Most my writing lately has been fiction. But the recent passing of my great-grandmother prompted me to write this short piece of memoir. I was fortunate enough to be by her side during the final days of her long life. Here’s what it was like:
Where was she going?
I wondered that as I held on to my great-grandmother’s wrinkled hand. She loosely held a plastic rosary in her other hand, mumbling inaudible words.
The priest was on the other side of the bed, ready to give the last rites. He dabbed some holy oil on her forehead, and the family said the Our Father together.
“She’s not ready yet,” the priest said. “She’s waiting for something.”
What was she waiting for? What was left?
The priest seemed to know, but he wouldn’t tell us. He’s done this so many times before that there must be a rhythm to these end-of-life moments. There must be cues and movings of the spirit that he can sense.
Her final months were not good. She rotted away in that rat-hole nursing home, tired and sick, angry and confused. She fought with other patients, and the home sent her away for an evaluation. When she returned, it was a sharp decline.
The family fought bitterly in those last few months. But now, as she laid on her deathbed, we told each other, “I love you.” We don’t do that often. But it felt appropriate.
“Who are you?” the priest asked me.
I told him I was a great-grandson.
“You’re looking at her differently,” he said.
I told him I thought this wasn’t an ending, but a beginning. I told him I wasn’t sure what came after this, but there was something. That she was going there.
“I don’t know what comes after, either,” he said.
I appreciated his honesty.
When she spoke, we leaned in close to hear. What did we want to hear? What was left to be said? The family held on tightly – too tightly. They had to let her go.
I felt her hand in mind and I looked at her weathered face. Inside that mind, however feeble it now was, there were 95 years of history and memories. Heartaches, joys, loves gained and lost, triumphs and failures. I couldn’t comprehend it.
I didn’t want to clutch her; I wanted to witness her passing. I wanted to be there in the final moments, clear-eyed and free, unburdened by a selfish sense of lost. I wanted to remember all of the great memories, the Sunday dinners, the funny remarks. I wanted to be one of the faces she saw before she passed into the Unknown.
There was nothing left to say – and that was a good thing. We saw to it that she was not in pain. There was nothing left we could do, and that was OK.
A near-century of life was coming to a close. A matriarch was passing on. She was surrounded by her family and the holy presence.
But this was not just an ending, I believed. This was a transition into the Unliving.
No one could possibly know where she was going. What mattered was her hand in mine, and me witnessing the passing, fully present and full of love for my great grandmother, Mary Ruggeri.