Wednesday, November 26, 2003

When I started this column, the idea was to share my more positive thoughts with the world. I intended on contributing what I´d learnt so that others might learn with me, or at least feel like someone reciprocated something that they too once felt or went through. This column isn´t a sunny one... but I want to share it with you because I believe that even the dark moments are something worth sharing, and anyone who´s ever lost someone can feel with me...

My Grandfather´s death

I arrived Saturday afternoon at my grandparent´s house with the funny feeling that it wasn´t going to be a pleasant visit. Although the sun was high, the air was cold and I felt the chill right down to my toes. My uncle was there fixing a chair that was broken. His face that was normally without expression, was paler than usual. From the few words that we exchanged, I realised he needed something to fix, something to keep his hands busy and his mind off the pain his father was going through.
It was a shock to see my grandfather lying on a bed, weaker than i´ve ever seen him.
The whole room reeked of death as he gasped for air and screamed “mother” over and over again. From the sound of his plea and the look on his face, I didn´t think he was going to make it through the night.
My uncle barely handled the sight of his father in that state, my cousin who once wanted to be a nurse barely touched him and everyone around me fell into deep despair.
When I looked in the mirror, I was surprised to see my eyes dry. My face lost all of it´s human semblance and I was left with the reflection of someone who had a job to do.
I spent the night at my grandparents house.
There was little sleep and lots of anguish as my grandmother and I tried out best to get him to drink some soup and take his medicine.
The sounds of his cries still ring in my ears.
When he wasn´t looking at me, he was staring at the blank wall behind me and cried for his mother to take him away. “Mother” “Mother”... he repeated it louder and louder each time and no matter what we said to comfort him, he wouldn´t quiet down.
So I sang.
I sat by his side and I sang the songs that used to put my brother to sleep. Holding his frozen hands in an attempt to keep, I used my other hand to brush the worry and strain from his eyebrows. Hours passed and other than his constricted breathing, the night´s silence outside was defeaning. My grandmother dozed off a few times in the room beside us and my only company was the tic toc of the clocks in the house. How had they become so loud? Back when I still lived with my grandparents, I could barely hear them but that night, the rang in my ears like church bells.
I tried curling up on his favorite couch to get a few minutes rest but the loud ticking kept me awake and minutes after I´d laid down my head, I would find myself by his side again.
So I rubbed his back, ran my fingers through what little bit of hair he had... whatever I could to relieve his suffering! As long as I was there, there was life that he could hang onto. The darkness could not take him.
It wasn´t the frustration of seeing him gasping for air that peturbed me the most, or the fact that he cried with pain whenever I had to sit him up to take his medicine. It wasn´t when he spat out the pills and the food that we tried giving him that broke my spirit. Nor was it his crying out for his “mother” that tore at my soul that left me with remorse... It was the horror on his face when I changed his nappy. Unable to pick him up and change him by herself, I had to help my grandmother with the arduous job of changing a grown man´s nappy. It wasn´t much different from changing a baby´s nappy, at that point I remembered an old proverb from school that went something like “What creature first walks on all fours then on two legs and then on three?”... the answer was a human being... We crawl when we´re babies, then we walk and when we´re old we need a “third leg” or a walking stick to get around. After a certain age, the growing process is reversed and we all end up like the babies we once were.
The shame on my grandfather´s face will haunt the rest of my days and i´ll never know where I found the strength to do all that without so much as a twitching. I did what had to be done, I wanted him to survive. But at one stage when his cries got too loud and the despair got too much, I closed my eyes and thought “Dear God, please, either take away this pain and make him better, or take him away from this suffering”
When morning came his breathing hadn´t gotten much better and I got into the clothes I´d worn the day before to accompany him in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. Once we were in the ambulance, the paramedics gave him oxygen. His breathing stabilized and he stopped calling out for his mother. I was instructed to sit on a chair behind him and I put my hand on his head in hopes that my touch would comfort him.
Once we got to the hospital, I was still numb. The look on my uncle´s face when we arrived wasn´t very reassuring and the hot chocolate I drank in the waiting room didn´t warm me up much. Returning to my grandparent´s house, the room my grandfather had occupied hadn´t seemed the same. My grandmother had cleaned out the room, changing the sheets and opening the windows, letting the sun shine through what she had described the night before as a “boiling coffin”.
So not to leave her alone, we prepared lunch together and sat talking about all the trivial things we could think of. We didn´t talk about my grandfather or the fact that he was dying from lung cancer. We didn´t talk about the night before or the night´s after. We spoke about food and work and told jokes, making each other smile. After a certain hour, I knew that soon other people would arrive and so I took it as my chance to go home. I still had my shirts to iron for work and I intended on getting on an early night to recover the sleep i´d lost the night before.
The clocks at home also ticked unmercifully and the hot, steaming shower that normally took all my aches and pains away did nothing to relieve the tension in my neck and back. Getting ready to grab the iron, my spine froze when my phone started ringing and I saw “Betty Aunt” on the display.
My aunt carefully asked me if I had gotten home okay and asked me if I was alone. With no need for preliminary talk I told her that she was calling me because my grandfather wasn´t coming home and when she confirmed my statement, I fell back into automatic pilot, got dressed and made my way to my grandmothers house.
