Lessons from Grammy, Part II: Her Voice

My Grammy is dying in front of my eyes. I'm on the night shift, laying across three chairs I put together for a makeshift bed. My aunt and mom are sharing a twin bed in the room. I'm laying parallel to a body that is making noises I've never heard it make before, and I've spent many, many nights next to Grammy. 

She's to the stage where air is passing across her vocal cords in the midst of deep shallow coughs and that death rattle that is so very real. There are extended periods of time where she isn't breathing at all. 15 seconds, 20 seconds, 30 seconds. Earlier today (well, yesterday now), she went almost two minutes before taking a full breath. When that happened, we were watching for the vein in her neck that shows her pulse so well. It kept on. Her heart just keeps keeping on. She has a McInnes heart; they don't give up.

I'm trying to decide if I would recognize her if I didn't know this body before me housed the woman I love so deeply. I recognize features. That nose, the square jawline, the crooked pinkies that match my own, that top lip, well, lack of top lip - also a McInnes thing, though certainly more of a Maxwell or Brown trait if you trace the genetic makeup.

So many parts of this are so hard. This. Is. Hard. But she is mine, and there is nowhere I would rather be than right here seeing her through this transition. 

Even though so much is unfamiliar, so much new territory for our relationship; it feels good to be seeing her through. I don't know how much longer this part will last - this part that will fade away into the next phase where I will practice speaking between worlds to hear her.

And in the midst of all of these unknowns we are walking through, there is something comforting. I know she's not trying to speak, but the little glimpses of her voice that come through every now and again, that combination of air moving across vocal cords that are uniquely hers - I will never hear that sound again. Not in realtime. (I do have a pretty ridiculous amount of voice messages from her saved on my phone.) No, not words, nor phrases, or even thoughts are coming through, but I'm translating those sounds into words I've heard so often:

"I love you"
"Treasure of my heart"
"Mama and Daddy"

Lessons from Grammy, Part I: Leo

When Jake and I came to see Grammy at her new assisted living home in Arizona, she mentioned Leo. Leo is another resident at this home, and she talked about how they would make eyes at each other, and then one day he kissed her on the forehead. 

As she's telling me about Leo, I'm sitting on the end of her bed blushing and giggling like I'm the one experiencing this fresh new romance right along with her.

She wondered if she was being too bold in her flirtation and what people would think of her. I told her that at 93, she should take what she could get. Her eyes were so bright and her voice animated while talking about him. This was in June.

Just a few months earlier, in February, we thought she was a goner. It wasn't the first time we thought she was on her way out, but it was the time everyone gathered. After that health scare and the decline in her mobility, she was moved from California with my aunts to her current home in Arizona where more people could help care for her 24/7. 

I was so nervous for her making the move and not knowing the people she would be with, but being here gave her a renewed sense of purpose, not only as a friend and loving on other people, but being loved by Leo too.

Her health has been in rapid decline since Saturday. I came yesterday. She can't speak, but will occasionally get a few words out. Yesterday Leo came in held her hand and stroked her arm while telling her sweet nothings in Spanish. She responded with smiles and bright eyes. He left in tears. There is something so powerful about knowing what you mean to someone - knowing you are loved.

That is part of the magic and power of Grammy for me: I have never once doubted how she feels about me and what I mean to her. It has always been love. 

Hallelujah Anyway: To the Listeners

I've been reading Anne Lamott's Hallelujah Anyway. Listening to it, actually. I've been enjoying it so much that I picked up a copy from the library so I could go back and reread passages. This morning I listened to chapter six on my way to work. Much was said on the mercy found in listening. I wanted to write some of it here.

