A little over a week ago, I drove two hours to the hospital where my grandma was staying. On that Friday night, all of her children and as many of her grandchildren as could make it went to say goodbye. Earlier that day, my mom’s voice broke on the phone as she told me that they’d decided to stop treatment and to let Grandma go. The doctor predicted she’d be gone within 24 hours.
This was at the end of a harrowing two weeks when an allergic reaction had started a downward spiral into a myriad of health complications, not the least of which was my grandmother’s Parkinsons. When the doctors told her the inactivity and stress would likely make it impossible for her to regain sufficient muscle control to walk or eat on her own again, she asked her children to stop treatment. All the experts said she’d never go home, even if she made it through this health crisis; she’d have to go into a nursing home, which she and my grandfather were set against. So her family honored her wishes, and as the day wore on, our prayers changed from, “Please let her pull through,” to “Please let her go peacefully.”
When I told my fiance about the decision, he said, “She might still improve. She might be able to walk again.”
In that moment, his optimism, usually refreshing to me, felt delusional. I thought, I don’t want you to reassure me that she’ll get better. I want you to help me let her go. That night, he did that, too, as he let me cry until I fell asleep, sure that when I’d left that hospital, I’d seen my grandma for the last time.
The next morning, I left town for a trip that had been planned before my grandma got sick, after much agonizing about whether I should cancel it or not. But before I left, I called my mom to check on Grandma. Mom said, “Well, she’s still hanging on, and her vitals look better today. But that just makes things more complicated.” As both the oldest child and an RN, my mom had become the one her six siblings had come to depend on to tell them what was going on and how they should respond. She told them that it was normal for people to rally “one last time” before they let go, and that that was what was happening with Grandma that morning; she warned them not to get their hopes up despite the appearance of improvement.
All that weekend, I waited for the call that would let me know Grandma was gone. It never came. I wondered if Mom didn’t call because she knew I was far away, and that there was nothing I could do about Grandma’s passing. As I drove home Sunday night, I called her to get the update — and she put Grandma on the phone so I could talk to her. She sounded better than she had since the whole crisis had begun.
From there, she only improved. Within a few days, she was moved to a hospital closer to home. A week after the day that I thought I was saying goodbye, she was walking with the aid of a walker and eating solid foods on her own. The doctors scratched their heads and called it a miracle. Her children recounted staying with her through that terrible Friday night into Saturday morning, during which time her breaths dropped to only two per minute, everyone expecting each breath to be her last. My mom told her, “Mom, we thought you were dying. Did you feel like you were dying?”
Grandma said, “I knew I was dying, but I didn’t want to do it.”
My mom turned to my Aunt Marian, who is a Sister of St. Joseph, a fellow nurse, and a cancer survivor, to try to make sense of it. Marian, who had been a comfort to Mom when she struggled with the decision to stop treatment, now told her, “Well, I guess God and Bonnie had other plans.”
I don’t think we’ll ever know for certain exactly what those “other plans” are, but it gives me comfort to think of the decision for my grandma to go on living being a joint decision between her and God, just as all the treatment up to that point had been a joint decision between my ill grandmother and her healthy children. I guess it shouldn’t surprise me to think of a God who lets us take part in our own life stories in such a profound way, but somehow it still does.
I’m still struggling to make sense of it myself, but from my limited vantage point, I’ve seen the many changes that have taken place in myself and my loved ones as a result of this. My tough, “my-way-or-the-highway” uncle boasted that he’d cover his “shift” staying with Grandma in her darkest hour by himself, rather than taking the shift in pairs the way the others had. He sobbed through his shift, not realizing how agonizing it was to watch her suffer. Afterwards, he apologized to his siblings for thinking that what they’d been doing up to that point in staying with her was “no big deal.”
My mom, who can be prone to dwelling on money and status, said that when we thought Grandma was dying, she realized how “none of that stuff really mattered” (something I’ve been trying to tell her for years). My grandpa learned to use the microwave for the first time (saying sheepishly that, “there’d always been someone to take care of that”) and diligently kept the house clean in anticipation of Grandma’s return, even when things were at their bleakest. When we were able to start believing in the reality of her improvement, he invited everyone to his house one afternoon for a hayride — an opportunity to be together without the sadness and stress that had accompanied so much of our family’s time together in the past weeks. My grandma, prone to minimizing her needs and her importance so that she’s not a “bother” saw in the tears and the constant presence of her family and their eagerness to help how much she was cherished. And now that she’s recovering, I’m seeing an optimistic side of her I’ve never seen before, and a sense of humor that makes it look as if recovering from a near-death experience is the most fun one could ever have.
And as for me? I’ve learned that there’s a fine line between “making peace” with something and giving up hope, and that I shouldn’t dismiss optimism so easily–that with a God who has led the world through both the agony of watching a loved one’s painful death and the glorious ecstasy of a resurrection, nothing is a foregone conclusion.