The Last Time I Saw My Grandma
Her eyes were hallow and nothing like I had seen before. They were in the shadow of death from the tumor in her liver that had bloated her belly and given her one week to six months to live.
My grandma had the minimal care in a small hospice wing of rural Southern Illinois. She had come from a rich family in Japan who had servants and countless business investments growing up before she gave it all up for a husband and America in the 1950s. Fast forward 60 years later, she was dying in a hospital bed probably last slept in by someone who didn’t know life outside a 4,000 populated town.
My grandma was dying, and I knew that if I didn’t make it to her that Wednesday, I would regret it. That time I would spend with her I knew I would keep with me forever. I just didn’t know how to make it special.
When I walked into the hospice room, she had been moved from a rosy pink room to an ugly pea green one (how was someone supposed to die peacefully with that gross color in sight?). I carried in old photographs hoping she would find refreshment in the memories of my two sisters and me with her, and would somehow forget why she was there at the hospital in the first place.
My parents seemed indifferent to the idea of bringing in the photos. I believe now that maybe they thought it would make her sad in her state of health. Maybe it would, but I didn’t care. Nostalgia and good memories were a powerful tool in my book for whenever I felt down; I wanted it to be the same for her.
I went to hand her the photos, but decided it was best that I hold onto them while she held onto her tissue and tissue box on their lap. Her asthma and meds bothered her more frequently than before.
Some of the photographs were of her and my parents. Other ones depicted my two sisters and me goofing around in our backyard with funny outdated haircuts.
One particular photo had my cousin posing in a group shot with us. Although she was not related by blood to my grandma, my grandma adopted her like she was one of her own. In her punk band Muff’s tee shirt, my cousin stood beside my two sisters, while my grandma sat in front and held me on her lap. I was about 9 years old in that photo.
Her eyes lit up, and she took the photo and looked closely at it with a chuckle. In that moment, I felt affirmation for bringing in the photographs. When we were done looking at them, I set them aside on a shelf near the whiteboard. I wanted her to keep them.
I knew my grandma’s heart was heavy the whole time I was there. Silence was the main component of that day, which added pressure to occupy, or say something comforting, to a dying soul. I realized silence could be a good thing because it leaves room for thoughts to wander and process what is happening. In her contemplative state of mind, I could see her stare off to the wall in front of her, as she told me one regret after another and things she would have done differently.
“Why does God allow suffering?” she asked in her broken English.
My grandma was not necessarily a religious woman from what I knew of her, other than the fact that one of the places her family in Japan owned was a Buddhist temple. Maybe she was trying to name the Force, the Being, the Thing, the Source for which she had this curse of cancer. Or maybe she truly believed God had afflicted her with such a suffering, and that no other thing could have caused such a plight. And so she asked, “why?”
“What is the point? I’m here. My stomach bloated. Sick. Feeling awful. What is the point of all of this suffering? Why can’t I just die? Why must I suffer?” she asked me.
I still do not have a precise answer, but I had one that I hope she could settle with. That is, if she had really wanted an answer from me.
“It is meaningless, but maybe there’s something after all the pain. Maybe a place without suffering. Maybe a place to hope, or look forward to. I think that’s God.”
I didn’t want to shove my Christian beliefs because I knew she lived in Southern Illinois where there was a church at every corner, but I didn’t want to leave her without an idea of hope. Her eyes looked sorrowful, and I don’t know if she took comfort, but she already knew my beliefs from previous conversations before. Maybe that’s why she was asking me in the first place. Maybe it wasn’t.
I do believe in a fallen world that kills us slowly and the hope a hereafter that brings us back to life. I like to believe my grandma is there, not suffering. I also like to believe all the questions and regrets she had in life are answered or mended.
Perhaps in this life where suffering seems meaningless, we are given the pleasures of simple moments with loved ones and friends. And that is all we can possess when we pass from this earth.
I hugged my grandma goodbye two hours later around 6:30 pm. Five days later, she died in her sleep. I am forever grateful to have had that time with her. Even if it wasn’t under the circumstances we would have wanted, it was the exchange of love we had asked for. Forever I am grateful to have been there beside her in that depressing green room where she took her last breath from this dear earth.
[Photo by Julie Bloom.]
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