calm down. take a breath. repeat.

there was a king family gathering on mother’s day that i didn’t attend. i already had planned our week-long vacation in grand marais before i even knew there WAS a get-together.

grandma later sent me a message on facebook saying she was sorry she missed me but “will see you soon.” she assured me that taking the trip was the right move: “i would pick grand marais anytime :)” she wrote.

i had no idea the “will see you soon” wouldn’t happen the way either of us intended… or that it would be the last time. ever.

it was that one particular sunday in june when i called my dad to wish him a happy father’s day. he was appreciative, and then his tone turned serious.

“ummm,” he said, “i should probably let you know… your grandma has cancer.”

uhhhh, WHAT?!?!?!

and time stood still as my brain tried to wrap itself around what i’d just heard: how? …will she…? …when…? … can i…? …but…

he went on to tell me that she had been lethargic for a while and finally went to see a doctor. after some testing, they gave her a blood transfusion and discovered spots on her liver that were thought to be cancer. but apparently if there are spots on the liver, it means there’s cancer somewhere ELSE.

is there no such thing as liver cancer? (shrugged shoulders, head shaking, brow furled)

for the enthusiasm with which that phone call started out, it went straight down the toilet in a big damn hurry.

the doctors said “two years.”

are you shitting me?? that’s, like, 730 days. that’s not enough time.

grandma had surgery for what was determined to be colon cancer, and she was expected to transfer to a nursing home where she’d undergo treatment and eventually be strong enough to return home. at that point, my dad said we’d go up and have pizza with her and visit.

yeah, she’d like that. and so would i.

about a week after the surgery, my cousin molly updated her status on facebook indicating grandma’s “…kidneys are starting to fail and she has only days.”

wait, WHAT?!?!?!?!?

and panic set in. i sent text after text after text to my dad, trying to figure out what was going on. i told him, “i want to go see her NOW!”

my dad called me at work a few hours later and said, “if you’re planning to go see your grandma, don’t wait too long.” wow.

my heart completely fell out of my chest.

she’d gotten an infection from the surgery, and… it was killing her.

i sent an email to my co-workers, not asking if it was okay that i not be at work the next day but rather TELLING them i wouldn’t be there. i told them i was going to say goodbye to my grandma.

goodbye??

i also pleaded with them to only reply via email and to not come to my desk; i had tears in my eyes just typing the message and couldn’t imagine facing anyone at that time.

and in the back of my mind i kept thinking that time was running out.

my brother john and i left tuesday morning around 10 a.m. for the hour-long drive north to the hospital in brainerd. my uncle scott had sent me a text with the room number and a disclaimer: “so you are prepared, she doesn’t look like how you remember her.”

THIS is how i remember her…

 

THAT scared me… because it made the situation real.

on the drive up, john and i shared a common implausibility regarding the events that were about to take place on THIS day.

and we shared stories about grandma:

we had gone to see ‘the karate kid II’ with grandma in 1986 and walked through the wendy’s drive-thru after the movie so we could get milk for our cereal in the morning. we stayed overnight at grandma’s condo in edina, and she let us wear her kimono robes because we thought they were cool after seeing that movie. and ANY time i hear peter cetera’s “glory of love,” i think of that movie and this very memory.

i planned my wedding around grandma’s schedule to head south for the winter. i wanted her to be there to help celebrate my day, and she was. and two days later she and her husband terry left for arizona… for almost eight months.

me and grandma at my wedding reception, oct. 10, 2009

 

john and i drove past camp ripley and remembered driving this same route with grandma decades before. we had stopped back then to take pictures on the tank just outside camp ripley. grandma had a polaroid camera, and while john and i stood next to the tank, grandma took a picture… but she cut off the Y, so it looked like we were on a tank at “camp riple.” and from that day forward, camp ripley has been known to us as camp riple. we’re the only ones who get it, but that’s kind of the point.

i remembered having to lie down in the back seat of her sports car (yeah, she was one of THOSE grandmas) because there wasn’t enough room to sit up. we drove to her parents’ home in cass lake to spend the weekend. there wasn’t much for us to do there as kids, but we didn’t realize at the time it would be one of the more personal memories we’d ever have of grandma. she bought us archie comic books at the grocery store, and we’d read those at night before going to bed.

