Two weeks ago, upon returning home from work, my Mom informed me that my Grandmother was not doing well. Over a decade ago my Grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. At first she lived with one of my Aunts who cared for her, but as the disease progressed, the decision was made to put her in a nursing home. A difficult decision for any child to make on behalf of their parents, but it was the best option for her as she would receive 24/7 care, and she had 12 children making the decision together. She was visited all the time.
Anytime I have visited Toronto I always would visit my Nanny at the home. It was always somewhat shocking for me as I wasn’t able to see her day after day, so the stages of her Alzheimer’s were shocking, harsh and very painful. Before she was in the home she was just “forgetful”. I would tell her who I was and walk out of the room only to hear her asking my Mom “where the pretty little girl went”. I was in my twenties…. Fast forward a couple years, I’m sitting with her and she asks me if I am her mother …. fast forward again a couple of years and she has started to walk the halls aided by her walker repeating “ta ta ta, tia ta ta ta, tia ta ta” …. fast forward again a couple years and she no longer speaks ….. and again …. unrecognizable – her cheeks sunken in, her eyes vacant, a cloth placed in her right hand to keep her nails from digging into her palm as her hand is atrophied and permanently clenched. She is existing; trapped in her own body; unable to do anything for herself. It was absolutely heartbreaking.
Wednesday, January 15th I got up, went to work for 10am. Ten minutes into my shift I received a call from my Mom telling me we were booked on a flight at 4:00 that afternoon. I left work in a hurry, picked my Mom up and we packed like maniacs, praying fervently that we would make it to Toronto before she passed. We arrived at the nursing home at 8pm. In the hallway outside of her room were a few of my Aunts & Uncles, cousins, etc. sitting, pacing, talking, resting, and drinking coffee. Inside her room there were probably 15 family members packed in like sardines. They had been there around the clock since the previous Saturday. My mom and I rushed to her bedside and she opened her eyes for the first time that day upon hearing our voices. The weeping commenced. She looked so small and fragile; so tired and lost. Her eyes were wide as I cried and said to her, “We’re here Nanny, we made it. Thank you for waiting for us. We love you. We love you so much”. We thought at any moment she would go, but she surprised us and pushed on. Some family napped on the floor by her bed, some slept fitfully sitting in chairs. Most of us didn’t sleep at all. We held her hand, spoke to her words of comfort, smoothed her hair, held her hands, kissed her cheeks, her forehead, her nose…. We told her it was okay, we told her she didn’t have to hold on anymore. But hold on she did.
In the following 3 days there would be many moments we truly thought she was a few breaths away from being gone. We would sing her favourite hymns to her, pray for her, talk to her, cry and hold each other. And still she would push on.
We never left her side. While some would try to get an hour nap in, others would stay beside her bed. Though she was unable to communicate with us and recognize us, I don’t just believe, I KNOW she felt and heard us in her spirit. The Nurses, Dr’s, and all nursing home staff were blown away by the fact that for her last week, there were at all times 15 family members, give or take, by her side. We saw so many staff come in and say their goodbyes, leaving with tears streaming down their faces, only to show up for their shift the next day in shock that she was still with us. They were blown away by the love of her family and we were equally blown away by their love for our Mom/Grandmother. The nurses would come in every couple of hours and give her pain medication and reposition her to keep bed sores to a minimum. She had a very high fever.
The third night we were there, the nurse came in and checked her vitals. She couldn’t get a reading. She tried and tried to get an oxygen reading to no avail. She checked her blood pressure….nothing. You couldn’t even find a pulse. But her heart was still beating away. We knew it would be soon.
Another day came and went. All of us going on a few hours of sleep in days. I wouldn’t go to sleep. I didn’t want to leave her side. Around 2am, the nurse came in to give her more pain meds and said, “It’s going to be soon”. Her breathing had become so shallow and slow. We would sit and count the seconds between breaths. One-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand, four-one thousand….is how it went for a few breaths and then we’d get up to seventeen-one thousand and higher. We’d sit there staring at her chest, waiting for it to rise, tears beginning to spill down our cheeks; exhaling as she took another breath. It felt like I was being torn in two. I prayed desperately for God to take her as it was so painful to watch her hang on, but at the same time I felt broken imagining her gone.
Every time the nurse or staff person would come in, they would just shake their head in amazement that she was still fighting so hard. Finally one asked us, “Is there anyone else coming?”. We replied, “Yes, the youngest of her 12 children is flying in from New Brunswick at 8am this morning”. The nurse replied, “She’s waiting for her.” Now this is something that had crossed our minds. But she had NO VITALS FOR 2 DAYS! How would she last?! Her breathing started to sound scary and bad. The death rattle had begun. I would jump out of my skin and tears would jump out of my eyes every time she would make those sounds. I was starting to feel like I couldn’t handle it anymore, but felt selfish feeling that way, as she was the one laying there dying.
At around 7:45 that morning I was so beyond tired that I sat down in a chair at the foot of her bed, put a blanket on me and was out like a light. I woke at around 8:25am to my family surrounding the bed and the sound of someone crying. I immediately jumped out of my chair to find my Aunt Bev (the youngest child from New Brunswick who hadn’t been to Toronto in over a decade) beside my Nanny, holding her hand. She managed to squeak out between sobs, “Mom, it’s me – Beverly, I’m here. I love you Mom”. I will never forget this moment as long as I live: my grandmothers mouth started moving back and forth like crazy (something I don’t believe she had done in the late stages of her disease) as if she wanted to say something, her legs were kicking, her arms were going….and as soon as Bev said “I love you”, my Nan took her last breath.
We were awestruck. Literally dumbfounded. It was the most moving moment. She was waiting for her baby. At that moment, we knew without a shadow of a doubt that she was aware of everything that had been going on around her in her final days. Maybe not in her diseased mind, but in her spirit. There was one daughter who couldn’t be there and she had talked to my Nanny – in the days previous -over the phone while one of her brothers held the phone to her ear. She knew who she was waiting for and she fought so hard to stay until she arrived.
I am sad and miss my Nanny. She was my last living grandparent. But my happiness is greater than my sadness as I know where she is now. I know she can speak, that her mind and body are healthy and whole, that she’s with my Poppy (Grandpa) and my aunt Lorriane (deceased over 20 years ago) and the thing she lived her life for and talked about endlessly – seeing Jesus. She is at peace. More than that, she has joy she’s never known.
I know that here on earth no one is without flaw. But to me, she was an angel long before Heaven, and a true Saint.
Thank You to the staff of The Village of Erin Meadows in Mississauga, ON. who went above and beyond in loving and caring for my Nanny and to my Aunt Florence who has been her primary caregiver over the past decade.
For my Nanny: Olive Gladys Barrett 1923-2014
“What we have once enjoyed, we can never lose. All that we love deeply becomes part of us.” – Helen Keller