As my grandma sits in her wheelchair, I lean in to say goodbye before I return home – 3,000 miles away from room #39 at Oak Hill Manor. We touch our foreheads together and I look into her eyes over the top of my glasses. Only inches away, she looks into mine.
“You are my perfect pigeon,” she says.
I laugh to myself because “pigeon” isn’t a pet name Grandma Gene has called me before, and certainly is not the choice bird for a compliment. I’m not sure what word she meant to say. But at her current stage of life, any connection is welcomed by me. I kiss her cheek softly for what may be the last time.
This moment and many others that could be sad or melancholy have actually been endearing. As my grandma’s physical and mental capacities shift, I’m reminded of both my mom and my partner Kate’s final journeys, when they seemed to age many decades in mere weeks due to cancer. The difference is that my grandmother really is in her 90s. And that she has Alzheimer’s. But otherwise, the signposts that she’s nearing the finish line in this body actually resemble theirs.
Perhaps most people resemble each other as this cycle of life is winding down. The way they move, speak, and blink more slowly – seemingly with little self-consciousness. I imagine it’s just what happens as the body and mind do what they do. And while witnessing this stage is often bittersweet, it is the sweetness that stays with me and makes my heart smile.
Nearing the great transition
When I come to see Grandma Gene, she’s slumped over in her wheelchair. I squat down in front of her, say “Hi Grandma, it’s Jennifer” and she raises her head. “Jennifer!” she exclaims with surprise, the same way she’s said it for all these years, every time I’ve called or shown up at her front door (even when she was expecting me).
On this day, her eyes are what I notice right away – that bright look that I can only describe as both fully alive and present, and yet simultaneously elsewhere. They are filled with a dream-like warmth. This is, of course, in the good moments, the ones without discomfort or fear. It is as if I am looking into my mom’s eyes, Kate’s eyes, and the eyes of others I’ve known as they near the great transition.
When someone ages or when cancer takes over, so much of the letting go is about shifts in personality and what we expect as typical behaviors, as well as the physical and mental decline. With a sudden death, we tend to remember the person as they were. But when there’s a window of time, they change. They become someone we take care of or help or are patient with or have compassion for. Or they become someone we take pity on or with whom we get frustrated because they no longer do things or think the way they used to.
Touching the tenderness
In my experience, if I can touch into my tenderness, these changes have become “endearing” – even the grumpiness or repetitive habits. The return to childlike mannerisms becomes, for me, the “sweet” in a bittersweet situation. For others, it may be the “bitter.” At the risk of sounding patronizing, they become cute. If I couldn’t see the cuteness, I would be watching only the suffering and obvious symptoms of dying. So I prefer embracing the aspects of someone becoming like a child again.
On her last morning, my partner Kate told me about a dream she had the night before. As she shared it, she said “They had to . . . (pause) . . . expedite? . . . (pause) the blood.” She had a quizzical look on her face that seemed to ask if this was the right word or if she used it correctly. “Expedite is a big word, isn’t it?” I said to acknowledge this. She nodded her head slowly in agreement, with wonderment in her eyes. Yes, a big word. My heart overflowed with love rather than sadness. She was so precious as she navigated all that was slipping away.
My mom had equally adorable moments as her energy levels and cognition shifted. One day I was looking through a magazine, and showed her a fold-out photograph of hundreds of pink flamingoes in the wetlands. “It’s sooooo beauuuuuuuuuutiful!” she said, her eyes growing large as she gasped. I smiled at the authenticity of her awe. An awe that each of us can have every single day, but that somehow surfaces as we near our last one.
I admit, I have also seen the sweetness when they closed their eyes in exhaustion, or made faces of disgust before having to swallow yet another pill. How can this be endearing? Perhaps I simply hope someone will find me endearing and treat me with kindness in the future? But I think the biggest part of it for me is their behaviors are “unfiltered” and in the moment. No holding back. There seems to be less self-censoring in showing happiness, awe, disgust, irritation, and yes, even pain and struggle.
Gifts of the final stage of life
There’s a realness in that final stage of life – whether due to cancer, or other health issues, or old age – that is more present and unaffected than we tend to experience most of our lives. It’s beyond the socialization of what’s polite, appropriate, or expected. Rather than being children who we are trying to socialize in a certain way, they are undoing this life-long process, and we watch it unfold – decades upon decades of niceties or self-consciousness falling away. Spitting out disliked food, speaking truths like children, being honest about what is desired.
I love this about the end of the life cycle as I’ve experienced it thus far. There’s a raw beauty in it. No, it’s not ideal when there’s pain or it’s intense or cruel to anyone involved. But still, it’s more real and vulnerable than usual. We have much to learn from people at this stage, as they slip into a different reality, as their perceptions change.
I am amazed at this strange way that life reverses itself, like the movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, as the body is nearing its end by becoming more like its beginning. Full sentences become too much effort and people stop saying as much unless there are a lot of pauses and space. Or they use their hands to point or show rather than speaking, like a toddler before the words come easily. For me, the importance of patience and identifying with the humanness has made all the difference when these times could otherwise have been more difficult to endure. As bittersweet moments became endearing, I learned to see life in new ways – one of the gifts of witnessing the final stage of life.
The fullness of living & dying
I stand up to leave my grandmother’s room and she says “Enjoy dinner at the house with your uncle.” Then she adds, “Tell him I’m having corn.”
I laugh out loud because her delivery is classic, and it sounds like a not-so-subtle “guilt trip” commentary about the food at the nursing home, but she quickly adds, “No, I like corn!” so that I know it’s not a complaint. She smirks and looks at me with the same kind of big eyes that make me fall in love with young children.
My heart is about to burst with love. Just like it did with my mom. Just like it did with Kate. This is what I know to be the uncensored truth, and it makes my heart big enough to hold the losses with gratitude for the fullness of living and dying.
“You and me, always” says Grandma Gene as I walk backward toward the door and blow her a kiss.
“Always,” I repeat back to her. “Always, always.” Yes, I will be her pigeon, forever.
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