The moment I open the door, I know.
Grandma is dying.
She lays there on her back, her arms left and right on the white hospital blanket; they are plump, full of water. Her mouth is a bit open – as always, when she sleeps. The round tip of her nose looks more pointed than usual, her skin is smoother than I remember. Her chest raises and lowers at regular intervals, but her lungs have difficulties breathing; again and again deep, rattling inhales.
„Granny?“ I whisper, I don’t want to scare her.
„Can you hear me?“ No reaction. She’s fast asleep.
„Granny? It’s me.“ Very carefully, I touch her hand. Nothing. Only the hissing of the airstream in her open mouth and the bubbling of the oxygen bottle in the background.
Just yesterday, I came back from a very necessary trip – even Grandma herself insisted on me going. „I know you’re always with me in your thoughts. I love you. I lo-o-ove you!“ she said on the phone and I couldn’t know that this would be her last spoken words to me. When I left, the situation was not quite that dramatic. Or so I thought.
She has been waiting for me.
I want to put my purse down and in doing so, I clumsily kick the chair with my leg. The sound wakes her up. She opens her eyes and they are huge. ‚Death eyes‘ is what the doctor will tell me later, but I know that already, without knowing it. I also know what I have to do, instinctively.
„I am here, Granny. As I promised you. By your side. You don’t have to be scared at all. With me by your side you don’t have to fear anything. You know that, don’t you?“ I have always been the strong one, the rock.
A tiny nod before her eyes wander restlessly across the room. Right, left, ceiling.
„Are you in pain, Granny?“
She softly shakes her head.
„Are you thirsty?“
„Well, we can easily do something about that!“
I open the feeding cup.
„Shall I mix, Grandma? Half and half with apple juice as you like it?“
I help her drink. Her lips carefully close around the tip and she swallows, then her head sinks back deeper into the pillow, exhausted.
I gather all my courage, softly stroking her greywhite hair.
„You know what’s happening, Granny?“
An almost invisible nod.
„All right. But I am here, so it is going to be okay. I love you.“
The door opens and in comes a doctor. „Good day“, he says and shortly I wonder what he might mean. I also think: If you come to a hospital as a family member and you don’t have to chase the doctor , because he comes to find you himself – then it really is serious. So I ask him: „Shall we speak here or rather in confidence?“ He takes a moment to consider, then he answers: „Rather in confidence.“ We leave the room. And in front of the door he explains the whole situation to me.
Grandma had two infections in the past week, which weakened her considerably. But the real problem is the peritoneal catheter. It had to be put into use way too early, because her kidneys were failing already. That’s why the catheter couldn’t heal properly and there was a leakage. The end of the dialysis. The end of Grandmas life.
„Theoretically, we could perform a hemodialysis on her. But she wouldn’t survive it and it definitely wouldn’t be humane.“
My stomach clumps together and I know he is right. I know it since I opened this door. So I take a deep breath.
„What would you to if it was your own mother?“
„I wouldn’t let her suffer.“
I can feel my throat swell and close.
„Do you have palliative care?“
He says no.
„Do you work with a palliative service?“
Again, he shakes his cotton candy haired head.
„Okay. So YOU are the man who shapes my Grandmas way to the other side?“
„Well, yes, if you want to say so.“ I believe to spot a hint of gentleness in his basset eyes.
„All right. Understood. Then let’s talk plain: How can we guarantee, that it is going to be as pain- and fear free as possible? What can we do? What can I do? She agonized enough during the past ten years!“ My voice breaks.
He talks about morphine and tranquilizers and some sort of sleepy state and I have no idea whatsoever about anything at all.
As soon as he’s gone, I call a palliative service with trembling fingers. They explain to me that the biggest difficulties while dying are letting go, distress, thirst, pain and fear. There is medication for everything, just not for letting go.
That’s what I discuss afterwords with the doctor. He stops all of her regular medication and prepares morphine injections. Then I call my second cousin. Anyone who would like should come now. But they all have been here already, my Grandma had visitors every day: her former-maid-now-friend, my mother and her husband, my sister and her boyfriend, my Grandmas only left sister, her favorite caregiver from the nursing home, my two second cousins. Even my Grandmas second niece, who happens to work at the ward next floor, came to see her every day. „She was so happy about all the visitors and said: „How wonderful that everyone came one last time!‘.“
Silently I open the door and go back to my Grandma. She lays there and my heart burns. „Hey, Granny“, I say. She looks at me and then restlessly into the air. „The doctor said, we will be fine.“ I take a few breaths.
„There are a few really nice morphine injections. Like your little brother had, remember? Everything is going to be fluffy. I promise you: It is not going to hurt. And I am here, by your side.“ She closes her huge eyes and nods slowly.
I walk around the table, so helpless, take the perfume and spray a pump onto her blanket. „Just because you’re dying sick that doesn’t mean you can’t smell nice.“ Elegance has always been important to her. It’s the perfume her mother always used and maybe I should have noted something when she suddenly bought it weeks ago.
Almost inaudibly the door opens again, my second cousin enters the room. Some moments after that, my other second cousin joins us. I would definitely not have to do this alone, they assure me and I am deeply grateful. With the extraordinarily kind, patient nurse Madleen, we discuss the doses of morphine. As Grandma has been getting get morphine pills for her back pain since a long time, she needs a little more. „Please give her a shot every two hours or so. The most important thing now is that she doesn’t suffer. Not one more second.“
And so we are sitting around her bed and are telling the old tales. „Do you remember when…“ Grandma wakes up time and again and falls back to sleep. She is not alone. She is loved. Time passes by unnoticed. The sun sets and the sky glows in every color. Directly in front of Grandmas window and in the exact corner where she can see the flaming spectacle without even moving her head. Maybe there is a God after all.