Mr. Einstein said everything is moving and we're all connected, and maybe never more so than when we listen [...] Everything slows down when we listen and stop trying to fix the unfixable. We end up looking into other people's eyes, and see the desperation, or let them see ours. This connection slips past the armor like water past stones. Being slow and softened, even for a few minutes or seconds, gives sneaky grace the chance to enter. There won't be something waiting that you can put on a bumper sticker, and it will not just be one cute thing, although I would very much prefer this.
There is such a depth to listening, and an exchange, like an echo from inside a canyon, when friends have listened to me at my most hopeless. They heard. Someone heard, heard what was happening, what was true and painful, when the center would not hold. They sat, listened, and breathed with me like doulas.
Breath is a koan: both a resting place and enlivening. To take a deep breath is a thirsty person sipping water, both ease and nourishment. The person said, 'I hear you, it completely sucks. I'm here for you, and will be, no matter what.' You sat together breathing. Maybe the friend trotted out the excruciating absurdity of the situation, laid it on the table so we could observe it together, with amazement and eventual amusement. The friend let us go again to every place we have ever wallowed, and helped make it funny. The friend just got it. We felt like a failure, but we were helped to see that we were doing everything we could, as well as we could. Maybe we won't step in that same hole again now. (Maybe we will.) No one, not even God, has a magic wand so what awaits is probably still going to be hard sledding, but at least we're out of the ditch and on the hill in the slush. There had been no hope of this, when we were stuck in me me me, hurt, hurt, hurt. Now, as Rumi said, 'someone opens our wings . . . someone fills the cup.' My pastor puts it: 'God makes a way out of no way.' We will somehow be cared for by that someone - a dear neurotic friend, minister, mullah - or something or a shift that helped release a bit of what tortured you an hour ago, or what you tortured yourself with, a space you've populated with demons, now opening from that trance out to what is really there: a cup of tea, kind eyes, paper whites, orange sand" (112-114).

Real Talk

I have an anxiety disorder. That's no secret. It's been well controlled for the last few years. I initially sought help for it about five years ago when the panic attacks set in. One of the strangest attacks, though certainly not the worst, happened one afternoon because the icing of a cake I was making for a fundraiser wouldn't set up, the cake was sliding every which way and the deadline to get the cake to the venue was quickly approaching. My heart was racing, I felt all of the blood drain from my face, and before I knew it, I was laugh-crying on the kitchen floor at Dot at the absurdity of it all. I mean, it was just a cake.

After "Generalized Anxiety Disorder with Panic Attacks" was the official diagnosis, I spent the next few months on some medication that, after the initial horrific side effects, really helped "reset" my system. I weaned myself off of them after about five months, and I haven't taken anything regularly since then. I've kept an ongoing prescription of another medication to take in situations where I feel panic setting in, but I take it rarely.

Enter this move. This change. This additional transition. The last few weeks have been so hard. I wake up every morning with a pounding heart. Something inside of me exploded on Friday night, and I've felt sick and achy and nauseous ever since. My "panic mode" meds haven't been as effective as usual. I finally fell asleep around midnight, and I woke up at 3:30 in full on heart bursting, I hope I don't toss my cookies mode. And here I am. Almost 6 AM, heart racing, sweaty palms, and writing about it in hopes that it will be some kind of release. I know why I'm feeling this way, generally, though there is no easy solution, and no single contributor.

This is part of my life. I desperately wish it wasn't. I also wish I had time to fall a part, but time to do so isn't one of my luxuries right now. I think allowing oneself to fall a part can be beneficial in moving through and processing the emotions - getting it all out. I'm going into self-care mode. I wish sleep was part of that care, but I don't seem to have much control over that lately.

I'll be thinking about a processing routine for myself - a regular something that will help me refill my resovoirs. My tanks are empty. This is me right now. All love, prayers, and kind words are welcome.

I've been up reading Mary Oliver. I'll leave you with four of her poems; each tells part of the story - part of the complexity of what I'm feeling. Together, they feel right for this moment.


The grass never sleeps.
Or the roses.
Nor does the lily have a secret eye that shuts until morning.
Jesus said, wait with me. But the disciples slept.
The cricket has such splendid fringe on its feet,
and it sings, have you noticed, with its whole body,
and heaven knows if it ever sleeps.
Jesus said, wait with me. And maybe the stars did, maybe
the wind wound itself into a silver tree, and didn't move,
the lake far away, where once he walked as on a
blue pavement,
lay still and waited, wild awake.
Oh the dear bodies, slumped and eye-shut, that could not
keep that vigil, how they must have wept,
so utterly human, knowing this too
must be part of the story.

That time
I thought I could not
go any closer to grief
without dying

I went closer,

and I did not die.
Surely God
had His hands in this,

as well as friends.

Still, I was bent
and my laughter,
as the poet said,

was nowhere to be found.

Then said my friend Daniel
(brave even among lions),
“It’s not the weight you carry

but how you carry it -

books, bricks, grief -
it’s all in the way
you embrace it, balance it, carry it

when you cannot and would not,

put it down.”
So I went practicing.
Have you noticed?

Have you heard

the laughter
that comes, now and again,
out of my startled mouth?

How I linger

to admire, admire, admire
the things of this world
that are kind, and maybe

also troubled -

roses in the wind,
the sea geese on the steep waves,
a love
to which there is no reply? 

I Go Down to the Shore
I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall–
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

The Uses of Sorrow

(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me

a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand

that this, too, was a gift.


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