john told me that she’d once given him a typewriter that was more like an early word processor; he said he “programmed that thing until it ran out of memory.” sounds like John.

grandma and i used to email each other all the time when she was in arizona. she’d tell me what the temperature was like, that she was going for walks in the mornings, that she was volunteering for this or that, what books she was reading, the friends she was spending time with. i’m going to miss those emails. i may have to go back and reread them just to feel normal.

she took me to the renaissance festival for the first time in 1985. i really only remember seeing a jousting competition, and i remember there being a lot of mud. and i think it was raining.

my souvenir from the 1985 mn renaissance festival. thanks, grandma!

 

she listened to sade a lot in the car. every time for the past three decades when john and i have heard “smooth operator,” we think of grandma. and we’ll continue to do so.

we watched the 1985 super bowl at her place. our dad was rooting for the patriots, so naturally john and i were pulling for the bears. remember the super bowl shuffle? tragic. anyway, my dad was decked out in a patriots shirt, so my grandma had gotten bears t-shirts for john and me in an effort to make our rebellion against our dad carry a little more weight. and if I recall, “we” won. BIG.

there was a song grandma would sing that would make us laugh. all i remember of it was, “your sister rose is dead.” odd. and I don’t know WHY we thought it was so funny, but… whatever.

and ALL of these memories were followed with a shake of the head, because we realized we wouldn’t have new memories to accompany these; these memories would be her legacy.

we got to brainerd just after 11 a.m., and i took a DEEP breath before getting out of the car to go into the hospital… up the stairs… to the ICU on the third floor.

icu

 

i saw my aunt kim standing outside the room, and the look on her face was… morbid. i don’t know what i was expecting, and i don’t think i was prepared for any of this.

i walked into room 3108 and saw grandma… not looking at all like grandma. her skin was yellowing from her failing liver. she looked weak. she couldn’t talk. she was in obvious pain.

she was dying.

i went to her bedside and grabbed her hand and quietly said, “hi, grandma.” scott told her john and i were there, and i THINK she understood, though i can’t say for sure.

she looked at me, but it wasn’t her behind those eyes. she almost seemed to be looking right through me, and i didn’t know what to do or say. so i just stood there, holding her hand.

we were informed that she likely would pass that day. the obviousness of that news didn’t make the realization of it any easier. she can’t go. she CAN’T!

while waiting for the rest of the family to show up, the four of us just kind of sat in that hospital room. we didn’t talk much. we skimmed through a pamphlet on the journey toward ‘the other side.’ i mostly watched grandma and tried to understand why she was being taken away.

the emotional releases would come in waves. i’d be fine for a few minutes, and then i’d look at grandma and my heart would hurt, and i’d start crying. calm down. take a breath. repeat.

i suppose that’s normal. i’m not sure. i had never before watched someone die.

the nurse kept coming in to check the vital stats on the monitor above grandma’s bed. none of us had any idea what any of them meant, but we’d hold our collective breath when the numbers would start flashing. or drop.

and the nurse kept asking if there was anyone else who should be called. i just wanted to stop hearing that; it made the fact that grandma was going to be gone soon all the more real. and i NEEDED to put it off for as long as i could.

grandma started to become even more unaware, and the nurse said aside from being receptive to the pain in her abdomen, grandma was pretty much in a coma-like state.

the chaplain came in and did… whatever it is that chaplains do. the vitals kept fluctuating and dropping. the rest of the family had yet to arrive.

around 12:45 p.m. i sent my dad a simple text: “HURRY!”

my sister called me from my dad’s phone. he had gone to pick her up from work before heading to the hospital, and they still were at least at hour away. after everything i’d witnessed and heard i wasn’t sure grandma HAD an hour, but i couldn’t talk to tell her that. anything more than grunted responses would end up coming out as incomprehensible babbling accompanied by loud sobs and hyperventilation — y’know, a complete emotional breakdown. so i stuck with the grunts.

my dad got on the phone and said, “it’s bad, huh?”

