My grandmother died at 6:07 p.m. June 24, in an intensive care unit room full of machines, four of her seven children, and me. I held her hand for the last half-hour of her life, watching her heart rate drop on the monitor next to the bed, 105, 92, 71, 52, 27, 0, tears rolling down my cheeks. Then I went for a long drive on some Iowa country roads as the sun went down, same as I used to do when I was growing up here and needed to think about something.
Maxine was 86 years old, which I told her was old the previous week, when we discussed that I was 35, which was pretty old, too. The last really good talk I had with her, I counted back her grandchildren, 20, and her great-grandchildren, 10, to her.
I always bragged that I was the favorite grandchild, which may have been completely attendance-based, but was confirmed by Grandma a couple times at my request. She didn’t die rich or leave me a big inheritance check, a house, or even a set of heirloom silverware, but Maxine did teach me what tough was.
On the last day of her life, she spent the morning lying unconscious in a bed in the emergency room, her now-tiny body convulsing to expel the carbon dioxide stuck in her lungs. Tough is MMA fighters and action movie stars and NFL football players, till you’re in a room with a 95-year-old octogenarian battling for a few more breaths so she can see her kids one last time. Maxine woke up briefly in the afternoon to say goodbye to all of us through an oxygen mask, and then gradually drifted off as we all hung around her bed, quiet except for a breathing machine.
She had seven children, now spread throughout the country, and I think her oldest, my mother, was her best friend for the last two decades of her life. When it came time to move her into an assisted living apartment a year ago, the family of course decided to keep her close to my mom, who visited her every single night to make sure her coffee pot was ready for the next morning, help her keep her regimen of pills straight, and to give her pedicures.
We all hung together to get our hearts broken on Maxine’s last day. My two uncles, Dan and Steve, my Aunt Nora, and Mom. I don’t know if Grandma could hear all the jokes about old Catholic school classmates and crass references to colonoscopies, but we had as many laughs as tears. Of course we tried to act a little classy when people walked by the room, but as soon as they passed, we’d say that Grandma would have wanted us to have fun, which is what people always say. But Grandma was the last person to ever take anything seriously.
One Christmas a few years ago, I found out Grandma hated fruitcake. So in addition to a couple other gifts I got her, I picked up a $6 fruitcake and wrapped it up for her to open Christmas morning. We all laughed when she opened it and said something about using it for a doorstop, and then went on to talk shit about fruitcake and how anyone could ever eat it.
Every year for the next six years, I wrapped up a fruitcake on Christmas Eve, and on Christmas morning, I would hand the package to Grandma, and she would say, “Is this another goddamn fruitcake?”
And I would say No Grandma, just open it, and she would open it, and we would laugh, and throw another fruitcake in the trash.
This was how it went with us for most of my life, Grandma and I being pals, cracking jokes, talking about this and that, but never anything serious. Her last week, she was missing her partial dentures for several days while my Uncle Dan repaired them, and she would alternately complain about how terrible she looked without teeth, and then “smile” at me to make me laugh at her gap-toothed grin.
Grandma lived almost 30 years on her own after my grandfather, her husband, died in 1986 at age 59. She never dated anyone else, or had any real hobbies; she just kept up on her family and kept on living. There was never any question whether or not she was going to eat five cookies per day, or drink coffee for 12 hours per day. If you had questioned either one of these things, she would have wondered what was wrong with you, and probably would have asked you to your face.
I said a few times over the last couple weeks that Grandma wasn’t really having that much fun anymore, even though between her frequent hospital stays and spells of being tired and confused, she was still smiling and joking. We talked five days before she died, and death came up, and I said it was okay whenever she was ready, because 86 years was pretty good when you think about it, and she said she supposed it was.
Underneath the oxygen mask in the ICU, when she woke up for a few moments, my aunt wiped a tear from Grandma’s cheek two different times. As much as I told myself that she was ready to go, she wasn’t quite yet. Her breathing became more erratic, a quick inhale here, long exhale, quick inhale, quick exhale. I watched all the measurements on the screen, not sure what any of them meant, but when I listened to her breaths, I knew it couldn’t go on long. The EKG ticked down to zero, and the breathing machine alarm went off. I wished someone would come in and shut it off, but after a few seconds, I just reached up and did it myself.
I let go of Grandma’s hand, walked out of the hospital to call my brother to tell him the news, my voice cracking into the phone. I told him what I’d been telling myself: I think it was time, Grandma wasn’t having that much fun anymore, it was good she had all of us around her.
