Notes from the Small Town Underground

Eulogy for Beulah, Part Two (for Part One, click here)

Me and Meme

Even though we now realized the end of my grandmother’s life was near, we also knew that could mean anything. Here was a woman who throughout my life never seemed to age a day, and it was strange to ponder that I had become as old as she was when I was born. She had certainly shown her age a bit more in the last several years with the progression of her Parkinson’s and her increasing immobility, but even then she survived her condition far longer than we ever thought possible, particularly given her prayers for God to take her from this life. However, when things took a turn for the worst, they turned fast. It was the Friday before Mother’s Day when Jean, the hospice nurse, came out to check on the swelling in her lower legs. The blood and fluid had begun to accumulate, and the site had begun to drain. We had been with her the preceding day for our usual weekly visit, and we took the opportunity to endorse the idea of her staying in the bed as much as she wanted to. When Jean suggested that morning it would be easier for her to bandage the leg and prop it up if she were in bed, Meme said without hesitation, “Well, let’s go then.” By this time, she had developed some swelling in her arms as well, and so she was exceedingly uncomfortable. At the same time, Jean ordered morphine to be administered at scheduled intervals for the pain and help her sleep.

If I could pinpoint the time when her death journey started in earnest, it was when she took her first dose of the morphine sometime that evening. It seemed to sever the final tie between mind and body. Everyone knew what a huge step it was for her to be confined to her bed, because up to that Friday she had never failed, even when ill, to get up, get dressed and do as much of her own walking as she could. Now there was no need for any of that, and soon there would be no need for her to take in sustenance or even relieve herself. The body was shutting down, and, sadly, the first thing to go was her affect and personality. This was the biggest shock to me when we stopped in to check on her on Mother’s Day. When we came into her room, it was obvious she knew who we were, but in spite of her attempts to speak (even in this state she refused to be a slouch and not properly greet her guests), we were not able to understand what she was trying to tell us. Here again, the power of touch helped to bridge that gap. I stood by her side and took her hand, and she held mine as if she never wanted to let go. To tell the truth, I didn’t want to let hers go either.

On Monday morning, I met Jean as she did her morning check-up of my grandmother. The fluid was continuing to accumulate in her arms and legs, there was more crackle in her lungs, and her heart rate was getting slower and slower. Jean estimated she had another 24 hours or so to live. I called my sister Ginny who agreed to drive down from Knoxville that evening. There wasn’t much else we could do besides wait, but knowing this might be her last day we knew we needed to bring Gray over so she could say her goodbyes. In the last couple of days, they had attempted to talk on the phone per their usual routine. Unfortunately, Meme couldn’t speak and had a hard time hearing her, and Gray was hard of hearing as well. They needed to be with each other. Early that afternoon Chrisanne and I went out to get her, and in making small talk, Gray was her usual optimistic self. “I think BuMae’s getting better, don’t you?” she said to us, and we had to tell her that, no, in fact, she wasn’t getting better.

We took Gray back to Meme’s room and prepared a seat for her by the bed. It’s hard for me to contemplate the heaviness of what they were experiencing. Meme was able to raise a feeble, “Hi, Gray” in greeting, but she wasn’t able to say much more. We decided to leave the two of them alone, but we were still able to hear them talking through the monitor in the study. Gray did most of the talking, naturally, and no doubt it was all about those things that only twin sisters can know and understand. The totality of what they shared over 95 years, and were sharing now, was coming to an end, and that realization was far sadder to me than anything I might have been experiencing myself. The visit didn’t last long – it didn’t need to – and we could hear Gray through the monitor telling Meme it was time for her to go. My grandmother, in a rare moment of lucidity, snapped back at her, “Don’t you say goodbye to me,” to which Gray responded that it was only goodbye for now and that they would talk later on the phone.

Upon Ginny’s arrival from Knoxville around 8:00 or 9:00 that evening, we began our first night’s vigil. Meme’s longstanding and most trusted caregiver, Margie Combs, insisted on staying for the duration, and we were happy to have her. She adored my grandmother like an older sister, and it was in spending more time with her in Meme’s final days that we learned how close they had become. My grandmother had shared parts of her life and inner self with her that we had no idea about. When the pain had gotten really bad in her legs from the swelling, Margie was the one who stayed up with her the entire night massaging her knee. Knowing she was about to lose my grandmother was tearing her up, but at the same time she knew she couldn’t be anywhere else but by her side. Around midnight, after it looked as though things could go on a while (Meme also appeared to be calmer without all of us hovering over her), Chrisanne and I decided to go home and get a little sleep. Our son Stewart was also at home by himself on a school night. I didn’t sleep too soundly because I kept expecting the phone to ring at any moment, but surprisingly it never did.

