I wear my grandmother, Merrily's, wedding ring. It's mine now, I guess, but as much as I think of my wedding day and my husband when I go over the roughness of the band with my thumb, I think of her. I think about how she wore it for 63 years until she took it off for me. For me. She's the last living vestige of her generation -- the youngest of her sisters, all three of them legendary in my family. They were powerful, unflinching, beautiful, funny, performative and bold. But most of all, they were loving. Love is their legacy. Yes, my grandma snaps sometimes. Yes she's quirky and odd and sometimes she drives you crazy. But she's madly in love with all of us. Her children, her grandchildren, and all of her great grands. And we're in love with her too.
Saying goodbye to Merrily during a pandemic has meant that my family and I are all so separated. From each other, and from her. She's been declining for years, but when she contracted COVID, it sent her body into a deep tailspin. We thought we'd lose her within days, but she's still here. She's stopped eating for the most part, she can't move much of her body, and is in constant pain. She doesn't leave her bed. She's the matriarch in our family, and she's been guiding us since I can remember. So we're watching her, talking to her, trying to stay close through the small south-facing bedroom window in her 1956 ranch style home. She's still contagious with COVID, so none of us can go in. She's being cared for by a live-in care-giver named Janiece.
When Merrily tested positive for COVID, Janiece decided to move in with her. Janiece said she already had to quarantine, so might as well do it with my grandmother. There were nights when Janiece slept on the floor next to Merrily's bed to be sure she was breathing.
The house has accumulated many different types of step stools over the years, but as a family we seem to have reduced our need at the window to two cinderblocks, side by side. It's the closest we come to being near my grandmother right now.
Days pass, and Merrily doesn't pass away. She seems to get stronger. Incredibly, she survived COVID, and we get to go inside her home again. The house feels exactly the same as it's felt my entire life -- filled with every knickknack I recognize -- but suddenly I am aware of how distant it all feels too. These are just things. Objects. The rooms are small, and the walls so incredibly thin.
Even though Merrily is done with her quarantine, we're still social distancing. Which means that family stands at the edges of her room, speaking to her through masks. It can be demoralizing for her. She just so desperately wants to touch our hands, to hug us, to see our faces. She even kind of begged her younger daughter, "I want to see your teeth, please!"
But we know how lucky we are to even be in the same room with her. So many have lost loved ones during the pandemic without being able to see each other at all.
Janiece covered Merrily's mirror with cards made by family and friends, including a card her granddaughter over-nighted that told her that she wants to name her in-utero daughter after her. Merrily can see herself in the mirror all day long, which is something she seems to both hate and find a comfort. When we offered to cover the mirror with a scarf, she laughed and said, "But what if I begin to miss myself?" She didn't let us cover it.
Today she's found her sense of humor, and she can't stop making little jokes and jabs. She even flirted with the firemen who came to transfer her to her new hospital-style bed. Or at least she tried to flirt, and bemoaned the fact that none of them wanted to chat.
When we leave for the day, she's ready to rest. She'll have a few more visitors through the rest of the day. Even though most of her friends from her generation have already passed away, she's made friends decades younger than she, and they all seem to have just as strong a desire to see her as we do. People stop by all day long, wandering along the side of the house, looking for that open window.
It's at once lovely to see Merrily eating (and happily at that), and at the same time, I think she's a little disappointed to have her appetite back again. She seems pretty clear on the fact that she wants to be dying, and doesn't want to "recover". And she knows that if she stopped eating, that could make things go more quickly. But she's always loved to eat, and seems to savor each bite.
Something has shifted for Merrily today, and she's not as ebullient or easy going as she seemed the day before. There's more heaviness in the room. It's her process, her ebb and flow. But it's not always easy. I'm addicted to her joyful self, and have to remind myself to keep pace with her. To notice her movements and let go of what I may think I need my grandmother to be. Yesterday she kept saying over and over how important it is to make us laugh, and we did. She told us, without irony, that she'd just invented the word "mystical", and then, a few minutes later, "hangry". We laughed because of the absurdity of sitting so near to death, and at her ability to draw us into her calm, buoyant state.
She told us about a delusion, a waking dream, she's been having of a large group (of Jews with accents, she's sure) singing, and playing music. Today she heard organ music in a dead silent room. She told us that a man had come to take her hand, and she felt relief, but he changed his mind.
We realize that she's going somewhere else. Somedays it feels fast, and somedays it's molasses slow.
It was a busy day at the house today. Merrily's two care givers, Janiece and Sam, were around all morning, as well as two of Merrily's children, two hospice nurses, and a CNA. Sam washed Merrily's face, and then gingerly rubbed face cream into her skin.
Sam wants Merrily to feel her most beautiful, I think, so she hands over the dark red lipstick that's been laying next to the bed. And Merrily dutifully performs the act of applying it, shaky hand and all.
Merrily has a near-transcendental response to the aides, nurses, and CNAs. She is so easy-going, so at peace with her body. In order to help her get more comfortable, the nurses poke and prod, peel back blankets and layers of clothes. She is lifted, scooted, pulled, and held. By strangers. Joyful, love-filled strangers -- as anyone who works at hospice seems to be -- but still. Strangers. She's likely in the most vulnerable state of her adulthood right now, truly helpless. But she has a kind of contagious calm about her. It is deep and wide. All of her needs are being met. She doesn't seem afraid of what's to come, but laughs at the goddamn ridiculousness of her looming death. She says things like, "I've decided that I don't want to do that anymore. For the entire rest of my life. I'll never do that again." And we all laugh. Hard. It's cathartic to release those feelings. I haven't been crying as much this week. But I laugh at all of Grandma's jokes.