She doesn’t nod anymore, she also can’t swallow. Our talks ebb away. I sing the lullaby she used to sing to me when I was a child and slept in her bed. „Who stands outside and knocks so I can’t sleep all night…“ After that, we are still and silently watch the suns goodbye.
There is one word for it: peace.
At some point, my two second cousins leave, I stay. Nurse Madleen comes in. Before she gives the higher dosed shot, I gently lay one hand on Grandmas cheek and look into her eyes, really deeply. She looks back at me, directly, this one last time. „Goodbye, Granny. My love,“ I say and smile broadly with wet face and eyes. A few seconds later, she closes hers.
Grandma and I are alone. I put my big hand on her small one and speak softly, as my tears drip faster and faster onto the linoleum. „I don’t know if you can still hear me. But I thank you for your love, with my whole heart. Thank you for raising me. I know you said it would be hardest for me when you leave one day. But don’t worry about me, Granny. I will survive. I survived so many things. And you will always, always be with me. No matter, what I do or where I go. And you don’t have to worry about Grandpa, either. He’s fine and I’ll take care of him. It’s all done, Granny. If you want, you can go now. You suffered enough. You don’t have to be afraid. It’s all right, it really is…“
The last syllables melt into one big sob.
Grandma breathes regularly, there is no rattling anymore.
And suddenly I start to pray. „Dear Lord, I know we haven’t spoken in a long time, but if you exist and you’re not angry with me – could you please make that Granny’s way will be very easy now? She was a good human and left so much love here and it would be nice… “
She sleeps soundly now and I become voiceless.
I can’t recall how long I have been sitting there like this, but it’s long dark outside when an inner voice says to me very clearly: „You should go now. This is the moment.“ I don’t contradict and I take my things. A last „Goodbye, I love you. I love you so.“ A last wave with a shaking hand, then I close the door. It’s okay. Is it?
My teeth hurt on the inside from crying and I can’t stop and I don’t know how I find my way to my sisters place – she and my mother aren’t in Germany at the moment – but I make it, somehow. I fall onto the bed, take a sleeping pill, wake up at half past six and get ready to go back to the hospital.
As I put down my coffee mug to leave, my phone rings. It’s the hospital, it’s 7:29. I sit down.
„Is this Miss Jessica Wagener?“
„Your grandmother passed away this morning at 7:10.“
„Okay. Okay. Can I see her and say goodbye?“
I hang up and slide out of the chair, down on my knees, my mouth open in one silent scream. Nothing is okay. Then I call people, then I sit in a cab, then I stand in front of a white door in a hospital.
I open it without hesitation. Granny looks like yesterday, her mouth open a bit – as always when she sleeps. Only the apricot colored rose between her folded hands is different. I sit down next to the bed and look at her. Oh, Granny. Granny are you really dead? I stare at her chest. Wasn’t there a movement? I put my big hand on her small one and it almost feels like always and I try to sing our lullaby but I can’t because I’m crying so hard.
Nurse Madleen appears and quietly says her condolences. She knows exactly which question turmoils me without me having to ask. „No worries, she didn’t wake up. She slept deeply and soundly all night. I always looked after her. It was all very peaceful.“ And she also knows what else tortures my mind: „Some people can only let go if they’re alone.“ There is no words for my gratitude, so I hug her.
A little later, Grandma’s second niece, the one who works here, comes in and hugs me. We haven’t seen each other in decades, but it doesn’t feel like it. She tells me a bit about Grandmas last week and how happy she was about all those visitors.
After that, my second Cousin enters and helps me with all the calls and things and everything and I am so, so glad not to be alone in this.
Then we drive to the nursing home to my Grandfather. I want to tell him myself.
I take a seat next to his bed and his hand. „Grandpa, you know that Granny was very sick.“ His face doesn’t move. „I’m afraid I have bad news. Grandma passed away this morning.“
„Oh, really“, he states and even if his face shows no expression, there’s plain horror in his voice.
I tell him everything, every detail, very slowly and with all patience.
„It was peaceful and painless and lovingly. There was a sunset and I sang for her. In her last waking moment she was not alone. And it did not hurt.“
After minutes of silence he strongly says: „I felt it. This morning I woke up at seven and I felt it.“
And I know that this time it wasn’t his dementia. I also know that we can somehow bear this, as a family.
When I drag myself back to my sister’s apartment in the afternoon, I pass a colony of garden plots. It’s a wonderful, lush, rich late summer afternoon, the air vibrating and humming with life. The last swash before everything dies in autumn.
Suddenly I hear Grandma, incredibly clearly: „Don’t be sad, my child. I’m fine, fine am I! I am frisky and jolly. I feel no more pain. I can walk and dance and jump again. If only I would have known how amazing this would be – oh, I even would have left much earlier!“
It’s those moments when I explicitly do not think that I’m crazy.
There is this overhanging tree, full of ripe apples. Grannys voice again: „Ooooh, look at this tree! So many apples! Oh, child – don’t be sad. Don’t cry. Enjoy life and all of its gifts instead. Enjoy nature, natuuure!“
Involuntarily I have to smile. No idea if there is life after death and how it looks like. But my Grandma is all right, wherever or whatever she is right now. Yes, life without her is going to be hard, she is so thoroughly missed already. Her wit, her advice, her hugs. A life without her feels like someone would have taken away the cozy blanket. But more than ten years of illness, fight, pain and suffering are finally over. And we will always, always and forever have her with us. Her voice, her comments.
But above all her genuine, endless love.