DUH!

i could only utter “uh huh,” through involuntary sniffles and failed attempts at wiping away tears. he said, “well, i’m glad at least you and john can be there with her.”

i went back and stood at grandma’s side, holding and rubbing her hand and again riding the emotional roller-coaster. someone got me a chair so i could just sit with her… and watch her… and think about everything we’ve done together… and her laugh… and how she always had the sweetest demeanor when she’d discuss the things about which she was passionate.

and i’d glance up at the monitor and once again see the numbers dropping…

i’d occasionally squeeze her hand, so she’d know i was there with her. and i’d think about how i never got to go and see her in arizona, and i never got to tell her things i wanted to… how i was glad that we finally were able to reconnect after years of kind of avoiding each other because of some unspoken rift that eventually mended itself.

the family started to show up in stretched out surges: my aunt liz and cousin bobby around 1:30 p.m.; cousins chris and molly, along with chris’s girlfriend nicole, about 15 minutes later; my dad and sister just before 2 p.m.

grandma’s vitals continued to decline. and even with all of that, it was still unfathomable that she was leaving.  it wasn’t that long ago that she was fine, lively, smiling, energetic. and now here she was, only weeks and 180 degrees later. and it broke my heart.

i wondered if i was being selfish by continuing to monopolize her right hand and that spot next to her bed. should i move and let someone else sit with her?

scott had her other hand and said he wasn’t moving. fair enough. neither was i.

her vitals continued to drop… and drop, and finally the nurse came in and shut off the monitor. i again kept squeezing grandma’s hand, hoping she’d hold on just a little bit longer. not everyone was there yet, and i didn’t want anyone to miss saying goodbye to her.

my uncle charles and aunt ana caught a flight from georgia that morning, scheduled to land in minneapolis at 10:15 a.m. from there they were planning to drive to the hospital, which was a little more than a three-hour trek. doing the math, they were going to be cutting it damn close.

i watched grandma’s breathing grow more shallow, and it got to a point where i could only see her breathe in. i was SO focused on watching her breathing that nothing else seemed to exist anymore; it was like a movie, where every peripheral thing blurs out completely, and all that remains is that ONE thing… and that was grandma’s mouth, gasping in tiny breaths of life every couple of seconds.

until it didn’t.

i still had her hand in mine as i watched her take her last breath shortly after 2 p.m. i stared at her as my eyes welled up with an insane amount of tears. i was numb. i didn’t know what to do. what DO you do?

i kissed her hand and told her i loved her, and then i left her side. and no one said a word.

charles finally came around the corner into the room literally seconds after grandma died. he crawled onto the bed with her and hugged her and sobbed. and that made me cry even more.

the family had a quick, small meeting and determined grandma would be cremated and that we would have a memorial service for her at a later date, probably mother’s day 2013. we tentatively planned to place her ashes in lake superior in grand marais, just like we’d done for my grandpa on father’s day 2007.

the few hours of that day i waited with grandma until she moved onto the next phase seemed like an eternity. i cried so much my head and heart ached, and my face was puffy. but more than that, i just missed my grandma.

and i still miss her. and i’m going to miss her every day. and i wish now that i had spent more time with her and that i had told her more often that i love her.

but she knows.

i had brought with me that day a picture from 1984 of grandma and me on christmas day. i found it in an old photo album just before john and i left to go to the hospital. i had planned on giving it to her. instead i set it on her body before i left the hospital, and i asked the nurse to please make sure the funeral home took the photo with grandma’s body, so she’ll always have it with her.

grandma and me, christmas day 1984. this is the photo she will have with her… always.

memorial stone 2

i made a memorial stone with grandma’s image and quoting the last message she sent me, and i left it in grand marais along the shore of lake superior… since she loved it there

 

memorial stone 1

on one of our trips back to grand marais in april 2014, the memorial stone was still there. it had faded a little, but it was still there. yay!

2 Responses to “calm down. take a breath. repeat.”

  1. Ana King says:

    I love you Melissa.

  2. Chris S. says:

    your grandma is now free from pain, and her love for you (and your love for her) remains … there is no greater testament to her or to you than that you were able to spend that time together, and that the love remains

    I am so, so sorry for your loss

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