“It’s Elaine,” I told her, touching her shoulder. “Do you want to wake up?” She opened one eye and shook her head no. That night, no change and still no eating or drinking—and no medication other than a small dose of Ativan to ease anxiety.
That afternoon I called her priest who agreed to give her Last Rites the next morning. I knew she would want that, even though she hadn’t asked.
My son Anthony had just returned from a trip. “Let’s meet at the nursing home,” I said. “Your grandma is easing her way out.” I told my son in North Carolina not to try to come. David had visited with his wife Liz a few weeks ago. When David saw his grandma the last time, she swayed to music in her wheel chair while he held her hand. She had her last dance with her first grandson.
Anthony and I met in her room. Her breath was shallow and erratic. One eye opened when we spoke to her. She nodded when we said our names. Anthony held her hand and she squeezed. Tears rolled down his cheeks.
“Hi Grandma,” he said as he caressed her head. “It’s Anthony.” She nodded with that one open eye.
“Does anything hurt, Virginia?” I asked. She shook her head no. I said “Hail Mary” a few times with omissions and additions.
Hail Mary Full of Grace, The Lord is with Thee.
Blessed art thou among women. Blessed is the fruit of Thy womb.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for Virginia now at this hour of her death.
Virginia mouthed the words “Hail Mary” and watched me with one eye half open. I repeated the prayer a few times before the eye closed.
I sent a text to my son David in North Carolina. “Should I come?” he asked again. “I can get there in 12 hours.”
“David. You saw her and said goodbye two weeks ago. It’s OK. I don’t think you’ll make it on time.”
“I want to say goodbye,” David said. “May I talk to her on speaker phone?” Ah, modern solutions, perfect since she was nearly blind and identified people by voice.
“I love you, Grandma,” David said, his voice loud, clear, and thick with tears. “You’re OK, Grandma. You’ll be OK. We love you. I love you.”
She nodded and then carefully mouthed the words, “I love you, too.” Twice. No sound, but her lips were clear. I told David about her response. I heard him blowing his nose. She was sometimes a mean-spirited mother-in-law, something it took years for me to work through, but she was always a devoted and fun grandma.
After we hung up, I held her hand a while but didn’t speak. Her sleep deepened. Her breath was shallow and fast and erratic. Rung out and burned out, I decided to go home. Even though she was 102+, I knew her history of survival. I knew this could go on for days.
After leaving her room, I talked to the nursing home staff again. “No medical intervention except for comfort, OK? We agree on that?” The head nurse and social worker understood.
I went back to Virginia’s room compelled to say one more thing. “I’m leaving, Virginia. I’ll return tomorrow, but if I don’t see you again, all is forgiven. I love you. Goodbye and please say hello to Vic when you see him.” She didn’t wake up again and died the next day.
Will she see my husband and her only child Vic on the other side of the veil? I don’t know, but I trust she will hold him in her memory and imagination. Her gentle death was a parting gift to her, her grandsons, and me after so many years of caregiving and concern. Thank you, Virginia, for teaching me about my strengths and weaknesses for over fifty years.
Virginia’s death was the most gentle and quiet I have ever witnessed. “I want to die in my sleep,” she always said. She got her wish. Have you experienced the grace of a gentle death? Has anyone in your family lived to be 102? Virginia was vital and still fighting for independence (and giving me a hard time) until she was 98. Her animosity and short-term memory weakened in the last few years. Perhaps she finally trusted I wouldn’t abandon her.
For other articles about my long years with Virginia, see “Learning to Forgive.” For an article about placing her in a nursing home when there were no more options, see “I’m Moving Your Mother to a Nursing Home.” Within weeks, she loved her nursing home and told me how nice everyone was there. Thanks to Oak Hill Manor Nursing Home and Hospicare and Palliative Care Services for helping us through the last months.