A Lifetime of Pain for a Lifetime Gift
I once received a gift so miraculous in size, now that I am a mother; I compare it with the birth of a child, ironically it was the loss of someone I love.
My grandmother Nancy Ann Callahan, was married to my Grandfather who was an abusive alcoholic. My grandmother lived through things many of us will never understand. She delivered twin stillborn babies. She lost a son to sudden infant death syndrome, and another to suicide. She divorced my grandfather, and began to drink herself when the kids were still young. As to be expected, my mother and her siblings had a very rough childhood.
In her efforts to salvage her life, my grandmother got an education and went on to work at Bank of Boston. She wanted to have her three daughters and three grandchildren together she bought a house in Randolph and moved us all out of the city. She transformed herself and became ta symbol of strength rather than a victim. She was my hero, my protector, educator, my safety net, and I was her shadow.
My grandma, whom I called, “Gram-Cracker” loved her Pepsi over ice, her AKC books, Elvis Presley and Patsy Cline. We would sit in her room and watch Elvis music and movies. One memory is that of watching “Sweet Dreams”, depicting the tragic life of Patsy Cline. I did not know it at the time but my grandmother and that story had many similarities. One of my strongest memories was when we watched “Steel Magnolias”. One message that movie had sent was that men are always thought to be the strong ones, made of steel, but when things are at the toughest, its women who find inner strength. Women feel more and yet they are the ones who endure the fight when it comes down to it. Her death proved it to be true; at least in my family and in my life.
In 1993 she was diagnosed with lung cancer, she tried treatment with chemotherapy and radiation but quickly gave it up. We had hospice care and the women in the family took shifts caring for her. I remember clearly the arguing over her food intake, the fuss over the difficulty of getting any meat off her skeletal arms to administer her medication for pain. She had to switch to oral and eventually dermal medication.
When I was in her room one evening and she had asked me to pull a box out from under her bed. I slid the flat box out and laid it up on her bed, she told me to open it and I did. Inside the box was champagne colored satin dress. I still remember the dress; I wish I could see it again. She instructed me to take it to the tailor and have it prepared for her passing. I replied that she need not worry, and assured her she would be around to see my future.
We switched bedrooms because my room was on the main floor and was more accessible for the hospital furniture; so upstairs in her room I went for the remainder of her life. I was never afraid of the way she looked, even when she was fading away, becoming weaker. I held my grandmothers fragile hands in mine, I read to her, sang to her and kept her Patsy Cline tape playing at all times.
The day the gift happened my aunts and uncles and close relatives began making their way in, including my grandfather. All of the men stood at the foot of her bed, the women on the side, touching her. When I look back its so clear how the men responded compared to the women.
We all knew her chest could rise and fall and pause for a certain amount of time, then stop for up to a whole minute and rise again. All the while, Patsy Cline is singing in the background, tears are falling, and the room seems to be closing in on her. After her last breathe the tape of Patsy stopped, all of the men were the first to exit the room. I stayed with my grandmother until the coroners came for her. I wanted to be sure that if her spirit left her body after her last breathe, that I would be there.
Some people feel that the experience of death is so horrible; I felt it was a miracle. I was there when she took her last breath, when she left this world and departed for a place better than what she had here. Her life was painful, undoubtedly more painful than her death.
My grandmother’s departure was so significant, and relative to her cycle of life. After all, wasn’t she right, even in the end, the men couldn’t handle the realities, the pains of the toughest things like grief and loss. She showed that we as women could survive just about anything that comes our way. My grandmother gave me the gift of her lifetime, and her departure. The gift of life and death.