Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 6.2]

We were still unpacking boxes when the phone rang. It was Grandma Jane.

“Michelle, I thought you’d want to know that Grandma Trailer’s in the hospital in intensive care. The doctors aren’t sure she’ll be with us much longer.”

I had visited Grandma in the nursing home the last time I was home, about a year ago. She was ninety-three then, still cheerful, still coherent. She despised the nursing home, but she was popular with the staff, who all spoke fondly of her. I’d been happy to see she was still crocheting up a storm, even though, sadly, her eyesight had deteriorated greatly. At that last visit, she presented me with a beautiful cotton-candy-pink hooded baby coat she’d crocheted. She’d found the sweetest little white buttons that had pink flowers on them. When she pulled it out of her crocheting bag and silently handed it to me, it took me a minute to realize it was for me. I thought she was showing me one she’d made for someone else’s baby.

She’d bravely said, “I know how much you always loved my baby coats. I’ve made one for every girl baby in the family, including your mom and you. I want your daughter to have one, but at the rate you’re going, I don’t think I’ll be around that long.”

She was razzing me a little, and it made me chuckle. It also made me terribly sad.

“Please don’t say that, Grandma. You’re doing so well—you’ll be around many more years.”

She then looked me in the eyes and grabbed my hand and said something that clearly she must have needed to get off her chest. “I won’t last much longer. And that’s okay. I’ve lived a long, full life.”

I kept repeating she still had a lot of time and she kept adamantly denying it. Defeated, I asked if she was scared.

She replied, “Heavens no! I’m ready. Really, I am.”

She almost had me convinced. I was comforted to know that people could come to grips with death so well. I hoped I would have a similar mindset when my own end was so near.

Now, I hung up with Grandma Jane, thankful to be within driving distance of home. When Chris and I got to the hospital later that day, many of my relatives were already there, but I noticed my mom was not. I was pretty sure she was waiting for some of the relatives to leave so she wouldn’t have to face so many of them all at once. I worried that if she didn’t make it in time, another painful layer of guilt would form in her.

Grandma was intermittently lucid, but her vital signs were steadily dropping. Chris and I walked into her room and she turned her head our way a little, as if she’d heard a sound. She didn’t seem to recognize us. I wondered if she still had vision. She was extremely thin and brittle-looking. I touched her hand gently, and she opened her mouth and smacked her lips together a few times, but no sound came out. She seemed uncomfortable and continually shifted her position.

Worse, I sensed fear—no, terror—in her. It was coming through her eyes. I felt terribly helpless. I told her how much I loved her, but I couldn’t tell if she’d heard or understood me. And then more relatives came into the room. I moved aside and then snuck out into the hall with Chris to fall apart. Grandma died in the night. I knew that image of her frightened face would haunt me forever; it was not how I wanted to remember Grandma. I had empathized deeply with her fear, and it contradicted what peace I thought she’d made with death.


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