When I returned to Meme’s the next morning, Margie and Ginny reported to me that she had had a relatively peaceful night. We needed Jean to come and tell us, though, what was really going on, but we didn’t see her until that afternoon. Her assessment was basically more of the same, but worse. Fluid was continuing to build in her extremities (her toes were beginning to turn blue), her heartbeat was weakening, and her breath was becoming more labored. This was when I learned about such things as sigh breath, which was when her lungs had filled up with so much fluid, causing her intermittently to attempt deep breaths in order to get enough oxygen. We were also told to expect the “death rattle,” which was the audibly noticeable crackling from the final stage of her lungs filling with fluid. It basically meant she was drowning in her own body. Was she suffering? I don’t see how she couldn’t have been, but it was more of a physical suffering, since her consciousness had been separated from her body by the morphine and she was sleeping most of the time.

At least I hope she experienced that kind of mercy, with her mind fixed more on the next plane of her existence, perhaps even conjuring the dearly departed family and friends she would soon be reunited with in the by and by, instead of the pitiful way her exhausted body was slowly shutting down all its functions. Every now and then she would writhe in the bed or moan from the pain, her brows creasing – was she beseeching Heaven or just extending her neck to breathe better? – as if in an expression of bewilderment and betrayal that she had to suffer so. Typically, with any signs of agitation like this, we would rush to her bedside and feebly offer whatever comfort we could by holding her hand, rubbing her brow, telling her over and over again how much we loved her and that it was okay for her to leave us. Margie held one of her hands to her cheek and whispered repeatedly for Jesus to take her. After a while, though, it became apparent that our presence was more a source of agitation than calm for her. She may not have had any way to tell us to leave her be, but she tended to settle down when we left her alone.

It went like this all day and night. If I dwelled too long on what she was going through – or might be going through, since I couldn’t really know for sure – I would experience overwhelming waves of sympathetic panic over her being locked inside a state of neverending pain, confusion and helplessness. None of this made any sense, but then again, what makes sense about the way we come into life or leave it? These happen without any consciousness or control on our part, unless we defy the natural course on the back-end of life by purposely end it, but that was never an option here. The only consolation came from detaching myself from her experience and telling myself over and over that it would soon come to an end. I also knew it wasn’t an end like the end of a long and trying day, or the end of a fever when it breaks, or any other kind of end that was only temporary and implied the start of the same miserable cycle all over again. No, this end was final and freeing, and when it came she would no more have to endure the debilitating symptoms and failing body that had over the years deprived her of the spirit and essence that made her the incredible human being she was. It was as though her body was now rich soil being worked by some loving gardener’s hands until it produced a most singular and glorious flower. She was truly toiling toward her rest, which hopefully would be that much sweeter for the extraordinary effort she made to earn it.

Another consolation for me was the presence of family. Chrisanne, who adored Meme like her own grandmother, never left her side or mine and was a constant source of support. Ginny had come without her family, but she and I were together as Meme’s surviving grandchildren, and her stamina and vigilance over her care (is it time for another dose of morphine?) were also very reassuring and comforting. I was having a hard time with all this, to put it mildly, and with her there I felt I could retreat a little if it got to be too much to bear. My mother had decided to come down for the day from Asheville as well, and she was able to pick up our daughter Georgia from Asheville School and bring her too. And our son Stewart came as well after school let out. Chrisanne and I had from the very beginning made it a priority for our children to know their grandparents, or in Meme’s case great-grandparent, just as we had been fortunate to know ours and to appreciate the deep and lasting impact they had had on our lives, and it was equally important for them to attend to her passing too. The only family member missing was Gray, but there was no way she could have physically sat through this. Whether she knew or accepted that her visit on Monday was the last time she would see her beloved twin, the half who completed her being just as Meme was completed by her, I don’t really know, but she had already decided that she wouldn’t be making another visit so soon after the last one. She did, however, call at their usual time of 5:00, and though Meme was not entirely conscious, Ginny held the phone up to her ear for Gray yet again to give utterance to their near century-old secrets.

