Saturday, November 12

Family secrets

How do you talk to your grandmother about her death?

I've been through the death of all but one of my grandparents, but I've only talked about death with my great-grandmother (my dad's dad's mother), who died in February. (Until her death, we had proudly boasted five living generations of Turners.) During the last year of Granny's life, she pleaded with God and everyone around her to just let her die so she could go meet my grandfather in Heaven. (He died in 1990, if memory serves, and she was heartsick for him until the day she died. She also had the unfortunate experience of losing her husband and her only child -- my grandfather -- within five years of one another.) She was in her 90s, miserable, and in need of total care. Luckily, my sister worked as a CNA in a nursing home at the time, so when my parents could no longer provide 24-hour care for Granny, they felt like my sister's nursing home would be the best option for her. She was there for several months, and died as peacefully as possible in the company of almost my entire family.

I remember the graceless way I used to approach the subject of her death in conversations with her while she was still living alone.

"I don't know why God just won't let me die," she would say, staring blankly at the television or the floor.

"Well, it's just not your time yet. And we would really miss you," I would say, searching in vain for a more appropriate and comforting response, or a polite way to change the subject. But how selfish of me. Why didn't I ask her if she was scared, or what she hoped to find on the other side of death? Instead I clammed up, terrified that I wouldn't be able to reassure her that I didn't want her to die.

I don't recall ever talking about death with Nana, my mom's mom, who died two years ago in a similar nursing home situation (though she died in the nursing home my mom was director of at the time, which is a circumstance that must either make it more or less painful for my mother -- I'm not sure which). I was in college by the time her health really went downhill, so I wasn't around all that much. My last few memories of her involve her asking me for money for secret cigarettes (she had emphysema and other smoking-related troubles and was told she would die if she kept smoking) and being all-around miserable and ornery. But I also remember five or six years ago when she was in another nursing home, in better spirits, laughing and enjoying our company during our visits, inquiring about me and my future -- her chief worries being keeping this random old lady from stealing her stuff out of her room and getting outside to smoke while she was still allowed to.

I wasn't around when Nana or Granny died, and in a lot of ways, they weren't around either. They had vacated their bodies long before they died. But there are holes in my life they used to fill that I will carry with me until they day I die. And knowing that big, gaping holes are in store if I outlive my parents is enough to make my stomach ache. But it's inevitable. Part of my growth will be their death, just like part of their growth was the death of their parents.

Grandmaw is my last remaining grandparent (I have a step-grandmother in Jackson, but since my grandfather's death two years ago, I haven't spoken to or heard from her; we weren't that close anyway) and it's just too much to imagine the day that she won't be here anymore. She's always been so bright and vivacious and the type of person who truly lives. She flits from activity to activity like a hummingbird. She's on committees and helps write Hardin County history books and writes a weekly newspaper column and is the church treasurer and travels and chats daily with friends all over the planet.

And, apparently, she has a tumor the size of half a basketball in her stomach, which she has been keeping quiet for who knows how long.

I guess it's might seem insensitive of me to bring up this information here, but it's something major that the family will have to confront soon, and it's not like anybody from my family or even Savannah or Saltillo is reading this anyway (and the two of you who are from Savannah wouldn't go broadcast this information regardless), so it's not strictly an issue of privacy.

You see, I'm not supposed to know this information. My family does a lot of creeping and secret-keeping when it comes to infobombs such as this. At least I think they do; how would I really know if they're true secrets? I think I'm the last one to find stuff out because everyone feels like telling me what's going on will crush my spirit. I must seem really fragile to them. I'm sure the impetus for the secrecy this time is that we don't yet know if the tumor is malignant; my understanding is that Grandmaw will find out Monday. I don't know if she will pass whatever she finds out along to the rest of us, but you can be damn sure I'll find out on my own if she doesn't.

So I called her today, just to chat, because she's always on my case about not calling her enough. And she's right; I'm such a phone-phobic asshole with other selfish considerations that I don't call anybody enough. But you gotta call your grandma. That's one adult responsibility I've not yet seriously decided to master, and I regret that, and I know she feels like I don't love her because of it.

Even though I've always suspected that Grandmaw might be mortal, life's heavy-handed two-by-four of possible loss had to smack me in the face before I finally realized what that actually meant. I don't want this to spell the end for her. She has weathered such hardships in her life, and her health has gradually slid from good to okay to bad and back up to decent. She's broken damn near every bone in her body, including her back and her hip, she's fought cellulitis and diabetes and sleep apnea and a random undefined disease (that even Vanderbilt doctors can't pin down or cure) that caused her to pass out and almost die three or four times within a year. The woman is tough and I don't want some giant mass of fucked-up cells to mutiny on her body and finally bring her down. I want to be selfish and demand that she stay around at least until I do something to really make her proud, and until she really knows that I love her.


Blogger Wendy said...

My parents kept stuff about my aunt's cancer from me a lot before I finally found out. She's OK now. I think it's just a parental instinct to protect the children, and somehow they think not telling you what you don't want to hear is protecting you. I wish I could offer more than that.

Sun Nov 13, 05:18:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My sister kept a very serious stomach issue to herself for two weeks before having to be rushed to the emergency room. It had to do with her ilium (?), but none of her intestines died or had to be removed, so she's better now. But I think she (and others) really are trying to protect everyone by keeping upsetting news to themselves.

Mon Nov 14, 12:43:00 PM  

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