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I got the call that my grandmother was dying on a weekday afternoon. It was a sunny spring day, objectively beautiful. I studied the imposing Gothic church outside my apartment window as I listened to my father’s uncharacteristic silence. When he could finally speak, he told me a priest was on his way.
My grandmother had dementia, so the feeling of losing her wasn’t new. I didn’t ask why this moment was declared as the beginning of her dying. I ended the call and got in my car.
The drive to the senior living building where my grandmother lived on the Memory Care floor usually took twenty minutes. This trip, during rush hour, felt eternal. I wished I had the power to part the traffic, to hurry on through.
Don’t you understand? I would’ve said to all those strangers in their cars. A woman I have never been without is leaving forever, and I am stuck here with you.
I was nearly thirty, an age my girlhood self never pictured herself as. I didn’t have children, or even a partner, but I thought about it. I felt an open space in its absence. When my grandmother was my age, she had four sons and was pregnant with my father. Two more sons would come after. I tried to imagine how much space mothering seven children would take up. Not only would space be filled, it would be expanded. It would be something else entirely.
When I arrived at my grandmother’s small room, she was still alive. The priest finished last rites. Solemnly surrounding the bed were some of my grandmother’s sons, and some of their children, and some of their children’s children.
I didn’t know, yet, that she wouldn’t die that day. It would take her three days to die after eighty-six years of living. I would keep coming back.
My other grandparents passed away when I was young. During the nights of my childhood, I talked to their souls in Heaven. I prayed like a phone call. Okay, God, can you put Grandpa on? I’d whisper to the ceiling, watch the smooth beams of passing headlights turn into angels on the walls. I would pray to everyone I could think of and then I would lie there, wondering what more I could do, waiting for something to happen.
The lessons I learned in Catholic school made me believe everything made sense, even if I didn’t understand it. I believed the world was full of spirits who loved me but refused to show themselves to me—Santa Claus, Mary, St. Francis, the Easter Bunny. I communicated as fervently with the tooth fairy as I did with Jesus. But I was always alone at the end of the prayer. I was always a small, new human in a dark room, desperate for something to show itself to me.
One night when I was around six years old, I awoke from a night terror and everything I saw was red, like a screen of flames was over my vision.
I stumbled through the redness into my parents’ room.
“You just had a bad dream,” my tired mother said. My father made room, and I crawled into the bed between them. Both slept. I tried to explain: “It’s still happening.” But my parents were exhausted and in the middle of dreams of their own, or maybe just claiming their own moments of space.
I didn’t know at the time—and, I’m sure, neither did my parents—that sometimes small children experience hallucinations along with night terrors, a result of their little brains going through growing pains. I didn’t know that it was normal even though it was terrifying, that so much of being alive would be this way.
I didn’t know how to say I needed someone to hold my hand.
My grandmother was always surrounded by people. Her life was intertwined in the lives of her seven sons and their families, friends, and friends of friends of friends. Every Sunday growing up, I’d chat with her next to the piles of obituaries and lipsticks on her kitchen table. Kids swooped through the room and my uncles leaned against the counters, chatting about their high school days while their wives prepared food. Vikings games blasted from the living room, where cousins and more uncles swarmed the TV. My conversations with my grandmother were light, giggly, constantly interrupted.
If the large, loud families I had on both sides of my family tree—my father one of seven, my mother the youngest of nine—did anything to shape my identity, it was to make me shy, polite, observant. I cautiously grew up under the umbrellas of booming personalities. Uncles whose jokes were for a thicker skin than mine, aunts who demanded order and gossiped in tense whispers over kitchen counters. Some were gregarious and others had built thick walls around themselves. It was a strange, swirling storm of conflicting energies—to little me, god-like personalities clashing into cosmic chaos.
Maybe this was one reason I craved a period of open space instead of flinging myself into a new generation. Maybe I was only trying to catch my breath. Maybe I was only trying to feel that I’m here.
On the second day my grandmother was dying, I was alone with her for an hour. It was the longest we’d ever been uninterrupted. Even during our long-distance phone relationship when I’d lived away for college, we’d be cut off by honking taxis, loud roommates, poor connections.
This silence was unfamiliar. A space I didn’t know how to fill. She had always done the talking. Now, her mouth was only open to breathe. Her eyes were closed, her eyebrows twitched. She occasionally squeezed my hand in an erratic, involuntary way. The hospice counselor had told me to talk to my grandmother and insisted that she could hear me. I doubted this. How could I believe I was being heard if there was no response?
I thought about how, in recent months, my grandmother had confused me for my mother on the days I was recognizable to her at all. On other days, she’d just stare at me, a vacant expression where a huge smile used to be.
I realized she’d already been losing me as much as I was losing her. Our places in each other’s lives were both shrinking into memories we were trying desperately to keep holding.
So, I tried. I started to tell my grandmother about a guy I’d started dating because it was a topic she used to love talking about, and maybe normalcy was a desired distraction. Maybe she’d like to know her oldest granddaughter was still trying to find a partner out there in the huge space of the world. But I felt stupid about the frivolity of my words when here she was dying. Here she was feeling something bigger than I could even comprehend.
We shared the gravity of silence for a long time.
An open space filled only by our breaths, the shared air between us.
A different man I’d dated once said to me, “You feel all the feels.” Maybe this explained my need to be with her in the moments that would never happen again. Maybe this was why I wanted motherhood, someday, if I could have it. Maybe motherhood meant feels I couldn’t imagine. A transformation of space. A hand to hold.
I realized—as I felt my grandmother’s cold fingers in mine, as I stared at the bedsheet, avoiding eye contact with her clenched, spastic eyelids—that I had waited too long to ask her about it.
On the final day of my grandmother’s dying, I sat at her bedside along with my father, her eldest son, and the man she’d been with for more years of my life than I’d had with my grandfather.
It seemed like her whole body was in severe discomfort. I wanted to hold her hand, but her hand was lying against her hip under the sheets. I thought if I tried to move her arm away from her body, I might hurt her, but if I reached for her hand under the blanket, my hand would press against her underwear. An inane consideration, but decades of cautious politeness rendered me immobile. I was too shy to reach for it. I was still considering it at the moment it stopped mattering, my fingers putting pressure on her arm as if to say, Hey, hey, I am here, I am here.
You are here.
As Joan Didion wrote, it happens in the ordinary instant.
She was not alone. The hands of four loved ones reached her. A nurse came in and filled our silence with a forceful prayer. The nurse cried.
I thought about the crying, praying nurse in the nights that followed. For so many nights, I could barely sleep. For so many nights, I sat on my couch and stared out the dark window, where night obscured the church beyond. Headlights passed. Tree branches swayed in the black. I didn’t pray anymore, hadn’t since childhood. My grandmother was not someone I could call—and yet, I clung to the feeling that she would still answer if I tried.
Night after night, I breathed air that she could no longer breathe. Air that I could breathe because of her. I cried, horrified that she could not be here anymore.
Both normal and terrifying.
I felt air fill my lungs, then empty before filling again. In, out. A balance. A connection. An ongoing question.
When my grandmother gasped for air while her son smoothed her hair and a nurse prayed over her body and I gingerly pressed my fingers to her arm, did she know it was her last breath? Did she know I was there?
Did she know I wanted to hold her hand?
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.