That night, I heard the TV weatherman call it “a perfect night” as I walked outside to sit on the stoop in the dark. My Grandma wasn’t in her house back in Emmetsburg a few hours away, or upstairs in my parents’ house, or at her assisted living apartment a mile away, or in the hospital. She wasn’t any of the places I remembered she was when I was somewhere else and reminded myself I needed to give her a call because of that tiny pang of guilt I felt. She was gone. And I wasn’t ready for her to be gone. As much as I told myself it was best for her, and for my mom, who devoted more and more hours to taking care of and worrying about Grandma over the past ten years, it just hurt.
The first story I ever wrote that anyone thought was any good was for a creative nonfiction workshop at the University of Montana in 2004, titled something like “Look At Grandpa’s Curly Hair It Looks Just Like Yours Doesn’t It.” It was one page, about driving to see my grandmother for lunch, and how I realized my mom had never told Grandma I’d spent the previous summer in rehab and doing a brief jail sentence after getting drunk and fucking up about 10 too many times.
As my grandma got older, I wrote a couple other stories about her, dealing with the difficulties of aging, and the indignities of losing the ability to take care of yourself. Over the past year, Grandma was moved out of her home that she had lived in since 1956 and into a 400-square-foot apartment that she tolerated with a sadness she mentioned every once in a while.
For a week when she first moved there, I joined her for breakfast in the dining room every morning, trying to keep her spirits up about the place and all the nice people who were now her very close neighbors, even though I was sad myself we put all these sweet little old ladies in a big building that’s probably more lonely than sitting in their houses by themselves. The next time I visited, I decided I was going to cook breakfast for her at her apartment, and she loved it. She even ate some peppers despite the fact that she hates them. Then she went to the hospital for a week and a half with pneumonia. The next time I came back to visit, she had stopped eating breakfast.
I returned from trips to Norway, Switzerland, Italy, the Grand Canyon, and the incredible mountains of the West, living the lucky dreams of a kid who grew up surrounded by cornfields a thousand miles away from the mountains, and Grandma and I sat and talked, never about the mountains, just about regular stuff, and busted each other’s balls.
Grandma didn’t care about climbing, or Switzerland, wouldn’t have the slightest idea why someone would ride on a raft through the Grand Canyon, and wouldn’t have understood most of my stories about any of those places anyway. I watched her struggle and wrote about it because it was the most real, the most important thing that happened to me over the past few years, no matter what exotic stuff I put on Instagram that would suggest otherwise.
I never cried on a climbing route, never lost control of my emotions, not matter where I was. I would freak out, curse myself, wonder if I was going to hit a ledge and die, but I never got emotional. But in between all that stuff, I returned to Iowa to watch a sweet old lady in her final year and I battled to swallow a hundred lumps in my throat whenever she wasn’t looking, and when I got outside the door of her apartment or hospital room, I lost that battle a dozen times and let the tears roll out while I sat in the seat of my van or leaned against the wall of the building. Even when mountains can’t break you, grandmas can.
On her last day, I had a feeling in the late afternoon that she might not make it much longer, and I sat on the end of the bed, and then a chair, damned if I wasn’t going to be right next to her when her heart stopped beating. And I was, with my two uncles who were some of my earliest heroes, my hilarious Aunt Nora, my dad, my Aunt Kris, and my mom, who probably kept her alive a couple extra years just by being there whenever she could.
Over the next few days, her relatives flew and drove in from four time zones, and everyone laughed and told stories and got sad at their own pace, and we all split up Grandma’s stuff. I carried a box of odds and ends out to my van to donate to the Goodwill store, and Grandma’s slippers were on top the box. Of course no one wanted to keep an old pair of slippers. Like everything else in that apartment, I hated to have to get rid of them, to take them to a store where someone would pick them up for two dollars and put their feet in them without ever knowing who my Grandma was or what she meant to me and dozens of other people.
My mom asked if I needed anything for my kitchen, a coffee pot, some dishes, anything else. I just wanted Grandma’s favorite coffee mug. Through all my adult life, all the people I thought I was in the past 15 years, that was the one thread that we had together, and she was the one person who would never say no when you asked if she wanted more coffee. I don’t know why we hold onto things from people we love after they’re gone—maybe because we don’t want to give them away to someone who doesn’t value them, or maybe we hope those things will help us remember to pause and think about that person we loved.
I noticed over the last few years that every time I saw a white-haired woman alone anywhere that I automatically assumed she was lonely. I suppose I do that because I felt a little guilty about not spending more time with my grandmother, besides my two week-long visits every year and handful of phone calls. Now that she’s gone, I don’t know what I’ll feel, but I suppose I’ll miss the hell out of her.