As midnight approached again, Chrisanne and I went back home to be with Stewart. We were all tired, to say the least. It had only been a short while ago that we had all sat for an exhausting and agonizing spell by her bed, reading into her belabored, short breaths that the end was imminent. Ginny stayed behind and tried to grab some sleep on Meme’s sofa. This time, though, my head had hardly hit the pillow when the phone rang. It was Margie calling to tell us it was over. I immediately returned to the house, which no longer had the air of expectancy and anticipation. She was gone, and that was a new reality we had to come to grips with. The grey, lifeless form still lying on the hospital bed was merely what was left behind of the person who had since passed on to another, unknowable plane. A portrait of this beautiful woman painted in the prime of her life that hung over the bed stood in stark contrast, almost defiance, to her corpse. Death be not proud, indeed. It is not the corpse that represents the sum of our lives, and it damn sure is not the part of her that we will carry with us in our memories to the end of our days. For these reasons, I was not so much saddened by her death – that would come later – as I was relieved that her pain and suffering were over – forever. Margie recounted such a peaceful end as well. After we had all decided to get some rest, she told us she went to Meme’s room to stay with her while she quietly slept. At some point, Margie got up to get something from the kitchen, and as she passed Meme’s bed, she noticed something was off. She soon realized that she wasn’t breathing. She had somehow slipped away without even Margie noticing. It was 1:07am on May 13.

When the hospice nurse on duty came to record the death and contact the funeral home, she remarked, after hearing us describe Meme’s final moments, that people often die the way they lived their lives. I believe there’s a lot of truth to this. As much as she enjoyed the company of family and friends, Meme had always been a rather private person, someone who prized her solitude. I would not describe her as being physically affectionate, though she had become more that way with my children than she ever was with me. Then again, she was a different person at a different place in her life when they were growing up. She would always want them to greet her with a hug when we came over to visit, and she had taken to calling Stewart her bird of whatever color shirt he happened to be wearing that day. “There’s my blue bird,” she would say. Toward the end when her eyesight was failing, the color of their clothing might have been all that identified them to her. As her physical debilitation prevented her more and more from expressing herself, she came to appreciate when such physical affection was lavished on her, particularly by her favorite caregivers. I felt I was upsetting the natural order of our relationship by expressing affection myself – I was forever the grandchild, after all, taught to be seen and not heard – but I took to telling her I loved her more often.

Still, no matter how much she came to tolerate or even appreciate these intrusions into her personal space, the one thing she could not abide was to be a burden on anyone. I don’t think she was ever comfortable receiving the care that I, Chrisanne and Ginny were providing, because she knew we had our own lives and families to raise, and being unable to return the favor must have frustrated her no end. She really had no idea how grateful we were to have been in a position to return the favor of all the things she and Granddaddy had done for us. Whenever there was a negative development in her condition, I invariably heard it from the caregivers, never from her. She tried to spare me from as much of the details of her care as she could, and it’s not hard for me to see how she may have tried to do that with her death as well. Whatever consciousness she had during those last two days, she would probably have been mortified to know that we were all invading the private space of her bedroom, seeing her sprawled on the hospital bed in only her nightgown and adult diaper, her hair in disarray. I’d like to think that on the brink of death we wouldn’t hold on to appearances like this, but who knows, since these proprieties are characteristics we use to define ourselves all our lives. I just know that staring down one’s own mortality is as private as it gets, and in her way she may have been desperate for such privacy at a time when it is not only appropriate but also perhaps necessary and unavoidable. It makes sense that she would have felt more comfortable letting herself go in Margie’s presence when they had spent enough time together to establish trust and friendship without the without the weight of familial obligation. Theirs was, in essence, a professional relationship that blossomed into a most beautiful friendship for which we are all grateful.