The phone suddenly wouldn´t stop ringing, everyone that was anyone in our family called to check if I knew the news. I was surprised to find that once again, no tears fell down my face and with a deathly calm I informed my uncle in South Africa and my cousin in Brasil that my grandfather wouldn´t be turning 81 next week.
The world fell apart at my grandparent´s house as the faces around me cried and grieved over our loss. I couldn´t understand why I couldn´t cry with them, I simply felt nothing.
My grandmother wept like a child with remorse that she hadn´t said goodbye when they´d taken him into the ambulance. I myself remembered that I hadn´t said goodbye to him either at the hospital. Once they´d taken him into the emergency room, I was told that I could see him the next day and I didn´t think to ask the nurses to allow me to give him one last kiss.
Everyone grabbed onto me, asking me every detail of his last hours. Being the last person to have been with him alive, they clung onto me for comfort that I could not give.In the hopes to console their grievances, I told them about the good things that had happened that night, about the kisses given in their names and the songs that had lulled him to sleep. But they wept even more and an uncle of mine, a grown man threw himself in my arms weeping like a child. Strength remained in my soul whilst lulling him in his despair.
Tranquilizers started being distributed between family members, looking at a tiny pink pill I wondered if I really needed it. I don´t believed in tranquilizers, they simply delay the inevitable rush of pain so why take them?
Instead, I made my way to my grandfather´s wine cellar and with my uncle´s I tried my grandfather´s alternative medicine! Wine was never something I liked to drink and not a liqued my taste buds enjoyed but that night, it tasted sweeter than honey and before I knew it... I couldn´t stand on my own two legs.
Getting myself drunk didn´t do much to let out my pain and Monday morning I got dressed for work as in any other normal day. I don´t recall much of the work I did, or the things I said (not that I´d said much to anybody) but I do recall very coldly telling my boss that I would not be there the next two days. Worry was set in the faces around me because of the fact that I hadn´t dealt with it yet, but the grief would come.
I was hoping that at the funeral, all of that would change and that I could release my anguish. After getting dressed I sat in the bathroom, on top of the toilet seat and thought “Okay Sunshine, here we go... just let it out”. But it didn´t come out.
The faces of the loved ones there did nothing to trigger my agony. It was at the sight of my grandfather lying in his coffin that froze the rest of my body. His body was cold. His expression was of somebody sleeping. My little brother looked at me and said that the only difference was that his stomach wasn´t going up and down like it used to. I tried to hold his hand but his fingers wouldn´t curl around mine like they had before. I placed the palm of my hand on his cheek but it was cold and there were no tears to wipe as there had once been. When I did feel wetness upon my hand, it had been my own tears that had fallen. The tears fell, but it wasn´t crying... it was just an involuntary reflex.
I stood against a wall in case my knees betrayed me. I got kissed a million anonymous faces, shook innumerous hands and heard condolescences every other minute. Although we were a room full of family and friends, I think we all felt like strangers.
Next to me stood my uncle that had been fixing the chair that Saturday. His face remained expressionless even though the grief was evident in his aura. Touching my shoulder, he thanked me for what I´d done for my grandfather and asked me how he´d spent that night. Not feeling restricted like I had the day before, and I shared with him his father´s last hours.
I watched my mother from the corner of my eye. We stayed away from each other, considering that I was furious with her for not being there when my grandparents needed her the most. I really felt sorry for her and her grief but I couldn´t give her the hug and kiss that wouldn´t come out my heart.
When I saw her on her knees in front my grandfather´s coffin, my heart went out to her but not my arms. So I hugged her in my own special way. I recalled when I was younger, that there was a song that she´d always asked me to sing to my brother. She said that she loved it so much that one day at her funeral, she´d climb out her coffin if I didn´t sing it for her. As she wept in front of me, I stood forward and prayed that God would give me the strength... so I sang...
I sang “Amazing Grace” to a church full of people that don´t speak english. At first the words wouldn´t come out but then it filled the whole church and the people outside could hear me. Even though many didn´t understand the words, the melody reached everyone´s hearts. I know I reached my mother´s heart, I know my grandfather must´ve heard it too. Where I found the courage, i´ll never know but without planning, the song came straight from the heart.
Before closing the coffin, the family got to say their last goodbye´s. I heard a woman chuckle behind me when my brother replied to my mother that there was no way he was going to kiss a dead guy! Even when they closed the lid, I still didn´t feel a thing. It felt like a movie, a nightmare that I was going to wake up later from. Lowering the coffin into the ground didn´t trigger me off either. The tears where there and so was the runny nose but the crying didn´t come. Then it was over, he was buried. I closed my eyes when I was pulled into someone´s arms. I knew to whom the strong arms belonged to but at that moment I didn´t feel attracted to him like I had once before. Not even his blue eyes or his sweet voice penetrated through my soul, I was just grateful for the warm embrace I found myself in.

My grandfather is dead and buried.

I´m grateful that his suffering ended. Nobody should have to live in the shame and helplessness that were his last days. I haven´t managed to switch off automatic pilot yet but i´ve been told that when I least expect it, the sorrow will come. My heart has said my goodbyes to my grandfather and i´m comforted by the knowledge that somewhere, somehow he´s up there with front row seats, watching over me.

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