I don’t go straight to the hospital this morning. I’m four days away from college graduation and have no choice but to make the trek to the loop and pick up my cap and gown.
I stand on the platform at Howard, waiting for the red line. The anxiety wells up in my chest. It’s been sixteen days since I have been this far from the hospital. I feel like I have taken a 15 day certification course in Intensive Medicine since I now have every reference range for every blood test imaginable memorized. I have my mom check in with my grandma’s nurses and I call to get the results like a doctor checking in at the beginning of her shift. My mom says her bilirubin and white blood cell count are sky high. Not good news.
I stand in line for a cap and gown for what seems like hours, but in reality I probably only stand there thirty minutes. I hop in an Uber, down a couple blocks to an office I haven’t stepped inside for weeks now. I sit at my desk, in between Carissa and Emily, the only two people that give me any sense of normalcy, however short lived.
“It won’t be long.” I say. But even as the words fall out of my mouth I don’t understand their meaning.
And as fast as I walked in, I am gone. I rush into an uber to get to the hospital. It’s already noon and I feel the panic rising inside of me. I’ve never showed up this late- is she awake? Does she know I’m not there? Is she scared?
The doors to the ICU open and immediately I can take a breath- it feels like home, but not for long. I can hear my grandma screaming, it’s a sound I never forget.
“GRANDMA, I’M HERE. DO YOU HEAR ME? I’M HERE.” I’m yelling, panicking. I can hear my heart beating in my ears. She’s shaking her head back and forth, her body is writhing. The bags attached to her legs are filled with fluid. Her eyes are closed.
“ARE YOU IN PAIN?” I ask.
“yes.” she cries.
“What hurts?” I plead.
“Everything.” she screams.
These are her last words.
I hold her hand and tell her I’m going to fix it, I’m getting the nurse, I’ll be right back.
I run to the nurses station screaming, “WHY IS HER DOOR SHUT? WHAT ARE YOU DOING FOR HER PAIN?.”
The nurse tells me she has been screaming all morning. It takes everything in me not to grab her by the throat. I am half way dragging her into my grandma’s room, ordering her to give her something for the pain. But they can’t. I don’t see it in that moment, but my grandma is too fragile-one dose of pain meds will drop her blood pressure so low she won’t come back.
I see her dialysis team walking our way. I panic. I have been here long enough to know that once dialysis starts there is NO chance of pain relief. Before I can process any logical thought, I slide my grandma’s hospital door shut. I tell them no one can come in until I talk to her doctor.
A thin pane of glass is all that separates us from the outside world. I wish we could stay here forever. I see the nurse walk to her desk and make a call-I make one of my own.
I tell my mom to come to the hospital right away. There is a part of me that knows this must be it. My mom walks into the room and we wait another 45 minutes for Dr. K to walk in. My grandma screams and flails. I start talking to her, hoping hearing my voice will calm her. I don’t even know half of what I’m saying. I talk to her about picking up my cap and gown-the details of a graduation she won’t attend. I tell her about my day, I talk to her about Christopher and Jonathan. She falls asleep just long enough for me to sip water and start another monologue.
Dr. K walks in and looks at me and my mom, “If you don’t let dialysis in, she will slowly fall asleep and pass away.”
Are you kidding me? This from the doctor who couldn’t tell us the truth the entire 16 days? She tells us she doesn’t believe my grandma is in pain, she is just confused.
But Dr. K hasn’t known her for twenty-four years. She has no clue.
My mom and I are standing on either side of my grandma when the doctor asks if we want to consult hospice. I can barely look my mom in the eye as I say, “this isn’t what she wants.”
Catherine from Skokie Hospital Hospice meets us in a consult room just steps from my grandma. She went over the ins and outs of hospice-the reality is that it isn’t comforting, there is no dignity here. I see my mom struggling with the thought of signing her into hospice. We decide to wait until tomorrow-lets just get her through tonight.
My mom leaves to change and make my brothers dinner. I look at Elsy, the nurse, and ask if I can leave to take a shower. It’s the first time in over two weeks that anyone asks me how far away I live. I suppose I should understand what is happening-it’s as if I’m left out of a story everyone else knows the ending to.
I walk back into my grandma’s room after a quick shower and change of clothes. I walk in with a bag of God knows what-in my head I walk in knowing I won’t leave until it’s over.
She’s not how I left her. I don’t need to look at the monitors to know it’s bad. The way her chest rises and falls tells me all I need to know. They have the mask over her mouth and nose, pumping oxygen through her and still her blood pressure is 70/40.
I call my mom and tell her to drop the boys with my dad at work. She needs to come right away. I’m sitting in a chair next to my grandma holding her hand-I see the nurses unhooking her from the feeding tube-I frantically remind them we haven’t signed hospice papers. Why are they giving up? But they know so much more than me.
It’s 7pm and Klara, one of our favorite nurses walks into her room. She stands feet away from my grandma, with her arms crossed, like she is trying desperately to hold in the tears that fall from her face.
“I am so sorry. We really thought she was going to get better.” Klara says through salted tears.
Now I know. This is it.
My mom walks in. Tears streaming down her face.
“Is this it?” my mom asks.
The nurses nod yes. My mom begins to cry-It still isn’t the answer we are prepared for.
My mom pulled up a chair next to my grandma and grabbed her hand. The two of us sat there holding each of her hands.
All of the numbers on the screens continue to fall, much like our tears, our heart, our hope.
I just talk. I think of all the things she will worry about when she is gone. I tell her I’ll use coupons, I promise to remember to pay my credit card bill. I tell her Mr. Laci the cat will be taken care of. I promise her everything I can.
I say, “It’s okay grandma, you can go. It’s okay.” a thousand times.
Everything goes flat. My mom yells, begging and pleading with her not to go.
Every line on that monitor shoots back up. Her blood pressure, pulse, heart beat are all back. I grab my mom’s hand and tell her, “If you can’t tell her it’s okay, say nothing.”
I lull my grandma into a forever sleep with another thousand, “it’s okay, you can go” lies.
And she goes.
Once I know she is gone, I hear screams that come from the bottom of someone’s soul. It takes me a second to realize they’re mine. I beg her to come back for me, please don’t leave me here. And all the while I’m screaming, I never let go of her hand.
They let us stay with her longer than we should. My mom and I look up through the tears and realize the room is filled with the people we love. They’ve come to hold our hands, wipe our tears, make phone calls.
After a couple hours the nurse says she has to come in. I agree to leave her so that she can be cleaned up-whatever that means.
We’re walking back through the ICU, just outside her room. They open the curtain and she lies there, unplugged from the things that kept her alive, they tucked her sheets in underneath her. It was perhaps this exact moment I realized she was truly never coming back. I hear myself scream out in pain, feel myself falling, falling into my dad’s arms. The nurses bring me a chair, but all I want is to crawl into that bed with her, to somehow disappear with her, wherever she goes.
I hold her hand. This time its cold. Her face has started to shrivel. She is starting to disappear. I’m holding her hand and resting my head between my knees. I’m still begging for her to come back to me, to all of us.
I can hear the whispers behind me. They don’t know how they’ll get me out of here. They know I would stay here a thousand lifetimes.
I stand up, kiss my grandma on the forehead, squeeze her hand and walk out.
I’ve experienced loss before-there has been so much death. But it’s not like this. This is different. For the first time in my entire life I realize that death in its most simple form is three flat lines on a screen.
My grandma is death like I have never known. She is a flat line on a blank screen and heartbreak; well heartbreak sounds exactly like the last breath of the person you love.