The days immediately following Meme’s death were a whirlwind of arrangement-making that probably went a long way toward holding off the real grief that was yet to come. In line with her not wanting to be a burden in life, Meme really did not want much fuss made over her death either. She must have known, though, that those left behind would want to acknowledge and celebrate her life in some way. Fortunately for us, she had left instructions on the kind of memorial service she wanted, even marking in her files the hymns she wanted sung. And she and Granddaddy had already taken care of the burial site, which was the memorial garden at Corinth Church that they had been instrumental in establishing. Thank goodness for her niece, Ann Atchison, who was serving as Gray’s primary caretaker and was able to spread the word to the members of Meme’s Jones family that I did not have much connection with. Though she seemed to keep us separated from that part of her life, I always knew how important to her life they were, and Ann’s cousins, the surviving nieces and nephews of Meme’s 13 brothers and sisters, were so good to visit her on such a frequent basis. In fact, one of her nephews, Tom Dembinski, had already scheduled a trip from San Diego to visit with her the weekend following her death. I had the job of calling Meme’s surviving Hickory friends – Ann Peden, Winnie Hovey, Fran Bellmore, Sally and George Blackwelder, Billy and Brenda Bolick – but I was not able to complete a single call or leave a voice message without breaking down in tears. Each call was an admission of the finality of her death, and it felt like it was hitting me anew each time I said it.

Nevertheless, by the time of the memorial service, I was in more of a celebratory mood, and I was looking forward to seeing the family and friends who turned up to pay their respects. It really was a magnificent service. Pastor Bob Thompson had met with me, Chrisanne, Ginny and Gray a few days earlier to hear our remembrances and gather biographical details, and he did an impeccable job in capturing her soul and spirit in the meditation he delivered on Meme’s life. I was pleased that we were able to schedule the service to capitalize on Tom’s visit from San Diego, while other relatives came from places like Ocean Isle Beach, Kinston, Greensboro, Lexington and other parts of the state. It was great to see them all, and I know Meme would have been pleased, in her self-effacing way, to see how many had been able to come.

One noticeable absence was Gray. The very next night after Meme died, she had gotten up around 1:00am to go to the bathroom, and she fell on the way back to her bed. It looked like she might have suffered a lumbar fracture, but an MRI determined that she only had a bruise, which as she learned can be much more painful. Needless to say, her injury prevented her from attending the service, though the Jones relatives were gracious enough to stop by and see her at Trinity Village (she had at least been discharged from the hospital) on their way back out of town.

We are all left with the job of figuring out how to carry on with this gaping hole in our lives, but none more so than Gray. I can’t begin to imagine what she’s going through to be forcefully parted from this person who had been co-existent with her from the moment she was born. Their daily talks on the phone was an appointment so faithfully kept that I wondered if, on her deathbed, Meme was waiting to die so they could talk one more time in order to hear Gray expressly assure her it was okay to let go. (Would she have said then, “Don’t you say goodbye to me”?) In Gray’s mind now, her fall and Meme’s death occurred on the same day and hour, and she regrets that the fall did not take her so they could go out of this life together the same way they came in. She has no interest in celebrating their shared birthday now. Once a woman almost pollyannish in her optimism about life, she now speaks with the same tone of weariness and longing for death that Meme used to have. She has not lost her humor, but it’s like she uses it to keep from crying. When all of us met with Pastor Bob to discuss the details of the memorial service, she declared, “Well, at least now I know I’m the next to go.” How does it feel to be the sole survivor of such a large family?

Life will go on without Meme because we will carry it on, just as we will carry the burden of elder status now that she and our other elders have left that void for us to fill. I can’t say that I have embraced such status enthusiastically, but then again at 50 years old I can’t say that I’ve fully embraced adulthood, parenthood or any other station of responsibility in life. Do we ever embrace these stations, or do we wear them as ill-fitting clothes until they feel sufficiently broken in? I don’t see how anyone can feel truly comfortable in these roles when they’ve assumed them merely by virtue of lasting long enough. This is how death stops us in our tracks. We build up these perceptions about ourselves and others by convincing ourselves we have the answers or know certain secrets, but when a linchpin in our life passes away, it strips away all pretense and reminds us how ephemeral and illusory all of it is.

None of this makes me wish Meme were still here – I wouldn’t wish that on her, given the suffering she endured, for anything; she well earned her passage to the other side – but my next steps feel tentative. Death, then, becomes like another birth, both for us and the departed. We both move on, whether we want to or not, into new phases of existence, the one we can’t ever know until we die ourselves, and the other here on earth that has been rendered equally unknown to us by virtue of the loved one’s departure. We create the new life without them by living it every single day. Yes, it’s painful, but there’s no shortcut and no other way.

