from work texted simply, ‘you doing ok?’ and I responded, ‘no,’ then, ‘i mean yes’. But tears fell because I just didn’t know exactly why she was hanging on so tightly to this life that had robbed her of her own memory for so long.

I sensed that she was declining quite quickly on that Wednesday. And I had noticed a change in her breathing and asked Nikki to come because I couldn’t be alone. I’m sure grandma was thankful to have the stronger of the two of us in the room, too, because dear Lord the crying. I had just texted my dad and he happened to call so I asked him if he wanted to talk to grandma. He was due in that night at 7:00 but I just wasn’t sure she could hang on. I put him on speaker and I have never, ever in my life, been witness to such a beautiful one-way conversation. Dad told her how much she meant to him and that it would be okay and he prayed a beautiful prayer and both Nikki and I were literally the proudest daughters on the planet.

My Aunt Kathy, Uncle Larry, cousin Melissa and her daughter, Lauren, arrived around 2ish and I was quick to leave. My head hurt so badly and I wanted to spend some time with CJ. I planned to take him to Cadets that evening and then head up to the airport to pick up my dad. The next few hours were, quite honestly, a blur. I dropped Connor off and knew I only had about 50 minutes to get to the airport and I also knew that grandma was getting ready to go flirt with my grandpa again. I picked dad up by the door and we hugged and teared up for a moment and then I am pretty sure I scared off any pedestrians as I sped off from the airport. He shared how he’d helped a woman with dementia off the plane and of course, got emotional, because that’s been his life, too.

As I jumped on the highway, he said he didn’t want me getting into an accident, or worse, a ticket! But I assured him that there was no way in heck I was keeping grandma any longer because at this point, I was quite certain she was waiting for her family to arrive before she could feel okay about going. And wait she did.

The next 30 minutes were the most beautiful minutes I have had the privilege of experiencing (aside from meeting Connor for the first time). Grandma, with all the sass I can imagine, walked right into eternity surrounded by the ones she’d prayed for everyday for as long as I can remember. Well, I did clarify for the group, that likely this past several years she only prayed for my dad because he was the one human she consistently recalled but we knew her intentions.

And I finally saw her rest. She’d worked so hard. She had pushed her body as hard as she could to say goodbye to her children. And then she breathed her last. There was no more pain. There was only peace. And I was thankful. I was thankful for the lessons she’d taught me in the 37 years and one day that I had the privilege to know her; but most thankful for those last few days that she taught me about true love all over again. And breathing.

I love you, you stubborn old woman.

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