It’s one thing to intellectualize all this and quite another to act on it. Meme’s death is one of the more devastating of a family member or close relation that I have experienced. I can’t say that I didn’t have plenty of warning. Chrisanne, the kids and I had visited her faithfully every single week for 16 years. I was witness to the physical and even emotional changes she went through, and I attended to all the details of her care, from the changes in doctors, to the ever-changing line-up of caregivers, to all the changes in her medications. None of those details prepared me for the eventuality I would have to confront. In the months leading up to it, I would sit at home and experience momentary fits of panic at the thought of receiving the phone call that I knew would come at any time. If anything, weathering these changes deepened the bond between us, perhaps making it that much harder to let her go. I saw Chrisanne go through something similar after her mother passed away, following years of visiting her several times a week and long past the point that her mother, afflicted with Alzheimer’s, stopped recognizing her. It’s like we commit ourselves to this journey with our loved ones, wherever it takes us. We buy our tickets and pack our bags, and then we react with shock when Charon, or whoever our guide to the other side is, stops us short and refuses us entrance.

I don’t know that I desired to follow Meme in death, but I know that I went to a very dark place after she died. Call it my form of grief, depression or whatever, but going there was not my decision to make. Nor was I able to do anything to snap myself out of it, though goodness I tried – or at least tried to numb the pain – via overindulgence and distraction. This was one time when I appreciated not working, because it enabled me to abandon all semblance of schedule and do whatever the hell I felt like, which mostly amounted to keeping myself busy with the affairs of her estate and going bit by bit through the things in her house. Even if I was able to articulate what I was going through, I had no desire to write about it, or anything else for that matter. It’s as though I had sunk like a stone to the bottom of a stream, and all I was capable of doing was looking up at the water as it rushed over and all around me. I might have been able to make out the waveringly distorted images of life happening above the surface of the water, but I had no way of breaking through, and I could not make any of these images out clearly enough to form an attachment, or for them to exert any kind of pull on me.

Overindulgence and distraction tend to outlive their usefulness long before we come to that realization ourselves. Just as we can never quite know when life tips the balance over to death, we wake up after a while to the fact that what started as something inflicted upon us is something we are now inflicting upon ourselves. Damn if life isn’t strange this way, and I know no better words to describe these transitory fluctuations than the sequence, borrowed from Beckett, I’ve used to name this blog. It starts with an external command, forces from the outside that give you your marching orders: You must go on. Because we tend to take such external commands as an affront to a free will that is illusory to being with, and it goes against what we imagine we want at the time, we respond with reflexive defiance: I can’t go on. Finally, we come to understand that the external command is indistinguishable from the self-preserving drive we all have inside us to push on through adversity and this life of sorrow, and so we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and declare: I will go on.

I know this is what Meme would have wanted and would have done herself. It’s the same fierce grit and determination that saw her through every day of her nearly 96 years of life and gave her the strength of will to get out of bed, even on those days when she sure as hell didn’t feel like it. During those years of caring for her, my will became intertwined with hers in a way, even if I might have bristled at the charge on occasion. Regardless of the way I felt about my responsibilities toward her on any given day, I accepted the overriding goal as providing her with as good a quality of life as possible, for as long as possible. We will all face the reality that we have as little control of our departure from this life as we had of our arrival into it. Just as we celebrate new birth, it is incumbent on us to bestow on our loved ones the dignity in death that they can no longer bestow upon themselves. That is what all of us tried our humble best to do for our beloved Meme. We are all born into a family and a place, but Meme is one of those pivotal figures who taught me what it means to have a sense of both family and place, which is a precious gift indeed. It’s what roots us in our existence, regardless of where and how we live it. In turn, I understand that I must now draw those lessons from her life that will undoubtedly take me a lifetime and more to absorb, so that I might teach it to my children and they to theirs. That way, her death is not ever the end of who she was and always will be to us, and our lives in her absence are not ever without meaning, dignity, family and, above all, a place to call home before we reach the threshold of our final homeplace.

Rest in peace, Meme. We love you good.

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